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Forkncork.com - Ernie Whalley on food, wine & Irish restaurants

Why I’m asking everyone I know to vote ‘Yes’

I can’t vote in this one. 28 years here, I’m still not an Irish citizen. Maybe because getting on with earning a living, paying my taxes and socialising seemed more important? Or because my blood is a cocktail of English, Welsh and Italian, not a drop of Irish? Not sure but anyhow never applied and hence voting in referenda is a no-go.

I do have strong feelings about the issue. From the outset I should maybe tell you my daughter is lesbian and she and her partner, Mum and Ma of two small and wholly delightful children, are getting married next week in the North of England. I shall, of course, be there to celebrate with them.

Personal matters apart, I cannot see why any sane and right-thinking person should wish to caste a vote other than in the ‘Yes’ box. I see same sex civil marriage as a civil rights issue, pure and simple. Whatever your views on homosexual relationships, emotional, physical or both it is simply wrong for a state to discriminate against certain of its citizens on the grounds of gender. 

The ‘No’ campaigners have muddied the waters here, introducing other elements, principally, I believe because their stance on the key issue is untenable. Most prominent of these is the ‘Children deserve a mother and a father’ slogan. I am here to tell you “No, they don’t”.

During the first five years of my life my father was mostly absent. There was a war on and, though he was old enough not to be conscripted, he enlisted in the Royal Air Force. Soon, he was promoted to corporal in the Military Police and went off to Scotland to stop a man called Hitler from nicking bricks and cement designated for airfield construction. He returned at intervals to disrupt my life.

Meanwhile I was being brought up by my mother, with the assistance of Aunty Margaret, her sister and Aunty Nellie, a ‘gingerbread’ from up the street. My dad’s periodic returns terrified me. He had a loud voice and big fists, which he used to use, sometimes on me, but more often on my mother. I was too young to know that these rages were, mostly, fuelled by alcohol. Even sober, he couldn’t stand being crossed. Spoiled rotten by his own mother, he was used to getting his own way.

When the war ended dad came home, resuming his job with Manchester Corporation. The behavioural pattern continued; indeed, it got worse, with periodic sulks, sometimes lasting as long as three weeks, woven into the thread.

Out of the house he was different – jovial, generous to a fault. He spoiled my cousins when they came to visit. I remember him handing out half crowns all round at a family gathering while, only the day before, he had stopped my pocket money for some misdemeanour.

I don’t thinkI was quite the boy he wanted. I wasn’t the rough-and-tumble sort. He bought me boxing gloves for my birthday and whenever he got them out of cupboard I hid. His interest in any academic success I had was limited to bragging about me to his pals in the pub. He used to compare me to my pals. When I came home to tell him I’d got 80% in an English exam, his sole remark was “What did David Humpage get?” When it came to sport he seldom passed up the opportunity to put me down. I was rubbish at football, cricket, table tennis, you name it.

And all the while the rages, the violence, the sulks. Jarred, he broke my mother’s ribs once, on holiday in the Isle of Man. Returning, she told family she’d slipped on the gang plank. That was the way with battered wives in those days.

I should end it there. But not without saying I spent my whole childhood wishing I had two mothers.

I am proud of my daughters, both of them. They have grown up into lovely human beings with fine values. They work in occupations that benefit the community. They are both terrific parents, one single, heterosexual; the other in a gay relationship, soon to be a marriage. Katie, Alex, Maggie and Tove, my grandchildren have and will continue to be enveloped in love; inculcated with sterling values; their views respected and cherished.

The lesson is simple: it matters not whether you have one parent or two or whether they are straight or gay, Christian or atheist or whatever. What matters is the quality of that or those parents.

The foregoing has been hard to write. But, in the end, how much better is my grandchildren’s childhood than was mine with the father the Nay-sayers would say I “deserved”?


Ibérico Ham Masterclass

Mario Hiraldo, Master Carver of Ibérico ham recently conducted a master class in Dublic. Held at the Spanish Ambassador’s residence. I was one of a small group of food writers invited to attend. Given Mario’s immense knowledge of his subject this seemed like a privilege.

Mario’s master class turned out to be one of the highlights of my gastronomic week. In front of us when we sat down were set a plate of thin slices of Ibérico, arranged in a clock formation, also three glasses of sherry – a fino, a manzanilla and an oloroso. The slices were cut from different parts of the same leg of ham and, encouraged by Marco, we tasted ham and sherry together The difference in texture and flavour between the various cuts was truly extraordinary. The only thing that bears comparison is an oyster tasting I attended last year in the Cliff Town House. Initially, Marco killed one popular misconception – Ibérico pigs are not all black. He showed us photographs in which ginger and even blonde pigs featured.

Ibérico ham from Spain is one of the most extraordinary gourmet products in the world, coming, as it does, from one of the last grazing species in Europe. The commonality is the pigs are allowed to roam freely in the dehesa the  pasturelands of Southern Spain. This agri-economy needs space and vast amounts of it. Marco told us that the capacious grounds of the residence would, under denominational rules, only be allowed to raise one pig. 

A combination of exercise and balanced diet invests Ibérico ham with a complex, lingering flavour and a tender, almost melt-in-the mouth texture.This complexity is chiefly the result of the pig’s perfect integration into its environment where it is permitted to consume everything from grass and stubble,many wild vegetables and, above all, acorns. Exercise enables the pigs to store fat deposits in the muscles, making the meat especially moist and tender.

