Category Archives: Restaurant Reviews

FOR A’ THAT – A review of The Big Burns Supper, Dumfries Jan 24th – 26th 2014

Last weekend I attended the Big Burns Supper 2014, a festival held annually in the pleasant town of Dumfries to celebrate Scotland’s national poet.

devorgilla 1

According to a Scots poet of a later generation, Edwin Muir, the charm of Robert Burns is that he can be all things to all men. Burns represents, he claimed, “to the respectable, a decent man; to the Rabelaisian, bawdy; to the sentimentalist, sentimental; to the socialist, a revolutionary; to the nationalist, a patriot; to the religious, pious”. The sub-text  is, whatever you want your own personal Burns to be, he will be.

The appeal of Burns to the Scots and to their considerable diaspora is easy to understand. He wrote not in highfalutin English but in Scots, for the Scots. He was not afraid to sprinkle his prose and verse with dialect words and phrases. Much of the stuff he wrote has populist appeal, as witness his masterly reworking of a limping old ballad that’s now sung around the world at the turn of the year and been recorded by Bing Crosby, Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Boney M and Kenny G, to name but a handful of those who’ve tried their hand at ‘Auld Lang Syne’.

On the flight to Scotland, I allowed myself to speculate as to how the Scots should package Burns to widen the appeal, particularly non-Caledonians. Easy, I decided. Here we have a guy who was anti-authoritarian, even seditious. A convivial soul who liked nothing better than hanging around with his pals and downing a few scoops. A graffiti artist, too. Better yet, he looked like the young Elvis, wrote like Shakespeare and put it about like Sven Goran-Ericksen The Swedish Love Machine. Someone should make the movie. But please… spare us Mel Gibson.

At which point we touched down in Glasgow. Half an hour later I had a pristine, ten miles on the clock Arnold Clark-supplied Opel Astra under me and we were winging our way down the M74, destination Dumfries where the 2014 Big Burns Supper festival was to kick off on the morrow. Having time to spare I got off the motorway north of Moffat and drove past enthralling scenery to show Ann, my wife, the Devil’s Beef Tub, a deep, dramatic, swirling hole in the hills. Thereafter, we retraced our steps before meandering down the scenic A702, stopping for lunch in the well-kept town of Thornhill, birthplace of mega-talented and drop-dead-gorgeous Scottish singer, Emily Smith.

In Dumfries, a place I have only happy memories of, there is a camera obscura, a device that’s a precursor of photography. When the weather permits, it shows you a panoramic image of the town on the inner wall of the building. The custodian was, I remember, always at pains to point out the swans on the River Nith; also The Crichton – “Yin’s the biggest lunatic asylum in Scotland”. I was amused but awed to find that this was the location of our hotel for this trip. On arrival, I found the shadows of the past had been vanquished and that the extensive grounds now host the Royal Infirmary, a business park, two college campuses and The Aston, a fine hotel housing a Marco Pierre White restaurant where we dined with Rosemary and Andrea from the organising team of the Big Burns Supper, who outlined the concept to me.

The festival, first held in the town in 2012, aims to celebrate, via a programme of concerts, comedy, cabaret and community participation, the poet’s life and work. Burns, who died at 37 spent but the last four years of his life here, yet produced fully a quarter of his output during that period. A spiegeltent, a large travelling show tent, constructed in wood and canvas and decorated with mirrors and stained glass, had been erected in the town centre and this was to be the core venue for the festival’s programme. There would be a procession through the town lit by 1,000 lantern. 5,000 individual Burns suppers – haggis, neaps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes) would be served up over the course of the event.

Whisky 1

After dinner, we wasted no times in getting into the festival spirit, perhaps literally, by attending an event titled ‘Whisky for Dafties’, an introduction to the delights of Scottish single malt, hosted in robust fashion by comedian/whiskey fanatic Alan Anderson.

Session 1

Afterwards we repaired to The Globe, Dumfries’ oldest pub and Burns’ local where an impromptu music session was underway in the compact ‘Snug’ and a more formal one in ‘The Room’. We opted for informality. The Globe’s manager Jane Brown, herself a devotee of the poet (and President of the worldwide Robert Burns Society) kindly showed us the upstairs bedroom where our hero enjoyed assignations with the Globe’s blonde barmaid Anna Park. Burns’ other amusement while at his favourite ‘howff’ was to inscribe poems on the windows with a diamond-tipped pen. Some of these poems may still be seen.

Ellisland 1

Next day we visited Ellisland Farm, Burns’ first home in the region, a few miles outside Dumfries, where curator Les Byers, impressive custodian of the poet’s lore and legend gave us more inside track. Dumfries, he advised, was in those days a prosperous, bustling town, more important even than Glasgow as the hub of the lucrative trade in tobacco, a commodity imported through the nearby port of Carsethorn wherefrom, in 1851 alone, more than 21,000 people emigrated to Canada, The States, Australia and New Zealand.

