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New chef, manager shoots to improve food at Molly Malone’s in Forest Park

Chef David Johnson, who specializes in pastries, displays a new Molly Malone's dessert: roasted pineapple tart with citrus caramel and cinnamon whipped cream.  |  Meredith Morris/For Sun-Times Media
Chef David Johnson, of Oak Park, signed on to reinvigorate the menu at Molly Malone's.  |  Meredith Morris/For Sun-Times Media
Chef David Johnson adds the finishing touch to Molly Malone's new roasted pineapple tart dessert.  |  Meredith Morris/For Sun-Times Media
Chef David Johnson adds the caramel sauce to Molly Malone's new roasted pineapple tart dessert.  |  Meredith Morris/For Sun-Times Media

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If new Executive Chef and General Manager David Johnson has his way, Molly Malone’s Irish Pub, at 7652 W. Madison St. in Forest Park, will soon be a dining destination.

“I highly respect Gaetano’s, next door, and Autre Monde. I wish to be mentioned in that category,” Johnson said. “I’d like to earn the public’s respect, that while the door says ‘Irish pub,’ we’re top notch.”

Recently, it’s seemed Molly Malone’s kitchen could use help. According to Yelp users, its food is “bland,” “really Americanized” and “a little lacking in quality and flavor.”

Johnson, of Oak Park, was enlisted in early August by a small group of anonymous investors to change that.

“I came on board and assessed the state of the restaurant,” Johnson said, which included a standard Irish pub fare menu that hadn’t changed in 10 years. “It had fallen into complacency. I’m looking to breathe new energy into the brand and present a modern take on an Irish menu.”

As Johnson sees it, Irish cuisine, typically defined as corned beef and potatoes, can draw from a rich array of ingredients and flavor profiles.

Strong flavors associated with Irish food, such as horseradish and soda bread, are products of historic socioeconomic circumstances but by no means all-defining.

“I view Ireland as a country composed largely of farmland and surrounded by water,” Johnson said, allowing for entrees including fish and many meats. “If we can open our minds to a modern take on Irish, the possibilities are endless.”

Johnson will launch a new menu in about two weeks that includes dishes such as sirloin medallions with Guinness-mushroom sauce served with whipped potatoes and roasted carrots, and an organic salmon au gratin served over colcannon (an Irish mashed potato concoction).

Menu items will be under $20, with most entrees priced at $17 or $18, which includes homemade soda biscuits and a soup or salad, Johnson said. In addition to the new menu there will be a new range of weekly specials.

Johnson, who’s also initiated a culinary training program for Molly Malone’s six-person kitchen staff, studied culinary arts in San Francisco and has cooked for the past two decades. He also completed French pastry training in Chicago.

“I’ve been involved in dining concepts from high dining to hotels and everything in between,” Johnson said, adding that he constantly studies to be inspired by evolving trends and cooking techniques.

“I love the creative process. I have a very strong artistic side and I love the kitchen itself. I view it as an operating room or a laboratory. It’s a place where things are created,” Johnson said.

Most recently, Johnson outfitted the kitchen, wrote the menu and helped launch the Harvest Room, a farm-to-table concept restaurant in Palos Heights. Then, through industry contacts, he got word of the challenge at Molly Malone’s.

“What I’m trying to do here is stabilize the current menu and bring quality to that, and roll out the new menu. It’s comfort food and approachable, but with much more attention to flavor and technique,” Johnson said. “This is a diamond in the rough. We’re reintroducing our brand to the community.”

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