The minimum curing period of a ham is about 18 months but for larger hams may exceed two years. Ham legs are packed in salt for a few weeks, then under the watchful eye of the ham maestro are hung in drying chambers with open windows to allow through flow of the mountain air.The ham Is not covered in lard for the curing process and no other external ingredients are added that would affect the inherently natural flavour.

The Old Spot

For years now, newspapers, magazines and TV programmes have been telling us that the national dish of England, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, has been usurped by that culinary blow-in, chicken tikka masala. Here in Ireland, our traditional stew has had things pretty much its own way and some reckon it has even increased in popularity thanks to a reawakened focus on quality indigenous foodstuff in recent years. However, if you eat out as much as I do you become aware that there’s a serious new contender on the horizon. Move aside, lamb, spuds and onions and make way for… (flourish of trumpets) ..baby back ribs.

Baby back ribs, sometimes called loin ribs, are taken from the top of the rib cage between the spine and the spare ribs, below the loin muscle. The designation “baby” indicates the cuts are from market-weight pigs (average approx. 110 kg) rather than adult hogs which could weigh up to two-and-a half times as much. The ribs have meat between and on top of the bones, and the rack is shorter at one end, due to the natural tapering of a pig’s rib cage. A full rack of back ribs should contain a minimum of eight ribs; a dozen is not uncommon.

Currently these piggy bones are everywhere. In the past month I have been offered them in four different Dublin restaurants. The treatment in each case has been broadly similar. The ribs lie, not quite smothered, in a viscous puddle of sauce, the whole reminding me of an alligator I once saw in a Louisiana bayou; motionless, in attempt to convince passing potential food items that it was a half tide rock. There is something decidedly sinister about a portion of baby back ribs. The sauce too, bears the mark of evil. Sweet, adhesive and with a couple of secret ingredients in its composition. One is a natural (we hope) equivalent of Periactin, an appetite stimulant. It is not unknown for folk feasting on baby back ribs to clamour for a second portion on finishing the first. The other is a pernicious colourant that has ruined many a ‘best shirt’. If this dish’s popularity continues to climb expect to see the likes of “Our baby back ribs are sponsored by TK Maxx” on restaurant menus.

Latest purveyor of baby back ribs to Dublin’s dinerati is a new pub-cum-restaurant on Bath Avenue, D4, hard by the rugger-buggers’ Mecca and paradoxically called ‘The Old Spot’ (actually, it’s named for a rare breed of pig). The place is tricked out in the assortment of fixtures, furnishings and geegaws that seem to be uppermost in pub architects’ minds at the minute. Here, polished wood; there, ceramic tiles; here and there, a splash of tartan fabric; somewhere, a discreet stained glass panel; everywhere, an assortment of new old prints. I am certain a cavernous warehouse exists, probably somewhere off the Naas Road, from which these things may be called off at will. An attempt to deconstruct the environment would be futile; “pub-like” is close as I can get to a description. By which I mean “it looks like a lot of other revamped pubs”.

The maître’d advised me that The Old Spot is in the same ownership as The Bath just up the road, although the restaurant operation is run by the guys who have nearby Juniors and Paulie’s Pizza. The chef has a track record that includes a stint at The Butcher Grill in Ranelagh. Before Miss D3X and I partook of the main event we ordered a brace of starters. I gave the lady, whose birthday it was, first pick. She opted for a starter involving pumpkin and goat cheese, it looked very pretty on the plate. I had the crab cakes and, having had one or two duff ones recently, was pleased to find that they seemed to be composed principally of crab. The pleasant, attentive waitress convinced us that we should be drinking riesling (which was okay by me, I’m a fan) and recommended one called ‘Guerrila’ . I was actually familiar with this white, which hails from the juncture of La Rioja and Navarra in Spain. It’s a wine that didn’t impress at a tasting but such was the waitresses’ enthusiasm I was prepared to give it another go. it proved better than I remembered but still showed those confectionary flavours – boiled fruit sweets to be precise – that caused me to mark it down on the previous occasion. There must be smarter rieslings around that could be brought to table for this sort of ask, €32

For my main I took the pork belly, which came with mashed vegetables, good roast potatoes and a liquid element closer to a decent gravy than the usual skimpy jus. The crispy-topped belly was cut into triangles, a less forbidding presentation that the habitual paving slab favoured by many restaurants. Birthday Girl, as I’d hoped she would, took the aforesaid ribs which came encumbered with a quantity of chicharrones, steroidal versions of pork scratchings, plus a pile of slaw. I was allowed to partake of some of the ribs adding my ‘thumbs-up’ to that of Miss D3X. Food writers of the future, re-constructing this “bound to be” Irish classic, will not be disappointed with The Old Spot’s version. One of the de  rigueur accessories of the baby back rib is a side of fries, sometimes offered in a range of sizes from ‘anorexic’ to ‘positively priapic’. The Old Spot’s were somewhere in the middle and I have to say that they disappointed. The starters plus the meat mountain comprised about as much food as we could manage. We did pick, in desultory fashion, at a lemon posset, a pity because it was nicely tangy. We stayed on afterwards and were joined by a mutual friend for a post-dinner drink. All in all we spent €112, ex-service.

