With a significant birthday to celebrate I decamped to Brittany for two weeks in August, renting a house and gathering my nearest and dearest together to ensure the occasion did not go unmarked (we’re woeful at sending cards and giving presents). In the evenings we took turns to cook. On the last night I fettled a Thai green curry, one of the best I’ve ever cooked. Not, I hasten to add, because of my culinary skills. Simply because the prime ingredients – langoustines, scallops and a huge monkfish tail that glistened like diamonds in a mountain stream – were the finest you’d see anywhere. A joy to buy and a joy to cook with.
In Ireland we have a problem with seafood. We love to eat it. But we rarely cook it at home because it’s (wrongly) perceived as fiddly, even difficult. At the same time, for a nation surrounded by sea, there are remarkably few reliable seafood restaurants.
I found Wolfe’s Irish Artisan Bistro after a quick trawl through the forums on my website www.forkncork.com. It’s on Capel Street, roughly half way between Jack Nealon’s and McNeills if you are travelling by pub and easy to miss as Bangles and I walked past it twice. Telephoning in advance, I had taken the receptionist’s offer of “a nice table upstairs, by the window.” On arrival we were initially disappointed as the ground floor room seemed busy-buzzy whereas upstairs we were the only diners. The room was decently tricked out, though, and the chairs comfortable. As Bangles and I had a deal of catching up to do we soon forgot about the lack of company. Someone has good taste in music. Tom Waits and Nick Cave, damped down as not to impede conversation, entertained us.
I noted with approval that there was a fifteen euro bottle of wine on the carte, not a bad one either. We went medium upscale, taking the always reliable Willunga 100 viognier at €27.Most expensive wine on the list was €34. Bangles nabbed the chicken terrine, following up with the rack of free range pork, my initial fancy until an urge to continue the shellfish-fest I’d started in Douarnenez surfaced. The starter was total ‘me’ – four plump scallops, quickly caramelised and finished with girolle mushrooms, a little cream and a scattering of summer truffles. Bangles’ coarse terrine was tasty yet delicate, served with a rivulet of carrot purée kept the right side of bland with a touch of citrus and garnished with spicy carrot cress, nice touch. I was initially dismayed by the absence of bread, needed for mopping up the delicious residue of the scallops and cream. A call to the personable Czech waiter remedied this but really it shouldn’t have been necessary – it would cost little to provide a basket of bread and should have been put on the table when we arrived.
The pork, an emperor-sized chunk with the crackling on it, came topped with crispy morsels which, the chef informed us later, proved to be slivers of pig’s ear, (don’t shudder, they were delicate and delicious) and robust mustard mash. Though the pork was a gastro-treat in itself, it could have done with some spicy chutney, maybe a little Hungarian style red cabbage or even plain apple sauce to point up and enhance the flavour. My Irish lobster, a monster, did full justice to the cold sea around our shores, a submarine gymnasium where these kings of crustaceans develop muscle tone, and hence texture and taste. It was cooked to perfection, springy but not tough. Lobster is filling food so I didn’t eat too many of the excellent, properly crisp chunky chips. I thought the price of the dish, €38, even given the size, was a trifle expensive. There’s a glut of lobster at the minute and the price per kilo has dropped considerably. Many restaurants are using Nova Scotia lobster (of only average quality), enabling them put it on the menu for under €30. Were I in charge of The Artisan I’d maybe dispense with the chips or just add a few for garnish and keep the price down to around €32.
We shared a passion fruit panna cotta which Bangles thought on the tart side (she has a sweet tooth). For me, the taste was fine. I enjoyed the sharp tang of the fruit, heaped on the top, complementing the mellow cream heavily laced with what I detected was good vanilla.I lost a mark or two for texture. The perfect panna cotta is, to borrow from Paul Simon, one that slip-slides away. This was ’hearty eating’.
Open three weeks, Wolfe’s Irish Artisan is not yet the finished article though it shows much promise. Suppliers, all of excellent repute, are listed on the menu; cooking, by young chef Peter Fisher, is extremely sound; prices are reasonable, extremely so if you shy away from plutocratic items like lobster and scallops. There’s a 3-course pre-theatre for €30. Service-wise, we initially felt somewhat neglected. On the night the bulk of the business was downstairs and in such circumstances there’s a need for real awareness if the restaurant has to keep in touch with diners aloft; this initiative was lacking until we brought the waiter up sharp, after which his head would appear round the doorway at regular intervals. All-in-all it’s certainly a contender for ‘best place to eat north of the Liffey if you can’t get into Chapter One’. The Artisan (full name’s a bit of a mouthful) is a plain, unvarnished bistro, so don’t expect things too fiddly-farty, it’s a ‘what you see is what you get’ sort of gaff. None the worse for that.
Wolfe’s Irish Artisan Bistro, 153 Capel Street, Dublin 1 Tel: (01) 874 9570
Volume 1 bell
Originally published in The Dubliner, FREE with the Evening Herald on Thursdays