Twenty-eight years ago, in 1986, the Kinsella family opened its Irish restaurant, the Emerald, on Texas 71 in Bee Cave. Its only neighbor was Rosie’s Tamale House. The Backyard wouldn’t open for several more years. The Hill Country Galleria was unimaginable.
When I told Michelle Kinsella that I wanted to learn how Irish food translates to Central Texas, she invited my husband and me for dinner.
Some 45 minutes out of our Central Austin driveway, we zoomed past the Emerald on our left, noticing it in the dark too late to slow down and turn in. A quick U-turn doubled us back, and we pulled into the parking lot of a stone building with arched windows and scalloped green trim that instantly put me in mind of the Alamo dressed up for St. Patrick’s Day.
Exterior likeness to our dearest monument aside, Ireland meets Texas at the Emerald in a deeper way, I would learn over the course of that meal and subsequent conversations with the restaurateurs. Within those Texas-native limestone walls, a transplanted family celebrates and shares its Irish heart. They harness the hospitality intrinsic to two far-flung cultures to create an uncommonly indulgent mealtime experience.
Marge Kinsella first visited the United States with her sister as a young woman, in 1957. She came from a village in the west of Ireland called Aughadeffin, so small it isn’t on most maps. (Google Maps "could not understand the location" when I tried to conjure it there.) She met a butcher’s son from an Irish family at a dance in the Bronx, then returned and married him in 1959.
The family would move to New Jersey and produce four children. When the oldest, a daughter named Maggie, earned a scholarship to Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, the whole family followed, the parents and younger siblings Paulie, David, and Michelle settling in Lakeway. "They loved Texas," Maggie says.
Marge and Paul frequented an Austrian restaurant in a stone cottage built in 1927. They loved the place and told the owner they would buy it if ever he wanted to sell. In 1984, he telephoned Marge, and she agreed to the deal before she hung up. Marge and Paul had always wanted to own a business.
The family spent two years adding a bathroom, hanging shamrock wallpaper and lace curtains, and otherwise sprucing the place up. Marge and Paulie, who along with David had experience working in Austin restaurants, worked out a menu that echoed the old country, each dish named for a specific Irish place or idea. "When my mom made up that menu, she wanted to incorporate places in Ireland," says Maggie. "Each item has a significance to an Irish person. They would know what the shilleliagh is." (It’s a walking stick.)
You’ll order from that 1986 menu if you visit the Emerald today. There might be a special, and if you eat gluten-free or vegetarian, the cook will accommodate you graciously. More specifically, David will customize something for you, and Maggie or Michelle will ensure that no breadcrumbs from your companion’s plate sully your potato as one of them carves it for you tableside from a silver serving tray – one of many touches that make the restaurant feel like a 1980s fine-dining time capsule.
On most nights at the Emerald, the Kinsella family still runs the restaurant without outside help. Paul, the father, still helps out in the kitchen when he can, as does Paulie, who travels a lot for his day job. Maggie, David and Michelle work at the restaurant most evenings. Maggie and Michelle greet and serve guests and keep Irish folk music — which in the background can sound uncannily like Texas country — playing in the dining room. David runs the kitchen, often single-handedly, peeling every carrot, searing every steak, and baking every whiskey cake himself. David’s son, Dalton, a student at St. Edward’s University, joins them on weekends and occasionally brings friends from school to help out.
The "kids," all of whom have worked elsewhere, value their involvement in the restaurant their parents started. "It was never pushed on us," says Maggie. "It was just assumed in Irish culture that you will be in the family business."
We had already eaten warm, buttered Irish soda bread and dipped into bowls of savory Irish potato soup when I figured out that Marge had passed away. She died in 2005, and her family flew her body back to Ireland for burial. It’s a fact that’s easy to miss. When they speak of their mother, the Kinsellas mix the past tense and the present. "This is how Mom likes it," they might say, describing a dish. It’s the principle that governs how they run the restaurant.
Take the beef. Our entrée that night was prepared as Marge intended it. She named the entrée the Kinsale for a seaport village in Ireland that she loved to visit. The dish centered on a Châteaubriand, a classic cut of tenderloin associated with romance because one piece is cooked for two people, then sliced apart just before eating. A tender red potato, carrots cooked in sugared water, and just-tender broccoli accompanied it.