Dwelling on the night since, I have come to the conclusion that I would be more likely to employ The Old Spot as a one-plate location, sort of “gobble up the back ribs and go”. I don’t see it as a venue for leisured three course dining. There isn’t enough food interest for me, nothing comes leaping off the menu as a ‘must have’. The tables are very close together, too and, on the night, the muzak was too insistent, zapping conversation. That said, I am well aware that the place has hit the zeitgeist running and many people will be taken with it. Maybe a tinge of sadness is getting in the way. The Old Spot used to be The Lansdowne pub, The Bath was Murrays and, across the road, what was The Shelbourne House is now The Chop House. Yes, I hear all the arguments about pubs being their own worst enemies, dirty, smelly, with lacklustre food and stale coffee, coupled with a wilful resistance to change but at the same time such places played a role, particularly in un-gentrified residential areas. Still, in the end, the pragmatist in me says that if the baby back rib is to claim its rightful place in our culinary pantheon we have to have gastro-pubs. Of which The Old Spot is a fairly decent example.

The Old Spot, 14 Bath Avenue, Dublin 4 Tel: 01 660 5599 

Food ***1/2

Wine ***

Service ****

Ambience ***1/2

Value ***1/2

Overall ***1/2


UPDATE: April 2015

A recent revisit showed that Gavin has, presumably to take account of the zeitgeist on Ranelagh’s dining strip, changed his menus somewhat since my last visit. The Dancer and I arrived to find two new tasting menus in place, majoring on ‘local and seasonal’, one being wholly vegetarian. Pleased two report that the standard of cooking remains as high as when I first reviewed last year (below). Two dishes, the celeriac soup with a PX sherry glaze and the sprouting broccoli were outstanding.

At the same time we couldn’t resist flirting with the a la carte menu and found the O’Doherty’s Fermanagh black bacon and cabbage dish as wonderful as ever.

Original review 2014

It’s not often I get to dine in the same restaurant twice in one week. The initial occasion was at the  invitation of my chum The Imbiber, who had waxed lyrical to me about chef Gavin McDonagh’s new incarnation of Brioche in Elmwood Avenue, Ranelagh. The second was with Sibella on a Tuesday night, the venue chosen on impulse at short notice when neither of us could be fagged to cook. This review is mainly about the second visit, with the odd harkback to the first.

Brioche genuflects in the direction of the new vogue for ‘grazing’. There is no starter/main/dessert  format as such. Instead, the fare on offer was what the restaurant’s website, www.briocheranelagh.com,  calls ‘a concise menu of French tasting plates’, a pretty apt description. Thus each plate is larger than starter-sized but smaller than the main courses to which we are accustomed. A striking omission, at first glance, was the availability of side dishes, including chips, but no, there they were, pretentiously packaged as a ‘Study of Potato’ of which skinny chips (and very good ones indeed) constituted a third, the other components being a sweet potato raviolo and a roulade of potato and goat cheese, priced at €8.95, a bit steep you might think if all you were in need of was a side of fries to bulk out a dish. The other plates cost between €7.95 and €12.95 (foie gras with Tipperary ham, lovage relish and a fine-if-thrombotic brioche fried-in duck fat), with most under a tenner.

The chef has a sharp eye for presentation. After a small and tasty amuse bouche of house-smoked mackerel with the skin appealingly crisped, the dishes we had specified arrived sequentially. The first of these, a buckwheat crêpe with creamed leeks, haas avocado, air dried tomato and a tomato coulis could have been framed and hung on the wall to good effect. We soon found that Gavin is possessed of a sense of humour too. My favourite plate of the nine I sampled over the two nights (there was some duplication) was the Fermanagh black bacon belly,  a chef’s whimsical take on the old family favourite. The squared slab of bacon was crispy on top and melt-in-the mouth underneath; crunchy green cabbage, was present as were tiny halved sprouts, properly cooked, by which I mean just beyond al dente. Also in evidence was a scintilla of pineapple pickle – wry humour directed at the gammon-and-pineapple sophisticates back in the 1960s. The chef’s poussin three ways was, I guessed, a shot at giving diners a small Sunday dinner.

Other dishes that pleased were the hop-smoked and sous-vided duck breast, with entirely appropriate minuscule muscat grapes, puréed chestnuts and an elderflower jus; the fresh and delicate  Kilkeel harbour crab salad in which crunchy apple, perfect textual counterpoint, played a key part; and the savagely nourishing slow-braised beef brisket with its whiskey-and-apricot glaze.

Afterwards, the rhubarb tiramisu, a confection involving vanilla marshmallow, ginger biscuit, rhubarb purée, champagne poached rhubarb and mascarpone cream proved the perfect palate cleanser.

Tables are small and the room is arranged with bench seating along two walls, with comfortable dining chairs on the opposite side, prompting debate about ‘who sits where’, a frequent source of quibble whenever Sibs and I dine out. Eating early, we had great choice and during a brief process of trial-and-error discovered that the benches on one side of the room are wider, by a good few inches, than their counterparts on the other side. Our recommendation is that diners whose buttocks range between ample and ff should dine on the left, everyone else on the right, else opt for the chairs. Sibella afterwards advised the management to invest in some scatter cushions, a proposal under consideration as I write. There is an interesting reason for the anomaly – apparently two of the benches on the left were acquired from the neighbouring Russell’s pub immediately prior to its refurbishment and resurrection as ‘The Taphouse’ and the adjacent ones were constructed to identical dimensions. Sibella, my de facto décor consultant, was impressed by the room which, she avowed, had a  somewhat Parisian atmosphere. She was even more impressed by the efficiency of the central heating (recently we have had a couple of bone-chilling experiences in dining rooms that would make a Transylvanian morgue seem like a tanning salon).