Rockliffe 1

After taking leave of Les, we headed for the sea ourselves, seizing the opportunity of a break in the wet weather to walk on the beach at Rockcliffe and ramble up and over to Kippford via the Jubilee Path, something I’d done many times before.

Spiegel 1

Later we attended Le Haggis, an event that fully justified its billing as as “the sexiest show in the festival”, a ninety minute extravaganza involving music, song, cabaret and an amazing display of dexterity, fitness and physique by a pair of burlesque acrobats. In the interim, the band, fronted by a fabulous girl singer (who sings, as I was informed, in the local community choir) brought real meaning to ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’, a song more frequently maladroitly performed either as a turgid dirge or as a jolly knees-up. Another performance that nearly had the tent crashing down on us was a vibrant rendition, by a lassie garbed in a leather basque and ‘sussies’ of Kirsty MacColl’s ‘In These Shoes’.

We attended the lantern procession, a truly amazing sight. More than 30 local groups and organisations took part in the parade, accompanied by several floats and huge puppets. Kudos to the Manchester (another town dear to my heart) Samba School whose rhythmic momentum, aided by a brace of pipe bands, drove the whole thing along. Afterwards, we ducked the late night Roller Disco “I’m not comfortable without my own skates, hehe.” “Yeah, right”, says my wife.

Dick Gaughan 1

Highlight of the next day was, for me, the live performance in the Spiegeltent, of Dick Gaughan, a master interpreter of both traditional and contemporary songs and a guitar genius, whom I first met when I was co-hosting a folk club in England back when Burns was a lad (well, not quite). A dish of the obligatory haggis and its customary trappings fortified us for pints, first in The Ship, my own ‘local’ back in the days when my acquaintanceship with Dumfries was more regular than it is today. The pints there are as honest as ever and the denizens still play dominoes, altogether another proper pub holding back the tide of muzak and expensive swill. Later, in the packed-to-the-rafters Globe we dissected the event with other festival attendees and learned of myriad delights we’d missed. At the end of the evening a girl we met in the street offered to walk us to the taxi rank to ensure we did not get lost, where else on earth would you get that sort of courtesy these days? Truly, Doonhamers (the inhabitants of Dumfries – I’ll explain another time) are salt of the earth.

The festival’s organisers deserve huge credit for The Big Burns Supper. I feel sure it’s an event that will, year on year, grow in stature, appealing not only to the Burns anorak, the patriot and the emigré, but to the wider body of people out there, of every race and creed, who enjoy song, dance, theatre, literature, merrymaking, the craic and just having a great time. Me, I intend coming back – for a’ that.

haggis

INFORMATION

Homecoming Scotland 2014  In 2014, Scotland will welcome the world as we take to the global stage and celebrate our nation through a year-long series of exciting events. Complementing the Ryder Cup and Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, Homecoming Scotland will be a celebration of the country’s rich culture, natural beauty, active adventures and creative heritage. For more information go to: www.visitscotland.com 

Accommodation  I stayed at Aston Hotel, Dumfries www.astonhotels.co.uk/dumfries

Activities  

Big Burns Supper http://2014.bigburnssupper.com/

Ellisland Farm, Dumfries www.ellislandfarm.co.uk

Dumfries Museum & Camera Obscura The Observatory, Rotchell Road Dumfries DG2 7SW www.dumfriesmuseum.com

Unknown

Recipes for Burns Night

Complete Works of Robert Burns  www.robertburns.org/works/ 

Restaurant Review: RASAM

Unknown

One of the most curious culinary literary happenings of the past year has been the publication (as an e-book) of a collection of recipes under the title of Indian Restaurant (BIR) Style Meals. BIR stands for ‘British Indian Restaurant’. Originally Dan Toombs, the author, had intended to focus on ‘authentic’ Indian recipes but changed tack shortly after starting a blog, The Curry Guy, when he became inundated with demands for help with creating chicken korma, rogan josh, etc., tasting just like the ones from the local Indian restaurant or takeaway. The book’s methodology commences with the creation of a large batch of curry sauce as a base for the various dishes and indeed this is the method favoured by the majority of such restaurants.

In Ireland, as in Britain, the term ‘curry’ has come to mean any dish from the sub-continent. Most etymologists agree that the word stems from the Tamil, ‘kari’, meaning ‘a spicy sauce’ or from ‘karai’, the traditional cooking dish. However, ‘curry’, spelt ‘cury’, simply meaning ‘cookery’ was common parlance in Britain in medieval times. After the Crusades, spices such as aniseed, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, coriander, cumin and cardamom became common in the kitchens of the better off.

London’s first Indian restaurant has strong Irish connections. A colourful character, Dean Mahomet blew into Cork in 1784 at the behest of his patron Godfrey Evan Baker, a prominent member of the Protestant ascendancy whom he had worked for in India. Mahomet became a person of substance as well as a scholar. In 17?? he eloped with and married a teenage student, Jane Daly. Around 1807, Dean Mahomet moved his family to London.