In spite of the Irish name, the beef David cooks is Texas Black Angus. In Ireland, he explains, a chef would use the local brown Angus. But, he says, Texas Black Angus cows yield superior beef.
I’ve never had brown Angus, but by the time we pressed the sides of our forks into the beef David had prepared, I would have believed anything he told me. I felt like family, too.
"Are you Irish?" Maggie asked when she stopped by to check on us. I stammered when I tried to answer. The branches of my family crossed oceans and intertwined long ago, and I have trouble keeping track of them. Maggie practically interrupted me in her eagerness to end my discomfort. "It only takes a drop," she said, smiling. I felt lucky to be here — and to eat the carrots, which were practically candied. (The Irish like their sugar, I’m told.)
Maggie holds a master’s degree in psychology. I reminded her of this later, when I asked her on the phone if she understands why I felt so extravagantly cared for at the Emerald. It’s an expensive restaurant — prix fixe meals for two cost $175.50, though our meal was on the house — but that doesn’t fully explain it; lots of restaurants charge a lot without making you feel like family. "I wonder sometimes if it’s because it’s our restaurant, and we’re proud of it," she said, a hint of Irish brogue slipping into her speech as it often does. "We really want to be sure that our parents know how proud we are that they wanted us to be together and to have something."
Being Irish might have something to do with it. Maggie told me that the Irish love to share. "When we go over there to visit friends," she said, "you’ll never want to say that you like a picture that they have hanging on the wall because they won’t let you leave their house without making sure that you take that picture with you. That’s how generous they are."
I encountered this generosity as I attempted to recreate David’s soda bread in my own kitchen. He had dictated the recipe to me over the phone already, but I called again to confirm the details – six tablespoons of baking powder seemed like a lot. (It was the right amount for the doubled version I made; see the recipe, published in Wednesday Food & Life section, at austin360.com.) When my dough didn’t come together, I texted him a picture. More buttermilk? Yes. He sounded delighted to hear from me every time I called, and he repeated his instructions, elaborating as needed, with unfailing patience. As my unbaked loaf rested on the counter, the cross I carved into its surface with a knife expanded, as he had said it would.
Back at the Emerald, the signature whiskey cake and David’s own bananas Foster cheesecake arrived for dessert. Then Michelle offered me an Irish coffee. I hesitated. My first experience with Irish coffee, years ago, pushed me off a chair. The drive back to Austin stretched before us, and we’d already had wine. I didn’t say any of this (I would eventually confess to Michelle about the chair incident.), but Michelle read my mind. "I can make it light," she said, "and decaf."
My coffee arrived in a footed milk-glass mug with a green shamrock stamped on the side. I took only a few sips, but felt deeply warm.
When my husband and I left the Emerald, we exited through an anteroom lined with memorabilia of Ireland and the restaurant’s three decades — a photo of Marge and Paul, a framed magazine clipping, a map of the old country. We had passed through when we arrived, but on leaving we lingered, chatting with Michelle and Maggie before stepping out of this Old World bubble into the Texas night air.
My own Irish soda bread turned out golden and crusty on the outside, characteristically dry inside. (David recommends a smearing of marmalade.) It had cooled and been extensively sampled by the whole family when my phone rang around 6:30 — during dinner service at the Emerald. It was David, calling to see how my soda bread had turned out.
I’m apparently not alone in finding the Emerald uncommonly hospitable. The restaurant has served a handful of regulars since the 1980s. The majority of its patrons travel from downtown Austin. A few national celebrities count the Emerald among their favorite haunts. One longtime guest is 92 years old now, and can’t always make it to the restaurant when he longs for the escargot. Maggie delivers it to his house.
The Kinsellas’ kindness doesn’t seem put on to impress guests. It seems like something deeper, whether born of thousands of years of history and concentrated by a sense of frontier brotherhood, or simply of good upbringing. "We look at it as, ‘aren’t they nice to come to our place when there are so many other restaurants they could choose to go to,’" says Maggie. "We’re the lucky ones, really and truly."