Come tooled up, could be like a re-make of Gangs of New York. I’m the guy who gave a bad rap to Bon Appetit, remember.”
I was tense. I’d read the latest episode of Cleavergate, Lucinda O’Sullivan’s well-publicised riposte to Oliver Dunne’s broadside and sensed there could be trouble. That night, I struggled with some difficulty into The Clarence. The gimp wasn’t down to my bad knee, more the eleven inches of Japanese carbon steel strapped to my thigh. I noted approvingly that Imelda was wearing her nine inch stilettos, just the job for giving an antsy chef a poke in the eye should the occasion demand. Despite my disguise (monocle/trilby/false mustache) cover was blown from minute one. “In what name was the booking made?”, enquired the receptionist. “Pronsias Fortescue-Smythe” I replied, glibly. “Ah, hello, Ernie,” said the maître d’ following hard on her heels.
In the event, the circumspection, the weaponry, proved unnecessary. We had a perfectly pleasant evening, towards the conclusion of which Oliver Dunne, the culinary scene’s Roy Keane, emerged from the kitchen for a chat. He seemed in good form. I gently chided him for having the crass temerity to ignore the old adage “one shouldn’t pick a fight with a guy who can afford to buy a barrel of ink”. Oliver seemed largely unrepentant. “So what. We’re flying,” he confided.
The mellow, high-vaulted, church-like dining room at The Clarence (which I’ve always loved) has been transformed by the introduction of an island cocktail bar. It looks mystifyingly incongruous, like a whale beached in The Strawberry Beds, but does add an air of good-timey informality hitherto absent. I will endorse Lucinda’s criticism that the tables-for-two are too small, also too close together to impart confidences to your dining companion. Noise levels, in a two-thirds full room, registered an ear-bruising 96 on my meter, hampering conversation and rendering the muzak inaudible.
Anyhow, here’s the word according to The Wol on Cleaver East’s cuisine. Reviews have ranged from Lucinda’s mild put-down to John McKenna’s multiple Meg Ryan moment, the majority, at least according to Oliver, “Amazing”. As you’ll probably suspect, the truth lies somewhere in between.
The format, a whole menu’s worth of tasting-and-sharing plates seems initially novel, until you consider the Chinese custom of dim sum which originated in Canton, probably in the 17th century. You can break it down into four sections: one, a dim sum or ración (Basque tapas equivalent in a larger-than-tapas portion) experience like the lobster dumpling, more about which anon; two, half-sized main courses of which the rare breed belly pork and the crispy lamb shoulder are exemplars; three, a section called ‘Twisted Classics’, reworked old favourites; and four, desserts. The menu, commendably, included a 14 item list of allergens, including lupin. Anaphylaxites may be reassured by the absence of the toxic flower from any dish.
A word on timing: you are allowed, nominally at least, one hour and forty-five minutes to order, eat up and depart. You are charged per dish and there seems to be no lower limit on the number of dishes you consume. If you want to go through the card and linger over your meal, I’d suggest you eat late as at, say, 10.30pm the likelihood of someone coming in and demanding your table has got to be lessened.
The sharing notion hit the buffers early on when Imelda and I simultaneously decided we wanted our own portion of lobster dumpling. Were I to nit-pick I’d say the pasta dumpling was slightly too-thick. However, the lobster concealed within was replete with flavour and the broth in which the dumplings were immersed, simply sensational. A thin, sensitively constructed sour/sweet liquid, with a rampant lemongrass zing over silky coconut milk had us punching the air and, furthermore, caused us to censure the Americans at the next table for leaving theirs in the bowl. Tiny Chinese mushrooms and micro bak choi leaves added further taste and textural treats.
The next dish to arrive at table was the St.Tola goat cheese parfait, with ‘heirloom beets’ and a walnut parfait, as perfect a combination of texture and flavour as you could imagine. I reckon St.Tola gets better year-on-year. We had ordered the belly pork and the lamb, both of which received an unqualified thumbs-up. The first came with a solid apple and ginger purée, neutralising the fat nicely; the second with baby turnips and a rosemary aioli that balanced perfectly the richness of the righteously selected meat. Two fine traditional-themed dishes, perfectly cooked and prettily presented.
We dipped our toes hesitatingly into the sea of ‘Twisted Classics’, selecting the fish and chips from a list that included scotch egg (apparently it’s a fish dish – shame, a vegan scotch egg would have been really elegant), paella and beef curry. We both concluded that our classic had been tortured rather than twisted. The fish was unadorned – where was the novel take on crisp batter we were hoping for? The ‘chips’ were three diminutive flaccid batons of courgette, viagrafied by a condom of panko-style breadcrumbs, an attempt at innovation that missed its mark. Dressing up a courgette as a ‘chip’ is, in my opinion, on a par with selecting Lily Savage to play in the Lions’ front row.
After this blip, the joy recommenced. The Dexter beef carpaccio with a well-balanced rocket pesto and large discs of wonderful aged parmesan received a unanimous round of applause, with the slight quibble that that this dish should, for heightened effect, have come to table before the lamb and pork.
At least two of my fellow critics have praised Cleaver East’s panna cotta, one going so far as to suggest that “the strawberry and cream panna cotta is going to be the most-talked-about dish of the city in 2013.” Well, afraid my voice won’t be added to the cacophony. The panna had the texture and some of the flavour of condensed milk. The strawberries were bereft of flavour, which not even the vibrant coulis could disguise. The honeycomb brittle,on the other hand, was an inspired touch. Anyhow, unwilling to let the meal end on a low note, we completed the circle with a third bowl of the lobster dumplings, about which we enthused as much as we had about our first. This time, we shared.
What’s left to say? The wine list is a work in progress, requiring more input at base level. Once could eat economically at Cleaver East but if you have to spend over €30 to get merchantable wine it takes the gloss off. The espresso was surprisingly good. Service, at our table and others, was attentive and informative all night. The average cost of a tasting plate was just under €10. Two dishes per person would make a satisfying light lunch; three, a meal; four, a night out.
My take is, Cleaver East by Oliver Dunne, to give it its full title, is a restaurant with two fine chefs (the other is Rory Carville, ex-Locks) working hard to create a niche for their new love child. The cooking is highly skilled and, in parts, adventurous. There’s the odd wonky idea, which I’d forgive on the axiom of ‘nothing venture, nothing gain’. Cleaver East is not ‘significant’ or ‘important’ as other critics have claimed nor is it in any way mind-blowing, calm down lads. It’s just a good restaurant that enhances the Dublin dining scene by way of providing a different way to eat.
Cleaver East, East Essex Street, Temple Bar, Dublin 2 Tel: 01 531 3500
This is an extended version of my review published in The Sunday Times (IRL) on 15th September 2013.
Read Ernie Whalley’s reviews every Sunday in ‘Sunday’ Magazine in The Sunday Times (IRL)