The wine list is almost as laconic as the menu. There are some involving wines on it, most notably a Sancerre that will feature quite prominently in one of our upcoming  ‘Sunday’ tastings. We took one of the cheapest on the carte, a French Chardonnay of modest pedigree, offered at €26. I did have some inside track, knowing this wine was assembled by Felines-Jourdain, whose picpoul de pinet is a byword for excellence. The Chardonnay, too, was well-sorted; clean, restrained and not at all ‘in your face’ as is too often the case with budget-priced wines made from this amenable grape. Wine pricing, around the twice-retail mark, seems fair, and compares favourably to many other Ranelagh establishments. Coffee, an espresso and an americano, proved sound.

Dining in this grazing idiom involves some readjustment to one’s thinking. The maître’d of Brioche suggested two or three dishes apiece, plus the potato plate. Sibella and I managed five between us, plus a shared dessert. The Imbiber and I consumed the full three apiece, plus dessert, on our visit, though we were struggling at the finish. All that Sibella and I ate and drank came to €96, pretty reasonable for what was, in effect, a full meal, plus wine and coffee. Lunch, with two dishes, a glass of wine and a coffee could be got for under €30 per head, a good way of trying the place out.

Included in Gavin McDonagh’s CV, along with the kitchens of The Old Dublin,  L’Ecrivain and Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud is a stage with Paul Bocuse. The great man is clearly an influence for, throughout the meal, Gavin’s reverence  for the French tradition reinvented became clear. Treating French dishes in like manner to tapas and pintxos is certainly novel and both cooking and presentation are executed with considerable panache.

Brioche, 51 Elmwood Avenue Lower, Ranelagh, Dublin 6 – Tel: 086 122 8828

Food ****

Wine ***1/2

Service ****

Ambience ****

Value ****

Overall ****


Amazing, restaurant openings in Dublin are coming thick and fast at the minute. This one almost slipped under my radar, laid low as I was by the mother of all colds and flu, acquired on a pre-Christmas trip to Prague. It was well after New Year when I found the strength to venture into town, motivated by the need to restock a few of life’s necessities – guitar strings, dried porcini and Plymouth gin, mainly. Driving homeward up Wexford/Camden, those streets joined at the hip, I found myself stuck in traffic, with plenty of time to observe that Jack Carvill’s idiosyncratic offie had gone and that in its place was a new restaurant, Delahunt. The name comes from one of the many previous incarnations of the building pre-Carvill’s. The sign found on the premises during restoration now hangs in a prominent spot.

The Lit’ry Chick had actually heard of the transformation; indeed it was “One of the places I’m looking forward to dining at”, her words, said with a decided sense of expectation, I felt.  Accordingly, we met there the following Tuesday, traditionally a quiet night for restaurants. Another reviewer was paying the bill as we came in. A second was seated at a table of three at the far end of the restaurant.  From her we learned that two more of our fraternity had dined there the day before. Nothing illustrates better the dilemma that is a constant to a food critic in the capital. It’s generally agreed that when a new restaurant opens its doors we should give it time to bed down; however, leave it too long, your review appears as the last of half a dozen – old news is no news. 

Delahunt’s proprietors, Darren Free and Sue Gillick have made a superb job of the makeover, retaining the characterful bar (complete with superb retro Guinness tap).  The dining space is long and narrow, the decor tastefully restrained and mellow, overall, putting one in mind of one of those chop houses of the Victorian era, the sort that used to be found in the business-focussed quarters of every major City.  Manchester, where I grew up had three, all named for their original proprietors, the City of London probably more than a dozen. Marble table tops are another attractive feature and there was a vase of fresh flowers on the bar counter.

Scrutiny of the menu – didn’t take long there were only four starters, four mains and four desserts – revealed that nary a chop was to be had.  The theme seemed to be ‘elegant comfort food’ with a nod but no more in the direction of the modish. Of 2014’s big players, bone marrow, spelt and fermented cabbage featured but that was about all. The restaurant, on its website and in its Menupages entry lays claim to Irishness but there was little evidence of ‘celtschmerz’ in chef Dermot Staunton (ex-Locks) cooking which was, I’d opine, thoroughly modern, thoughtful and restrained. TLC’s celeriac and pear soup, served with a scattering of celery and walnut and accompanied by a game sausage roll of robust flavour that balanced perfectly the silkiness of the soup was rated a success of the first order by my companion. For my part, I was overjoyed with my rich, vibrant-flavoured  braised oxtail, bound with bone marrow and complemented by  a  watercress, parsley and shallot salad with an appropriately astringent dressing and, wonder of wonders, ‘crispy snails’. Balance, counterpoint skilful juxtaposition of contrasting flavours and textures, this chef clearly allies a keen intellect to a deal of technical skills.

My main course, the pheasant, swede, sprout shells, savoury pudding and ‘brown sauce’ – chill, it wasn’t of the HP/Daddies/Yorkshire Relish ilk – sailed maybe a tad close to parody – there’s something a bit daft about chucking out the sprout’s heart and just using the outer leaves (they look like green pasta shells); also compressing the breast of a noble game bird and rolling it into a cylinder smacks of excessive handling to me, who far prefers his game/meat/fish etc to bear witness to its origins. But by the time I’d speared a forkful, spun it in the rich jus and ingested same, the righteousness of the combo convinced me I was maybe nit-picking.  The Lit’ry Chick would have liked the hake and grizzled a bit when presented with cod as alternative. However, she stuck with it and was rewarded by as fresh and glistening a piece of fish as you’d get, although the size of the fillet was not over-generous. Crushed Jerusalem artichoke, spinach, bacon, raisins and verjus – unfermented juice from under-ripe grapes, an ingredient I’d swear I was the first to use in Dublin, but that’s another story – made up the supporting cast. Once more, the ingredients were totally in synch.

Desserts rarely tempt me but by this stage I was desirous to see what Dermot the Brave could do with a chocolate pudding. It was pretty darn good although I could have said, without glancing at the menu that it would come with salted caramel ice cream. Sorry, I know must sound like a fully paid up member of The Luddite Tendency but for the life of me I still can’t see what salting caramel brings to the  party. Every scoopful of salted caramel ice cream I’ve ever had shouts  “you cannot be serious!”, each one an oleaginous cloying mishmash that clangs off anything next to it on the plate. How much better would the high octane buzz of high cocoa solids chocolate be, paired with proper ice cream loaded with some aristocratic vanilla? The Lit’ry Chick’s lemon posset, with its tart-yet-beguiling topping of mulled blackberries and some rough-hewn short biscuits called ‘Leinster sugar cakes’, pleased greatly.

The bread, particularly the Guinness bread rates a mention as does the concise wine list into which somebody had clearly put a deal of thought. We took a bottle of Spanish white fettled from the Godello grape, full and rounded enough to cope with the pheasant; spicy, mineral  and bracing so it pointed up the shimmery, delicate, perfectly cooked flakes of cod. Also one of the Perrin family’s decent Ventoux, pleasurable accompaniment to the oxtail and fine for leisurely drinking after the meal was concluded.

Only slight criticism is the waiting staff are slightly too enthusiastic when it comes to refilling glasses. Looking back through the above, I see my review is speckled with musical terms – balance, harmony, counterpoint are all in there (always a sure sign I’ve enjoyed myself). Altogether a performance marked by multiple crescendi and not a largo di molto in the house. We spent €148, ex-service, including the two bottles of wine and did not begrudge a cent.

Delahunt, 39, Camden Street, Dublin 2 Tel: 01 598 4880

Food ****

Wine ***1/2

Service ***1/2

Ambience ****

Value ****

Overall ****

The Step House

It would be churlish to write an account of a visit to Borris, Co Carlow without making at least a passing mention of local man Arthur McMorrough Kavanagh. Born in 1831, as fourth in line to a substantial inheritance, Arthur consisted at birth of but a head, a torso, four stumps in place of limbs and a set of genitals. It was said a local witch had put a spell on his mama. Despite these horrendous disadvantages, Sir Arthur grew up to become a proficient horseman and an accurate shot. Arthur developed a taste for travel, touring France and Italy in 1841. Also Egypt, with his mother and brother in 1846, during which trip the Kavanaghs crossed Sinai on horseback and visited Jerusalem and Beirut. Subsequent excursions took in Scandinavia, Russia, Persia, Mesopotamia (present day Iraq)  and India. Other exploits included becoming Unionist MP for Wexford, sailing from New Ross to Westminster to take up his seat; marrying his cousin, with whom he had four sons and three daughters; writing a best-selling travelogue and helping develop local industries, including Borris lace. After encountering Arthur’s saga I stopped whinging about the pain in my big toe (incipient gout? venous stasis? trod on?) for a whole 24 hours.

In Main Street, across the road from the entrance to Borris House, the Kavanagh family’s ancestral pile, once the residence of the High Kings of Leinster, there is a small hotel called The Step House. The building was formerly a dower house for the estate. In the associated next door pub , owned by the Coady family for five generations, I got into conversation with a local who told me that the building derived its name from an architectural feature; the front steps, being the elevated location from which the doughty Arthur McMorrough Kavanagh was lowered onto his horse. In my subsequent research, I have to say I found no corroboration of this. Whatever, The Step House is a pleasant place for an overnight or a weekend’s dalliance. The original building has French doors at the rear, leading to charming gardens, with views of Mount Leinster and the Blackstairs range. The accommodation has been added to by building on. In the cellar is a restaurant called, ta-da, The Cellar Restaurant where a talented young chef, Alan Foley, with a track record that includes Sheen Falls Lodge and Chapter One, works his own spells, involving, chiefly, a preponderance of local produce.

The menu is priced at €30 for two courses, €40 for three with a €5 supplement for the fillet of Hereford beef. The dining room is nicely tricked up with, at least when there’s a stretch in the evening, a view of the gardens. Sibella and I, immediately on being seated, were supplied with a basket of exceptionally good bread, made on the premises. I’m never quite sure whether I regard the copious provision of bread as a blessing or a curse but we got stuck in anyway. The menu comprised five starters and five mains. From this we selected the foie gras and chicken terrine and the pithivier of Tom Salter’s free range pork with a ‘piccalilli of vegetables’ and an apricot glaze. This incurred ten minutes extra waiting time (presumably to bake the puff pastry topping). Pithiviers (pies, to the uninitiated) , are high fashion at the minute and this was a very good version. In particular, the flavour of the pork, which had undergone but a welly-stride journey from Fenagh in the same county, was exceptional. The piccalilli, vinaigrette made with a light touch, was an appropriate foil. I was glad Sibs had chosen the terrine, although feeling maybe a tad guilty that I had steered her towards it, chiefly by exaggerating the pie element in pithivier. She did permit me to try some; I liked it a lot and though the celeriac/vanilla and pickled mushroom accompaniment sounded odd, it worked well. 

We ordered two wines from the short but carefully composed list. Oddly enough, I’d met the makers of both. Didier Seguier had the maybe unenviable task of taking over from  old William Fevre of the eponymous domaine, one of Chablis’ great characters and a man of strong, frequently quirky opinion. Didier, much to his credit, has eliminated the ‘hit or miss’ element and the Chablis 2013, a half bottle, showed lovely floral, citrus and mineral qualities. Jonathan Maltus, too, is a real character; an entrepreneur with an eye for small plots with potential in the vicinity of more exalted properties. Pézat is his ground floor wine, made just outside the St.Emilion appellation and to exacting standards. It always punches well above its weight and, emphasised as we consumed the 2006,  it ages gracefully. For her main course, Sibella had the roast Breckland duck and her request for “No blood” was acceded to without the habitual raising of eyebrows. Service, I must say, was impeccable all night, the manner informal in a way that allowed staff  to convey that they were ‘foodies’ too but without any of that “I’m your new best pal” slush that seems lately to have crossed the Atlantic. The roast wild sika deer went a good way to restoring my faith in venison, dented somewhat of late. Sika sounds exotic but there is plenty about. In Wicklow and parts of North Wexford, the deer population is booming and culls are being called for. The venison, sliced into medallions, smoked bacon cream, pearl onion, also a sauce poivrade and, yes, there it was, a small black fig, lurking like that party guest, the one who hides in a corner all night wondering why he was invited. I really don’t know why chefs are so fond of these abominations; they have no flavour, add little if anything to visual appeal and end up being thoroughly annoying when the seeds get suck in your teeth. The one blemish in two nigh-perfect platefuls.

To follow, Sibella had the mango and passion fruit parfait and was wholly enraptured. I had the cheese plate  for which there was a €2 supplement and received a nap hand of Irish cheeses, all in pristine condition except for the Cashel Blue which was a tad underripe. Kudos to the grape relish accompaniment, afraid I forgot to ask if it was made in-house.

Afterwards I asked to meet Alan Foley who took me into his chill room where I saw a sika carcass and several large joints hanging. The pride in the chef’s voice was palpable as we discussed food provenance and quality; here is a man in love with what he does and, on the night, it showed with most every morsel we consumed. 

To conclude, The Step House  is one of the best representatives of a genre becoming increasingly  common. That is, restaurants that are not just ‘diners on the Dublin Road’  but standalone destinations. Properly marketed, such places should become the keystone of Ireland’s food tourism.

The Cellar Restaurant at The Step House, Main Street, Borris, Co Carlow Tel: 059 977 3209

Food ****

Wine ***1/2

Service  *****

Ambience ****

Value ****

Overall ****


A few weeks ago I opined that it mattered not a jot whether or not a critic was recognised on walking into a restaurant. My logic was based on the joint premise that (a) it is difficult, if not impossible, for a restaurant to gear up its act at a moment’s notice and (b) no critic worth their salt would be induced to pen a more positive review by the provision of an extra amuse bouche or a free after dinner drink. In the light of my most recent dining-out experience I feel the need to modify my opinion. 

I am not one of those who are impressed by what I call ‘The Fawn Factor. Unfortunately, there are some critics who love to be recognised and have sycophant staff lavish attention on them. Never mind the food, wine or ambience, the more the staff grovel, the higher the restaurant scores seems to be the methodology by which such ‘critics’ judge. Of course this shouldn’t matter to those of us who have higher ethical standards. Problem is, it impacts on us all for, at this point, over-servicing commences.  Manager, waiter and sommelier appear in quick succession, anxious to ensure the critic and his companion, who by now in their eyes have assumed the status of the Sultan and Sultana of Brunei, are having their every whim, real or imagined, pandered to. At some point the law of diminishing returns kicks in; the constant repetition irritates rather than soothes. Other guests get resentful of the attention lavished on critic and guest. This scenario occurs mainly in new restaurants. Mostly, it’s down to nerves. It happened most recently at Amuse, a new restaurant in Dublin 2 where manager Yann Giovanelli, sommelier Lena Duhamel and wine consultant Jean-Baptiste Letinois, good professionals all, queued up to ask MsD3X and I timorously were we having a good time. My response to them was but two words – “Chill, guys”.

There, that’s off my chest. Now I can get on with relating just how good Dawson Street’s latest is and what a great night Ms D3X and I had there. Amuse is the lovechild of Conor Dempsey, a Dublin-born chef who, despite stints at Marco Pierre White’s The Oak Room, La Côte Saint Jacques in Burgundy and La Jules Verne in Paris, 8 Michelin stars between them; also at La Mère Zou and Dax (7 years) and a period spent helping build up the reputation of The Chophouse on Shelbourne Road, has largely flown under the radar here. For those who, like me, constantly find themselves on the wrong side of the impenetrable mining region formerly known as Dawson Street, the restaurant is located on the right hand side (standing with your back to St. Stephen’s Green) near success d’estime, Greenhouse. The dining room is pleasant, verging on chic, with exposed brick walls and lampshades resembling nón lá, the Vietnamese conical hat. The restaurant describes its culinary schtick as ‘Franco-Asian’ and indeed daikon, kimchi, yuzu and like ingredients featured copiously on the menu. Dissecting this after the conclusion of our meal, D3X and I decided the Franco-Asian appendage is maybe a tad over emphasised and that it is more helpful toy think of Conor’s cuisine as extremely fine cooking in the modern idiom, the de rigueur pictures-on-plates painted with a broad palette of colours and textures of which some but not all are Asian inspired. It is also perhaps worth stressing that there is little if anything on the menu that would frighten the less adventurous.

One thing that particularly impressed us was that tables are far enough apart to facilitate private conversation, allowing us to rattle away all night. The menu is fairly concise, though it does include two ‘tasting’ options, of five and seven courses, named ‘Summer’ and ‘Amuse’ respectively. These we passed up in favour of the three-course set dinner which, for €35 seemed very good value. An amuse bouche, a creamy seafood broth gained favour. Then we were into our starters; for her, the pan-seared prawns of good provenance, augmented by red cabbage slaw, shaved coconut and a Vietnamese dressing, familiar to me from time spent in Hanoi. I really yearned for the wood pigeon but it was unavailable that night. Quail was offered as an alternative, accompanied by ‘chic pea’ curd, squash and palm purée, to-die-for Medjoul dates and pretty slices of utterly tasteless black figs, a sad contrast with the lush, succulent brown ones I had pulled from my own Sandymount tree  for a lunchtime dessert earlier that day. We drank wine, French white, a sub rosa grape from a sub rosa region, recommended by Jean-Baptist. It worked well, coping admirably with my main course. Here I’ll admit I did pull rank. I am no great fan of chicken unless I’ve been introduced to the bird’s mam and dad so I leaned on our waiter to swap it for the saddle of Brittany rabbit off the tasting menu. My request was immediately complied with and so I got to enjoy one of the best mains I’ve had in aeons with firm apple, hazelnuts, matcha tea and the added bonus of a quenelle of mushroom duxelles. The rabbit was delightful; farmed, I presumed, but though the texture was soft as butter the boned and rolled saddle sang with flavour. Meanwhile D3X was climbing into the roast rump of mountain lamb with kohl rabi, navet and a dollop of savagely energising kimchi, a truly brilliant dish I’d initially had my eye on (must be getting soft in my old age. Fancy me allowing a guest to have first pick!). She found another winner for dessert, a nicely pliant coconut panna cotta, delivered, in three separate bowls, with a delicate melon broth and darkly astringent blackberry sorbet as accompaniment. Meanwhile, I contented myself with Roquefort cheese with adornments that not only looked stylish and pretty but helped counterbalance the extreme salinity of this aggressive fromage. We concluded with a cappuccino and an espresso, the latter a tad tarry and over-extended, and some rustic-looking and exceedingly well conceived petits fours.

In conclusion I’d say that Dublin has got itself another good restaurant, both food and ambience-wise. The cooking is deft and confident and though the menu is not over long there is enough variety to ensure that boredom, deadly enemy of the regular diner-out, is kept well at bay. The wine list, mainly French, is sound and prices are fair. We spent €120, including two glasses of dessert wine in addition to all the foregoing and thought it good value indeed. My companion, I understand, has already rebooked for a party of friends.

Amuse, 22 Dawson Street, Dublin 2 Tel: (01) 639 4889

Food ****

Wine ***1/2

Service ****

Ambience ****

Value ****

Overall ****

WELL DONE! New ale from Cork brewery

A great night was had at the Oliver Plunkett pub in Cork City to celebrate the launch of the ‘Franciscan Well Jameson-Aged Pale Ale’ – phew, a name that’s almost as big a mouthful as the beer itself!


The new brew is a collaboration between Franciscan Well’s founder Shane Long and fellow Corkman Dave Quinn, Master of Whiskey Science at the Jameson Distillery, who, after a successful joint venture with a Jameson-aged stout, decided the time was ripe for another project, this time an experiment with the effect of second fill bourbon casks from the Jameson distillery as a component in a pale ale breed by Franciscan Well.


The press release on the event introduced me to the term ‘back’ apparently used to describe a small measure of a drink, alcoholic or mineral, accompanying another drink. Traditionally, people would order a whiskey with a water ‘back’, a soda back or a beer back. Spirits have been accompanied alongside beer since the 1400s and the new beer aims to continue this tradition by creating a natural pairing.

This is what, in the old Manchester days, we would have called ‘a chaser’. In those days there were upwards of a dozen brewers in the region – the ‘National Beer Grid’  with its associated lack of choice hadn’t reached the region (others, like East Anglia,  awash with the awful Watney’s keg beers, were already submerged). It was our custom, on our regular pub crawls (sighs nostalgically for the stamina of youth) to accompany the last pint of the night with a Scots malt whisky chaser and, being of questing minds, we determinedly sought out the best combinations – for the record Glenmorangie with Boddingtons’ bitter; the soft, ethereally fragrant Glen Scotia with Robinsons; Glendronach with Draught Bass were, if I remember rightly, our top three picks.

In like vein, the Franciscan Well’s biscuit, malt, caramel and citrus notes, enhanced by spikes of orange zest and coriander combined beautifully with the Jameson. The ale is certainly very more-ish and only the 6% ABV prevented it from being ‘a session’ beer. For this we turned, late in the night to the Franciscan Well ‘Chieftain’ which I praised so lavishly after I made the discovery at the Fleadh Cheol in Sligo a few weeks ago.

The evening was further enhanced by some good pub grub, a band, plus an impressive display of barrel dismantling and reassembly by Jameson’s Master Cooper, Ger Buckley.

The beer is rated ‘experimental and exclusive’ so at the moment it’s only available across Cork’s Whiskey Way bars (Canty’s, Counihan’s, Electric, Le Chateau, SoHo Bar, The Mutton Lane Inn, The Oliver Plunkett, The Oval, The Roundy and The Woodford) in 330ml bottles for an RRP of €6. 


Brewing Beer back in the 1960s

The other day, clearing out my office/studio to bring some sort of order out of utter chaos and also make room to store (yet more) kitchen equipment, I came across an old green diary for the year 1970. Within its pages I found some formulas for making home-brew, including my ‘Kingfisher XB Bitter’*,  my first brew, hastily formulated after sampling my mate Ben’s God-awful homebrew, made in the bath using a Boots the Chemists kit and decanted into quart cider flagons. That was back in the summer of ’69.

Craft brewing friends will, I’m sure, laugh in derision, maybe even sneer but, hey, this was radical stuff back in the day…

As Michael Caine nearly said “Not many people did that”.

Below is verbatim, from the diary.


5 gallons

7 lb crushed pale malt

2 lb flaked barley

1 lb crystal malt

1 lb glucose sugar


1 tsp Irish moss

2 oz East Kent Goldings hops

1 oz Fuggles hops

1 tbsp ‘Burton crystals’

1 tbsp salt

2 oz Brewers yeast

‘Copper finings’ (amount unspecified)


From memory ‘Burton crystals’, sold by home-brew shops were for ‘hardening’ the water, or at any rate adjusting the Ph. Burton-on-Trent was the hub of the British brewing industry at the time, renowned for its bitters and India Pale Ales. The flaked barley was in there to ensure better head retention. The Brewers yeast, I remember,was obtained from a mate in the flats who was an accountant at Watneys. Later, when I moved to Berkshire I used packets of dried yeast, usually of the ‘Dark Munchener’ variety and obtained from a home-brew shop in Kingston-on-Thames.

A note tells me I had calculated the alcohol content at 5.7% ABV or “5.2 if measured by drop”. I’m sure these figures must be a tad inaccurate. Another note reminds me to buy a bag for holding the grains while mashing.


I made the first mash in a catering tea urn I borrowed from my mother who previously used it for a “nixer”, selling tea and biscuits to members of The Halle Orchestra on their morning breaks. The urn later made an honourable reappearance dispensing free tea, along with free meat pies donated by a friend who had a catering business, to the striking miners at Orgreave colliery back in the time of Thatcher.


A later note shows that by 1975 I had a purpose-designed ‘Electrim’ fermenting bin/boiler, also a pressurised keg for storing and dispensing from ‘draught’.


The process was initiated because we were spending too much on beer. We would drink, with friends, at The White Hart in Hampton village, probably 3-4 nights a week. At closing time we would buy at least a couple of 4 pint tins (McEwan’s) to consume  at home over a music session or a game of chess. Eventually the four of us decided we would still go down the pub because that’s what we liked doing but we would brew our own beer for consumption at home, cutting out the expense of the tins. The quest was to brew something that tasted “a bit like Marston’s ‘Pedigree”, our preferred ‘tipple du jour.’


In the diary there is a note that (excluding the cost of electricity) the beer cost just over 7p a pint to make!

* Named for the block of flats, Kingfisher Court, East Molesley, Surrey, where i was living at the time.

Beer today…

Scraggybank ipa etc

When you want a beer there is little else will do. Especially after two bouts of wine judging in Italy in quick succession. On my return to Dublin I paid a visit to the excellent Drink Store in Stoneybatter and purchased half a dozen bottles for drinking casually in the garden or for consuming with the earthy grub  I tend to eat when herself (who is more predisposed towards delicate fare) is away down the country visiting rellies.

First ones tasted were:

Früh, Kölsch.

This is a light-ish beer (4.7% abv) emanating from Cologne where kölsch has enjoyed a protected status since  1997. Though many think it to be a lager, it is not, being top-fermented (though it is cold-conditioned afterwards). An attractive straw-gold in colour, the Früh Kölsch is balanced and appealing, with a distinct, though not over-aggressive hoppyness.  On the palate, it is initially dry and zippy before it mellows to evince honey and, surprisingly, white grape undertones. Enjoyable and certainly food-friendly.

Kinnegar Scraggy Bay India Pale Ale

5.3% abc, unfiltered, naturally-carbonated (pour carefully) from a Donegal company I’d not come across before, Scraggy Bay, once I’d stopped thinking of it in Father Ted terms, proved to be a civilised drink, one I’d call a ‘session beer’ where I’d be happy to quaff a few.  The term India Pale Ale or IPA has become so over-used by craft brewers it is now devoid of all meaning.  This one had that ‘orange peel and coriander’ vibe that I find in many examples of the genre but not to excess. In other words it stopped short of ‘marmalade’.

Founders Brewing ‘Curmudgeon’

Given the name, I should probably adopt this beer. It’s from Quebec, comes in a 335 ml bottle and racks up a powerful 9.8% abv. Molasses and oak ageing (for how long I don’t know) are the keys to its brooding intensity. At first swally it reminded me of one of those dark Münchner beers turbocharged to hell – high lift cams and fat tyres too, but thankfully, no spoiler or go-fast stripes. Curmudgeon wore its alcohol well and the lick of malty sweetness in no way detracted from what was a very well constructed and quite dry beer. A sipper, rather than a quaffer. I spent the rest of the evening debating what food you could team it with but could only come up with the banal ‘chocolate’. Maybe mature cheddar or 24-month Coolea. I’ll try.

My favourite beer glass (shown in the picture) was my father’s. A golf relic, though whether a prize or a gift from Mrs and Mrs Captain I’ll never know, it holds 500 ml if you pour carefully.

Ernie Whalley on food, wine & Irish restaurants