Dermot Cowley grew up in Ireland, and there are two things running through his veins: a devotion to his country and its culture, and a deep love for the hospitality industry.
He found his first job in an Irish restaurant at age 14, and he says it’s been a love affair ever since. “I absolutely love the industry—I’ve never done a day’s work elsewhere,” says Cowley, in his charming Irish brogue that hasn’t faded despite 33 years in America.
“I just love the organized chaos.”
Cowley worked with some of best chefs in New York City for a time, and today he’s the owner of four Twin Cities restaurants under the Irish Born Hospitality brand: Lola’s Lake House in Waconia, O’Donovan’s near Target Field, the new McKinney Roe downtown, and Jake O’Connor’s, an Irish gastropub on Excelsior’s Water Street.
In business since December 2006 and a successful part of Excelsior’s booming downtown, the space has a decidedly old-fashioned feel, with dark mahogany throughout, deep booths and stained glass accents. While there are parts of the business that seem to have a century of history, there are other elements that are fresh and new, and Jake’s has spent the last year refocusing its menu and mission a bit with that in mind.
“We’re asking, ‘What’s fresh? What’s good? What’s in the garden?’ It’s what we started out doing, but it’s easy to let ‘menu drift’ happen. You add a pasta dish one day—it’s good, people like it. But all of a sudden you’re doing an Irish-Italian thing and realize that’s not your culture, it’s not what you’re about,” says Cowley, who’s flattered by the support of the tight-knit Excelsior community even in the midst of change, and excited about what the next decade will bring. “The whole country of Ireland is about the size of Minnesota. There’s fresh beef, an abundance of seafood. Everything is local, because it has to be. But Ireland was poor for so long, though, that all the good products were exported.”
Now, with the Irish economy on the upswing, farm-to-table cuisine is taking off in Cowley’s home country. So at Jake’s, he and his team have one foot planted in yesteryear—serving simple, rural dishes—and one planted in today’s world of fresh, local, forward-thinking cuisine.
With the ever-changing offerings, Cowley has a tough time picking a favorite meal, and always makes a point of looking at the menu when he eats at Jake’s. “Every time I read it, something new pops out,” he says, noting that food is only a small part of his restaurants’ allure. “I love working on the floor—getting hugs on the way out. I love watching people come in, see them having a good time and feeling like they’re being taken care of. That’s what it’s all about.”
Executive chef Craig Sharp keeps things somewhere between traditional and innovative, with old-country dishes elevated with a twist. Back in the day, says Cowley, it was common for men to have a pint and a cigarette with friends after work, before going home to their families. But, “laws and society have changed. What makes people to go the pub these days? It has to be the food,” he explains. Jake’s intentional “gastropub” flair makes it just as welcoming for a group of guys watching a soccer game as a young family going for lunch after church.
You’ll see a smoked lamb shank on the menu, served with potatoes, candied whiskey root veggies and crispy parsnips. There’s beef tenderloin tips sautéed with vegetables and tossed with goat cheese cream sauce and cavatappi. There are small plates, substantial salads, shepherd’s pie, chicken pot pie, and the quintessential fish ‘n’ chips.
Of course, one of the main year-round menu items at Jake O’Connor’s is a traditional corned beef and cabbage plate. It includes a large portion of thick-sliced, signature corned beef made using the restaurant’s secret house recipe. That’s served with jus-brined cabbage and champ, a traditional Irish side of mashed potatoes with chopped scallions.
The crowd favorite also comes in a sandwich version, with a heap of meat piled onto a pretzel roll along with brined red onions and whole grain mustard. It’s served with fresh kettle chips or salt ‘n’ malt chips.
People often ask for the corned beef recipe, and Cowley happily shares it. “It takes us 72 hours to cook—I say ‘if you want to try, by all means do it yourself!’” he says. “Or just come here for a plate when you feel like it. People say it’s the best they’ve ever had.”
The Perfect Pint
“You can never go wrong with a pint of Guinness. That’s the law. When you land in Ireland, it’s like they give you a memo about that,” says Cowley. Guinness Academy ambassadors train each new Jake O’Connors bartender—complete with skills tests and official certificates—on how to pour the perfect pint. Just like Asian cultures have tea rituals, the Irish have their Guinness. Pouring a glass is akin to an art form, takes 119.5 seconds to do correctly, and has a signature two-part process constituting of a first pour and a top-off after the head has dropped a bit.
“It needs to settle properly. You need a proper glass. The right temperature. And the beer lines must be kept clean,” says Cowley. “Most pubs are awesome about professionally cleaning them, every two weeks. You’re throwing out some beer each time, and it’s not inexpensive, but it’s so important.”
St. Paddy’s 2018
“Leading up to St. Patrick’s Day is every pub owner’s worst sleep. We’re always asking, ‘Is this the year people decide not to celebrate St. Paddy’s anymore?’ Then those nightmares turn into, ‘Just don’t wreck the joint!’” says Cowley. “You really don’t enjoy it until the next day, but the energy is fantastic.”
The big day falls on a Saturday this year, which means the party at Jake’s will be bigger, better and greener than ever. The restaurant sees an uptick in business the entire week of St. Patrick’s Day—with many people coming in off-peak to get their corned beef fix without battling the crowds—but there’s one main day of partying. On Saturday, a tent will house live music from the end of downtown Excelsior’s Luck O’ the Lake 5K until closing.
Jake’s serves a pared-down menu that day to keep things streamlined, with corned beef and cabbage, chicken potpie, shepherd’s pie, and fish ‘n’ chips front and center. And there are only a handful of beers worth mentioning: it’s all Guinness, Smithwick’s, Harp’s Lager, and cider. And no, they’re not going to be dyed green. According to Cowley, the Irish simply don’t mess with their beer, and dye would constitute “alcohol abuse.” Green cocktails abound, though, with a plethora of Irish coffees that will warm you up in more than one after a few hours out in the tent. Some Irish shake their heads at the way Americans celebrate their patron saint in less-than-reverent ways, but Cowley doesn’t hold any grudges.
“I’m so proud to be Irish. It’s cool to see the impact such a small island has had, and the love and support from Americans. It’s heartwarming and emotional for me,” says Cowley. “It’s funny, though—when I was growing up, St. Patrick’s was one of three religious holidays where pubs were actually closed. The Irish have learned, though. They realized, ‘Hey, this is fun!’ … Yeah, it might be busy, but we’ll always have a spot at the bar for you.”