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If only the owners of Siné spent as much time on the food as they did on the décor.

The Look of the Irish

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Siné Irish Pub and Restaurant
1327 E. Cary St.
11 a.m.-1 a.m. daily
649-7767

Somebody spent buckets of money importing Irish artisans to transform 1327 E. Cary St. into an "Irish pub" called Siné. Dark wood and slate, etched glass, copper fixtures, Celtic motifs and wild twisting sculptures create a spectacular interior. I don't know if Siné looks anything like a pub you'd actually find in Ireland, but no matter — it works.

Sadly, the same can't be said for its cuisine. Perhaps its owners simply ran out of energy by the time they got to the food.

The menu makes gestures to the Emerald Isle, but by no means offers a real sampling of Irish cuisine. Appetizers such as Irish Nachos, described as potato wedges with cheddar, scallions and bacon ($4.95), and Smoked Salmon with traditional Irish garnish ($7.95), find themselves in the company of Fried Green Tomatoes with red pepper relish ($4.95) and Shrimp Dip with Asiago cheese and grilled flatbread ($6.95). Likewise, on the entree front, Irish Surf and Turf, ($18.95), and Shepherd's Pie ($14.95), are listed alongside Shrimp and Grits ($16.95) and Blackened Mahi Mahi ($14.95).

Stout Sautéed Prawns with sun-dried tomatoes and fresh mozzarella ($7.95) sounded good on paper, which is probably how it ended up on the appetizer menu — its actual assembly a haphazard afterthought left to the kitchen staff. Tail-on medium-sized shrimp rigidly encircle a mound of melted (maybe fresh) mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes. The thick yellowish sauce did little more than lubricate the shrimp, and nothing about the dish seemed to make sense. Goat Cheese Crustini with roasted garlic marinara ($5.95) combines goat cheese and marinara in an ovenproof dish served with toast rounds for dipping. The kitchen charred ours black on the top, which detracted from an already blasé presentation but didn't hurt the flavor too much.

After some delay, a steaming, rustic-looking mini-loaf of bread arrived at our table with a knife for cutting. It was good; but the herbed margarine that accompanied it was not.

I did not anticipate my companion's Penne Primavera ($10.95) would excite, but neither did I predict it would so gravely disappoint. Lukewarm, slightly overcooked penne rested unappealingly in a pool of watery sauce that tasted faintly of wine and butter. The "blend of fresh vegetables" turned out to be broccoli, cauliflower and carrots, and the light sprinkle of Asiago cheese did little to enhance the overall effect.

The waiter, a friendly and efficient young man, did not ask how I preferred my Rack of New Zealand Lamb ($18.95) to be cooked, so I left it to the chef who, it seems, likes his chops well done. The six rib chops were coarsely trimmed but tender and tasty. I cannot report on the mint jelly that accompanied them for I could not bring myself to taste it. The presentation and preparation of the chops was decidedly uninspired, as were the two side dishes that I chose to accompany them. Mixed mushrooms were unadorned and predominately of the button variety, while garlic mashed potatoes were gummy and yellowed.

A return visit for lunch proved substantially better, but then, expectations (and prices) are lower for lunch. Four golf ball-sized deep-fried Salmon Fritters ($6.95) were sauced with a pleasant coarse-grained mustard and cream reduction, and attractively garnished with fried julienned leeks. Siné's Fish and Chips dish ($6.95) offers moist crisply battered perch that rests on a mound of homemade thick-cut potato chips (not fries) and is served with an unimpressive tartar sauce — an honest if not exciting dish. Shepherd's Pie ($7.95 at lunch) was a rich beef, mushroom and carrot stew with a subtle wine undertone, topped with three mini-scoops of mashed potatoes — a pleasant and straightforward surprise on a rainy afternoon.

Desserts? You guessed it — carrot cake, cheesecake, pecan pie and peanut butter pie. Our slices of cheese cake and pecan pie came atop an arrestingly large quantity of creme anglaise garnished with the requisite swirl of raspberry sauce. Reasonably attractive and tasty, but boring and unambitious.

Siné offers exceptional ambiance, but the disparity between its attention to decor and its neglect of food preparation defies comprehension. It's a nice environment to lunch with friends or hoist a pint of Guinness ($4.75) in the evening — but absent some changes — I won't be returning for

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