WILBRAHAM Executive Chef Andrew Sussman had the restaurant's smoker fired up just outside the kitchen door of O'Driscoll's Irish Pub the day Reminder Publications visited.
On the grate were sections of specially seasoned fresh pork loin, well on their way to becoming the restaurant's own bacon.
The spicy-sweet aroma wafting across the parking lot as this reporter approached the building's back door was nothing short of intoxicating.
Smoking your own bacon isn't something many restaurants do in an age of cookie-cutter menus and take-away dining.
But it is a measure of Sussman's and his partner, East Longmeadow Selectman James Driscoll's, commitment to creating a special and memorable dining experience for the patrons of O'Driscoll's Irish Pub, located at 2823 Boston Road.
A bit of Ireland on Boston Road
According to Driscoll, his restaurant offers its patrons good food, with a little Irish music, a little poetry, and a little literature on the side.
"[In Ireland] the pub is the epicenter ... it's politics and religion and children and poetry and culture," Driscoll told Reminder Publications in a telephone interview a few days before our visit. "We've tried to recreate that here ... [for example]Wednesday is open session. It's where artisans and musicians just show up."
"If you close your eyes you'd swear you were back on Dingle Island," he said.
A world-class pub
"Irish food has had a bad reputation ... but over the past 20 years [Irish] chefs have trained at Cordon Bleu and the Ritz Carlton," Sussman said. "What we offer [at O'Driscoll's] is fine European cuisine, served with Irish hospitality."
Cuisine with the attention to detail the Five-Star Diamond Award-winning Sussman demanded during the times he oversaw the kitchen of the Heart of Europe Bistro in Lighthouse Point, Florida and that of Amherst's Lord Jeffrey Inn, as Executive Chef.
Details like smoking his own bacon.
"This is a fresh product ... I have complete control over the flavor," Sussman said of the meat smoking and curing in a mixture of mesquite, apple and cherrywood smoke.
He and Driscoll tried buying traditional Irish bacon, when they first paired up to open Driscoll's dream restaurant, but found it just didn't impart the flavor they were looking for to the restaurant's barbeque sauce recipe, sandwiches and entrees.
It's the same reason Sussman chooses to use Powers, rather than another brand of Irish whiskey, in his kitchen.
"[Jim and I] went to Ireland, tasted Powers, and liked the spiciness," Sussman said.
A quart, and three pounds of that homemade bacon, flavors every 30 pound batch of O'Driscoll's barbecued ribs.
But it isn't just the food, or the entertainment, that makes a visit to O'Driscoll's more than just a dinner out.
"The ambience of the age of the building helps set the mood for what we're trying to do," said Sussman of the 240-year-old location, which has served as everything from a stage coach stop to a Catholic church to a VFW post over the years. Prior to June of 2004, when Driscoll opened it as O'Driscoll's Irish Pub, the establishment was known as the Underpass Saloon.
That, and the spirit, John, that's said to inhabit the premises.
"I haven't seen him," Sussman said. "But I think he's honored by what we're doing here."
Doing good for Open Pantry
The Irish hospitality that's a hallmark of O'Driscoll's also extends to its owners commitment to doing good in the community.
Previously, the Pub hosted concerts with the Saw Doctors to benefit Griffin's Friends.
Right now, O'Driscoll's is hosting an ongoing collection to benefit the Open Pantry.
"So often after Christmas [people] forget about these charities," Driscoll told Reminder Publications as he explained that the Open Pantry had been a charity close to his father's heart. "We started [our collection] right after Christmas and it will go through March 17."
And O'Driscoll's is doing more than just putting out a box and collecting canned goods.
"[Whenever] anyone brings in a non-perishable food item, we will match [the donation] either in kind, or monetarily," Driscoll said.
Nearly two weeks into the drive, Driscoll said the response from customers has been so generous that their storage area for donations was nearly to capacity.
"The kids were the first to bring in the food," Driscoll said of the outpouring of donations on Tuesday nights, the evening kids eat free at O'Driscoll's. "They're very in touch with the needs of the needy ... it's nice to see that."
O'Driscoll's is open Tues.- Sun. for lunch and dinner beginning at 11 a.m. The restaurant is closed on Mondays. For more information about O'Driscoll's menu, entertainment schedule, and events, visit www.odriscollsirishpub.com or call 596-0044.