Wow-inducing potatoes are stars of hearty pub grub

You're going to feel right at home at Maguire's Irish Bistro, a new pub on Capitol Hill. Sports fans can keep an eye on the TV. Solo diners can cozy up to the bar and chat with the bartender. Families can claim a booth and kick back and relax, or at least kick each other under the table. Yes, Maguire's wants to be the kind of place where the staff remembers your name — but first they need to work on remembering your appetizers.

On one visit, our mussel starter didn't appear until after the entrees (they overcooked the mussels and had to redo them, the manager explained). "Can you hang on a second? I forgot my pen," said our server on another night. She found her pen, but the appetizers we ordered never arrived.

No, service isn't the strong point at this restaurant, owned by Mick McHugh of F.X. McRory's and T.S. McHugh's fame. But I'm willing to laugh it off, partly because it is service of the earnestly bumbling variety and partly because the food at Maguire's is so often satisfying.

Nothing illustrates this better than the Maguire's Potatoes, a side dish that comes with the steaks, the corned beef and other entrees. When was the last time you bit into a roasted potato and said, "Wow"? That's what happened when I nibbled a crisp nugget and savored its hint of rosemary and ideal level of saltiness. The corned beef ($13.85) is also first-rate. Flavored with bourbon and brown sugar, it's impeccably tender and neither too fatty nor too lean.

Maguire's is a spacious pub room with high ceilings, a long wooden bar and plenty of seating options. If you want a cozy corner, grab a booth in back. If you want natural light, try a table in front. What you can't have is a smoky haze, because Maguire's is smoke-free, and no part of the place is dark enough to make pale ale resemble stout.

Beer of any color is the right accompaniment to Maguire's fried appetizers. The Irish Nachos ($5.45) is a huge pile of waffle-cut fries sprinkled with gorgonzola cheese sauce and diced red peppers. The sauce is doled out with a light hand, so the fries never get soggy. Portobello tempura ($5.85) isn't as light and fluffy as actual tempura, but the mushroom caps are cut into strips the size of steak fries and emerge crisp and juicy from the fryer, ready for a dip in the accompanying soy-citrus sauce.

Those late-arriving mussels ($7.85) were superb, steamed in Harp Lager with cream, garlic, leeks, thyme and prosciutto. Unfortunately, the house bread, a pale focaccia, was spongy and unworthy of sauce-mopping duties. Maguire's calamari ($6.85) won't knock you out, but it's fried crisp and includes tentacles, my favorite part of any squid-related experience.

Maguire's American Burger ($8.45), which we ordered medium rare, is awesome. Made with Oregon Country beef, this is a burger so flavorful that the optional rashers of thick-sliced pepper bacon felt like overkill.

With all this going for it, Maguire's missteps are all the more frustrating. Seafood is a gamble. The halibut fish and chips ($12.85) are a fine example of the genre, and the Irish Braised Halibut ($15.85) is even better. It comes with a winey, mushroom-studded cream sauce you'll want to slurp up with a straw.

The seafood fettuccine ($13.85) is loaded with clams, shrimp and halibut, nearly all overcooked. The prosciutto-wrapped prawns (no longer on the menu but still available, $18.85) were similarly overdone, to the point where the shrimp were chewy and fibrous.

Maguire's serves a trio of steaks: the pub steak (a flank steak, $15.85), the baseball-cut top sirloin ($17.85) and the rib-eye ($19.85). The pub steak, ordered medium-rare, arrived closer to medium-well. It was tender but weak on flavor. The baseball-cut sirloin, which actually did resemble a baseball, hit at least a triple, if not a home run. It's one seriously thick steak, the kind you can put a good crust on without overcooking the meat.

Other than seafood and steaks, entrees include Fontina Prosciutto Chicken ($13.85), a tasty variation on saltimbocca in which sautéed chicken breasts are topped with cheese, prosciutto and sage leaves.

Entrees come with a salad; the house Caesar is made with whole romaine leaves and house-made croutons and is delectably austere, although if you order it separately ($4.85 or $7.85), you can have it topped with shrimp, chicken or even fried oysters for a few bucks extra.

Dessert is problematic, but I have an easy solution: Go directly to the Irish Cream Cheesecake ($4.85). The dense, rich cake is flavored with a healthy slug of Bailey's. Don't bother with the tough-as-nails Chocolate Walnut Torte ($5.45) or the foamy and insufficiently lemony Lemon Burnt Cream ($4.45).

I'm confident that Maguire's can work through its problems. Open a few months, it's already a great neighborhood hangout, and the manager hovers around the dining room trying fervently to make sure everyone is happy. Sometimes he tries a little too hard, as when he quizzed us at brunch about the temperature of our food.

Maguire's has just started serving brunch on weekends, and it's a promising start, although service can be glacial. There are more than a dozen easy-drinking breakfast cocktails to choose from. The Blinker ($5.50) mixes Canadian Club whiskey, fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice and grenadine to good effect. French toast, made with a whiskey-spiked batter and topped with almond butter, is rich, moist and only slightly soggy in the middle. A full lunch menu, similar to the dinner menu, is available starting at noon on weekends.

It's certainly worth brunching here if there's a wait at Coastal Kitchen, and isn't there always?

Matthew Amster-Burton:

Maguire's Irish Bistro

332 15th Ave. E., Seattle; 206-328-0700

Pub grub



Reservations: not necessary.

Hours: 3-11 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 3 p.m.-midnight Fridays, 8:30 a.m.-midnight Saturdays, 8:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Sundays.

Prices: brunch (weekends only): cocktails $3.50-$6, breakfast dishes $5.50-$11; lunch (weekends only): $7-$12; dinner: appetizers $5.50-$8.50, entrees $12-$20, desserts $2-$5.50.

Wine and beer list: an inexpensive ($15-$35) but unadventurous wine list with many by the glass; 14 beers on tap ($3.25-$4.50), all of them old reliables like Harp Lager.

Sound: moderate.

Parking: on street.

Who should go: burger and potato lovers, and anyone looking to relax over unpretentious pub grub.

Full bar / major credit cards / no smoking / no obstacles to access.