A couple of years ago I paid what had become a rare visit to Mulligan’s in Poolbeg Street, an old haunt I patronised regularly back in the nineties when I had my café/restaurant nearby. As I came through the door the man behind the counter called out to his cohorts in the other bar, “Lads, the chef’s in.” I’ll admit to a grin of satisfaction on realising that when these guys spoke of “the chef” they weren’t referring to Kevin Thornton or Ross Lewis – they meant me. I was the man who used to feed these guys on a daily basis. Doorstep sandwiches, groaning with Irish artisan cheese and home-cooked ham. Coffee, a quantum leap over anything else in town at the time and what was acclaimed as “Dublin’s best onion soup”. It was Mulligan’s where I celebrated, cheque nestling in the pocket of my whites, the night I sold Café Sax, thinking, “Glad I’ve done it, glad I’m not doing it any longer” (writing about food is so much easier than providing it).
The other night I exited the Dart station, crossed the road at the traffic lights and trudged up Tara Street, the same journey I made every day for three-and-a half years. There are no traces of my place now save for the shutter, still painted in the French navy I’d specified all those years ago. Nor of the bookies next door, nor the cut-price toyshop. We walked past and around the corner, our destination a new or at least recently-opened restaurant snuggling up against Mulligans. Now, there is a new chef on the block.
The Vintage Kitchen is the brainchild of Sean Drugan who has relinquished control of Seagrass at Portobello though he still retains, as he told me later that night, a stake in the business. The room is tight and plain, with a semi-open kitchen intruding into what might otherwise be dining space. Decor amounts to a few shelves whereon are displayed old toys, glassware, china and ornaments, everything looks as though it was acquired by trawling Aungier Street’s charity shops. If you fancy any of this bric-a-brac it’s okay to put in an offer, apparently. Tables are small and packed together and the first piece of advice I’d give for anyone thinking of dining at The Vintage Kitchen is ‘love thy neighbour’ because you’ll almost certainly become tangled up in conversation at some point during the evening. The Vintage Kitchen does have, however, two important USPs. One is ‘bring your own wine’, a policy Sean found worked successfully at Seagrass. The other, curiouser by far, is ‘bring your own vinyl’. As I traded my vinyl for CDs, years ago this was not an option. Well, I do have one, left behind by a visiting folkie friend. I found it an a cupboard the other day. Just how long would fellow diners endure ‘A Fine Hunting Day – Songs of The Holm Valley Beagles’ before they fecked me out the door is an interesting speculation. Anyhow, here is my second caveat: ‘it helps if you like The Beatles’ – you’ll be hearing plenty of them as almost everyone who dines there, it seems, can find a copy of Rubber Sole, Revolver or Sgt. Pepper’s.
The cuisine is is best described as ‘robust’ and portions as ‘exceedingly generous’. My starter, a game pie with a puff pastry crust, from the ‘specials’ selection would have fed two. The meat, mostly venison I’d say, was tender and the sauce rich and fulfilling. Rixi judged the Wicklow wild duck liver crème a cut above the average. It came accompanied by a plentiful supply of good toasted bread and a splodge of home made plum jam.
For my main I had the ‘Slaney river slow roasted lamb shank, root vegetables & honey purée, roasted baby carrots, liqourish (sic) gravy & baby potatoes’ a pretty comprehensive comfort fest and a good match for the impactful bottle of Rioja Reserva 2009 we’d brought with us. The lamb fell away from the bone at the first prod of a fork. Rixi went for the poussin, nicely garnished with two purées one, I think, sweet potato, the other beetroot which impressed her so much she asked chef Sean for the recipe afterwards. Good mash (did I detect a hint of parmesan?) came in a small copper pan. I made a memo to myself to source a set. Dessert? Just about and only because I am a sucker for baked cheesecake of any kind. The VC’s limoncello version, served with good vanilla ice cream, bolstered my faith.
One characteristic common to Sean Drugan’s enterprises is, he always seems to find good people to interface to the customer and thereby enhance the dining experience. The girl and the guy out front on this occasion fully maintained the tradition. In a packed restaurant, with not much space to maneouvre, they kept a keen eye out helping ensure everyone’s meal was correctly paced. As good a performance as I’ve experienced this year. They also managed to vanish the ‘Fab-but- too-frequent Four’, at least temporarily, in favour of Ricky Lee Jones which is why I’ve upped their marks from 4 to 4-and-a half. By this time we were on conversational terms with the nice people at the next table, one of whom identified me as ‘Ernie Welly’. Fame of a sort, I suppose.
All the food we’d had came to €59.60, a steal. I’d recommend the place highly. It would be very easy to channel The Vintage Kitchen as one of those restaurants that has hit the zeitgeist running. BYO and €30 for 3 courses, what’s not to love in this time of enforced austerity? But that would be unsound and unfair. The truth is that here is a very good restaurant hiding behind the veil of kitsch, cuteness and cut-price. The culinary skill, the righteousness of the ingredients, the attention to detail are easy to spot. Dining here, as opposed to more glitzy establishments all you sacrifice is the right to be alone and the capacity to impart a confidence without it hitting the streets before you’ve finished dessert. A small price to pay, I reckon. One last thing – if you want a table, take my advice which is ‘ring early, ring often’. As we paid the bill I told the proprietor I’d tried five times to secure a booking. “So has my mother,” he quipped. I’m still not sure if he was joking.
The Vintage Kitchen, 7 Poolbeg Street, Dublin 2 Tel: 01 679 8705
Wine n/a (BYOB)