When I first heard of Chistin Ibhan Agus Gobnait, which translated from the Gaelic means "Yvonne's and Debbie's Kitchen," I was both curious as well as skeptical. The Irish were, in my prejudiced world view, known more for their eloquence as writers and poets than as masters of the culinary arts. Except for Irish stew, soda bread, corned beef and cabbage and the green beer I consumed as a college student on St. Patrick's Day, I had little exposure to the cuisine of Ireland.
But heeding the advice of my gourmet source, one Michael J. Murphy no less, whose cupboards are filled with every kind of kitchen gadget imaginable, I wandered over to the little bakery nestled in among the quaint stores on Ninth East just north of Ninth South.The interior is unassuming and the atmosphere's relaxed. Except for a few antique china cabinets covered with plants and some Irish needlepoint sayings and posters on the wall, the decor is simple. There can't be more than eight tables or so dotting the small space.
The menu behind the several glass cases is handwritten on large poster board. Strains of Irish music emanate from a tape recorder on one of the counters. A basket of picture books of the Emerald Isles is also available for tea sippers and those less well traveled, like myself, to become more familiar with the country that gave us the lore of the little people and, I thought, comparable culinary accomplishments.
One of the amazing things about unfamiliar food or in my case, overlooked, is that it can melt prejudices people have about different cultures. From the variety of baked goods we sampled as well as the generous lunch specials we enjoyed, I soon realized that Chistin's, the "ch" is pronounced like a "k," treats the customer's taste buds to the same kind of eloquence one's ear might appreciate while listening to a recitation of Joyce.
One of the fun treats was the Chistin's Bowl ($3), a hollowed out loaf of crusty bread filled with the soup special of the day. On our visit, it was a rich and flavorful chicken noodle. Other soups offered throughout the week are beef stew, lentil, green pea, chili and cream of broccoli. The soup is also served in a regular bowl ($1.35)
The sandwiches are served on a football- . . . or should I say rugby-shaped . . . crusty roll. For $4, these could easily serve four. Choices include turkey, roast beef, pastrami, or a vegetarian special, and are garnished with lettuce, onions, pickles, tomato slices and slices of cheese. A half sandwich is $2.25; with a bowl of soup the combination costs a mere $4.
We also savored the delicate but hearty sausage roll, as well as several desserts. The plum pudding cake was a thick slice of full texture and taste as was the raw apple cake (both are 85 cents). A German chocolate and mocha cake, while not prepared by the owners, was also delicious.
We departed clutching several sacks filled with such homemade baked items as madeira and mince meat muffins as well as tea scones, both the whole wheat and white, Scottish shortbread and brownies (50 cents each), the size of your fist. We found them all to be fresh, carefully prepared, and so tantalizing that few made it all the way home.
The specialty of the house, which is hard to identify because everything we have tried is so good, is the Irish soda bread. These hefty loaves, which range from $1 for the single pound to $2.50 for the three pound size, fill baskets on the lower shelves of the cases. These dark dense round loaves, lightly dusted with flour and carved with the characteristic trademark of a cross, conjure up images of a country rich in traditions.
Don't wait until St. Patrick's Day to celebrate the wonders of Irish cooking. A trip to Chistin Ibhan Agus Gobnait should nourish one until the arrival of Spring and the day everyone becomes a little Irish.
Chistin Ibhan Agus Gobnait, 878 S. Ninth East, 364-3738. Open Monday through Saturday, from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m. Closed Sunday. Tea served after 2 p.m. Accepts check with guarantee card only.