Keshk Café

The Emperor Napoleon seems to have been a bit of a philosopher. One of his mots sages was “Every corporal carries a Marshall’s baton in his knapsack”. The great man would have known, because he came through the ranks himself. It’s not to be taken literally of course. Distilled down, the Corsican corporal’s observation simply celebrates mankind’s universal desire to improve his situation and ‘get on’. Today, though, it’s not a baton but a chef’s toque (big white hat). It’s a dead cert that any foodie who reaches the stage where they can slice an onion into thin rings without amputating a finger has this mad, mad dream about opening a restaurant.

Now I’ve been there, done that, designed the T-shirt. For the guts of three years I trod water, made no money. Didn’t matter really; I was too knackered to spend any. I soldiered on, cooking with love and pride; enduring the amnesiac who left a freezer door open overnight; the butterfingers who dropped an earthenware bowl, smashing to smithereens my expensive glass salad counter; the berserk druggie who trashed the place; the klepto who stole all the salt cellars; the fruit-and-nutcase who found ‘a cockroach’ in her teapot (moral: use teabags not leaf tea); the rip-off insurers and the health police with varying degrees of fortitude. Glad I did it; glad I’m not doing it now.

I learned a lot. Like, if you have only 28 ‘covers’ (trade argot for customers’ bums parked on seats) it’s always going to be a struggle. It takes you two busy days to recover from one quiet one. Up it to 35 and you can just maybe take the occasional day off and earn some brownie points with wife and kids. Being a chef proprietor is all about blood (sometimes literally), sweat, toil and tears and my heart goes out to anyone who has the balls to give it a go.

Video highlights care of the foregoing ran in my head as we rocked up outside a newish establishment called ‘Keshk Café’, on the Leeson Street ‘island’. “Funny name” said Lefty. We wondered whether it was a miss-spelling of ‘Kesh’; maybe the owner was a republican, realising a dream he’d had when interned. But no, ‘Keshk’ we were told, was the chef-proprietor’s surname.

The room was bright, warm and welcoming. Small, too. We counted to 28 and I felt an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. This poor guy will never be away from the place. I’d read in advance that Keshk was BYOB and so took the opportunity to road test a couple of wines, Shepherd’s Ridge, a new, quite tasty Sauvignon Blanc from Marks & Spencer and the suave 1997 Centenary Hill Barossa Shiraz, crème de la crème of the Jacob’s Creek stable. Both passed the test of food friendliness with flying colours.

From a non-specific Middle Eastern menu we kicked off with three starters; hummus (always a good test); falafel and tiger prawns in filo, accompanied by a generous quantity of fresh, leafy green salad, of the kind that makes you feel virtuous for eating it. The prawns were crisp on the outside, properly bouncy within and full of flavour. A friend’s sister (who used to work for me) makes the best falafel I’ve ever tasted; these, while not quite in Hadil’s league, were pretty good. The hummus was outstanding, no need to ask “Was it made fresh and on the premises?”

Continuing the theme, we shared a marinated kebab, fashioned from decent chicken and a stupendous lamb dish, tender pieces swathed in an aromatic sauce in which I’d venture to suggest it had been cooked, rather than the two brought together at the last minute. Rather good rice and spiced potatoes completed the feast, which left us unable to do more than nibble on a baklava for dessert – though we did manage two Arabian (like ‘Greek’ or Turkish’) coffees, almost a savoury dessert in their own right and far better than much of the stale, mucky espresso that abounds in Dublin. Staff, two Irish girls, were lovely, nay gorgeous. Only gripe was the hot chilli sauce, served as a side to the chicken. ‘Hot’? It was tepid as baby’s bath water.

Mustapha, Mr.Keshk himself, came out of the kitchen to talk to us. He’s an engaging, enthusiastic man whom some might remember from Idle Wilde in Dalkey, where he previously cooked. He’s obviously in love with his new venture. However, he did say he’d like fifty covers which shows he’s got his head screwed on. He seemed unhappy with the concept of charging corkage on bottles brought in by customers. Lefty said nobody would begrudge \5 a throw. I pointed out that the restaurant has to provide, wash and, as necessary, replace the glasses used and, maybe, open, decant or chill. Corkage would provide a cushion of maybe another grand a week, worth having. Mustapha still seemed dubious, as if it would be breaking faith with his customers. What a decent skin. Anyhow, I hope for his own sake he’ll come to see the logic.

I loved Keshk, food and concept. At, what, €58 plus the cost of a bottle of wine many could afford to eat there once a week. We need to see shedloads of similar establishments springing up and I think maybe we will. While BYOB is not ‘way to go’ for every restaurant its availability should help hasten the demise of the “3 x RRP” mark-up scandal.

Verdict: Keshk could be called ‘Kiss’ (Keep it Simple, Stupid). No frills, just authentic homely food: good ingredients, well cooked. Pleasant atmosphere, everything spotless, do yourself a favour, get there.

The damage: €58.75 ex-service for 3 starters, 2 mains, 1 dessert, 2 coffees

Rating ****

Keshk Café, 129 Upper Leeson Street, Dublin 4 Tel: 01 6689793