Orange County’s Irish pubs tend toward the cliche: shots of Jameson, pints of Guinness, lardy chow, and a reliable dose of drunken cheer, or melancholy, depending on the crowd. The formula is past due for an upgrade—the kind you’ll find at Dublin 4.
Freeway-adjacent in Mission Viejo, the upstart gastropub hides in plain sight, squeezed into a small retail nook that includes its wine-bar sibling, Wineworks for Everyone. Blink and you’ll miss the driveway, but it’s well worth the U-turn to enter the convivial and civilized haven that awaits. An etched-glass partition funnels you into a dapper main room flanked by a 12-seat bar and a portrait gallery of iconic Irish authors, vividly rendered by artist Barrie Maguire. Regulars populate the bar while a blended crowd in the main room keeps the cushy leather seats occupied at a mix of high and low tables beneath the bemused gaze of George Bernard Shaw.
Yes, there are proper pints of Guinness on the scene, but also several distinctive house cocktails such as the Writer’s Block, a liberating tonic that builds on Sazerac rye and Dolin dry vermouth. Add an admirable well, worthy wines by the glass, and—no surprise—there’s a fair amount of imbibing going on. Most folks don’t snack here; they come to feast, and feast well, thanks to executive chef Dave Shofner.
Shofner’s fine-dining chops are considerable; he’s a veteran of primo kitchens past (Troquet, Chat Noir, French 75) and present (Opah). When owners (and Irishers) Darren and Jean Coyle set out to create a pub to rival Dublin’s finest, betting on Shofner was the wise wager. Soon after Dublin 4 opened last St. Patrick’s Day, the Coyles also put him in charge of the fare at the wine bar next door.
But the deluxe pub grub is the marquee event here. I say grub with a wink because the menu plays coy by offering the expected players: potato-cheese soup, cottage pie, and batter-fried sausages, with Shofner’s team kicking up the quality by a country kilometer. The velvety spud soup is impeccably balanced with grainy beer, aged Irish cheddar, and rich notes of fine, wood-smoked bacon. Medium-grind bangers, made on-site, come as nuggets crisply encased in golden batter made buoyant with ale; swipe each bite through the aioli spiked with whiskey and pebbly mustard for a beer-friendly nibble with noble character. Lightly seasoned mashed potato cakes get a rich crust from sizzling in duck fat, then another dose of musky flavor from roasted wild mushroom sauce with thyme. It’s more of a side than a small plate.
Tradition makes a hard left turn on dishes that taste thoroughly modern, such as the PBLT with magnificent pork belly, cured in-house, then stacked on toasted country bread with tart, crunchy pickles on the side. A paper cone of shoestring fries gilds the lily. D4 Reuben Rolls use the elements of a Reuben to stuff egg roll wrappers that are fried crunchy, then sliced on the bias for easy dipping into from-scratch secret sauce. Again, house-made fundamentals—corned beef and sauerkraut—ensure the quirky appetizer teems with flavor.
The three “gastro pies” are gourmet riffs on the humble cottage pie. The Zinfandel-braised lamb variety is bounteous with slow-simmered meat, parsnips, and pearl onions. Breaking into the puff-pastry lid releases glorious aromas that quickly draw all eyes to your fork. Maine lobster, fresh peas, and cognac cream star in the luxurious Dublin Lawyer Lobster Pie. Even the conventional cottage pie surpasses its meat-and-potatoes imperative by upgrading to dry-aged Niman Ranch beef with a mashed potato roof laced with roasted garlic and cheddar. There’s nothing economy class about this take on the peasant classic.
The house burger should be superb and it is, a well-wrought assembly of freshly ground beef, house bacon, grilled onions, and garlic-black pepper aioli on brioche. But I’ll gladly swap out the hamburger for Shofner’s virtuoso Prime Colorado lamb burger dressed with feta, roasted red peppers, pickled onions, arugula, and garlic aioli. Flecks of white truffle-thyme season crispy frites on the side. They’re even better with a dab of thick, small-batch Sir Kensington’s Ketchup, which doesn’t come with it. Just ask for some.
A tight clutch of entrees efficiently covers bigger appetites. It’s hard to best the fish and chips made from fresh Norwegian cod in a cloud of pale-ale batter that’s paired with thick fries sprinkled with sea salt and malt vinegar. Hanger steak is near-ubiquitous these days, but here it’s Prime beef from Creekstone Farms and its texture and flavor are excellent. Mushroom-peppercorn cream sauce complements the robust beef, but who knew colcannon—mashers, cabbage, and butter—could be so seductive? Impeccably seared day-boat scallops are luscious enough, but pan-roasted steelhead with beet puree tastes more interesting and felicitous in this setting.
Desserts and service tend to be the variables of Dublin 4. One night’s fresh rhubarb crumble tart is so spot-on, I forgive the plucky waitress for tangling earlier with our party’s cocktail connoisseur. Another night, the ubergracious Darren Coyle stops to chat just as we dip into the dry croissant bread pudding devoid of the billed orange and cardamom flavors. Next time, I’ll just indulge in a faithful Irish coffee with John Powers whiskey, dark brown sugar, and freshly whipped cream.
Céad mile fáilte, “A hundred-thousand welcomes,” reads a Gaelic note card on our reserved table. And to that I say, “Sláinte!”
Specialty cocktails, potato-cheese soup, battered Irish bangers, D4 Reuben Rolls, duck-fat fried potato cakes, cottage pie, Zinfandel lamb pie, lobster pie, house burger, lamb burger, PBLT, fish and chips, day-boat scallops, hanger steak, steelhead trout, rhubarb tart.
Appetizers, small plates, $8 to $18; cottage pies, $16; entrees, $18 to $30; desserts, $9.
D4 is a high-profile Dublin postal zone.
26342 Oso Parkway, Mission Viejo, 949-582-0026
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue.