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