Two years later he founded The Hindostanee Coffee House, near Portman Square, W1. Today a Green Plaque marks the spot. Like many other nominal coffeehouses of the day coffee did not feature. Instead, Dean Mahomet created a restaurant, but one with a difference. Uniquely for London, the Hindostanee Coffee House provided what he and Jane intended their European patrons to recognise as exotic Indian cuisine and ambience, offering a range of meat and vegetable dishes with Indian spices. In addition, he constructed bamboo sofas and chairs on which diners would recline and adorned the walls with scenes of Indian life. Despite an initial enthusiastic reception the restaurant failed and in 1812 Dean Mahomet had to petition for bankruptcy.
Ireland’s first Indian restaurant, The India Restaurant and Tea Rooms, opened in O’Connell, then Sackville, Street near The Gresham, offering  ‘real Indian curries’ served by ‘native waiters in costume’. Sadly, it only lasted a few months. It was a good many years before Indian cuisine would re-establish itself, based  on the concept of flock wallpaper, late night opening and a signature dish, chicken tikka masala, invented in Birmingham. Most of the Indian dining on offer in the capital was of this ilk when I came to live in Dublin in 1987. From the 1990s onwards certain restaurants started to offer a dining experience contrasting starkly with the hitherto mediocrity. The ‘movement’, if it can be called such, based its appeal on authenticity, involving a concentration on freshness and flavour rather than slavish recreation of  commonplace dishes. Some looked back, exploring regional cooking; others explored a wider horizon, marrying the tradition to modern techniques  to create an Indian haute cuisine. Among these seekers of excellence I would instance Asheesh Dewan’s Jaipur group, plus Kinara, Clontarf and Rasam where I dined last Saturday.
Located above the Eagle House pub in Sandycove, Rasam’s dining room is opulent, cosseting, exuding warmth and style. There is not a flocked wall in sight and the artefacts bear no relationship with kitsch. Proprietor Niseeth Tak is an absolute gentleman and a natural meeter, greeter and organiser. Sibella and I were there with two friends from England, Viv and Bread Man, omnivores both. Seated, we all climbed into crisp popadoms and a range of accompanying chutneys. More were proffered and accepted. There were no less than nine ‘appetisers’ on the menu, the choosing of which was taking rather a time. Accordingly I did a pre-emptive strike and summoned two ‘Rasam platters’ to share, each of which contained a selection of five regional dishes. Every one had its admirer. Sibs favoured the singular palak patta – crispy baby spinach leaves with a honey and yoghurt dressing. Bread Man plumped for the semolina crusted squid, served with home-made tomato chutney; Viv, the chicken tikka (not ‘masala’) which she loved. Eclipsing all these, in my opinion, was the pork chatpata, described as ‘street food’, julienned strips of pork fillet, marinated with mango powder, red chilli and vinegar then ‘toss fried’ with bell peppers and onions, a vibrant combination. A larger portion would have served me nicely as a main course.
I had eaten the lal mas, another dish from Rasthejan, involving boneless, slow-cooked leg of lamb in a dark, rich sauce, on several previous occasions, so I left it to Viv. Both she and Sibella, who traded some for her chicken dish, raved about the rampant flavours. Bread Man and I chose Rasam’s current signature dish, the Lucknow dum pukht gosht, a bowl of soft and succulent lamb smothered in a lavish creamy sauce, with restrained but distinctive spicing – here is the key to this metier of cooking. The bowl was sealed with an edible, chapati-like ‘lid’. As a side, we took a portion of chick peas in a chilli-spiked sauce, a reminder, amid our meat-fest, that much of the essence of Indian cooking lies in doing imaginative things with vegetables.
In truth, we did not need dessert and Sibs said so. Still, I insisted on kulfi, that rich-but-granular Indian ice cream and was rewarded with a large plateful of which everyone partook. Pairing wine with Indian food is challenging. The task was facilitated by the girls not drinking red and Viv expressing a distaste for chardonnay, ah well, she’s young enough to see the light. The carte holds several interesting options, including a Sicilian grillo that had both the viscosity and the acidity to cope at a reasonable €26. All-in-all the four of us spent, €146.50 for food, service and atmosphere that would stand up and be counted in any genre of restaurant.
Rasam 18/19 Glasthule Road, Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin Tel: 01 230 0600
Food ****
Wine ***1/2
Service ****1/2
Ambience ****1/2
Value ****
Overall ****

 

RESTAURANT REVIEW – The Vintage Kitchen

7853_vintage

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

 

Food ****

Wine n/a (BYOB)

 Service ****½

 Ambience ****

 Value *****

 Overall ****

 

 

 

 

 

RESTAURANT REVIEW – Vie de Chateaux

Vie de Chateaux

It was my birthday and I was lost in wildest Naas, looking in vain for a restaurant I’d hardly heard of. I only came across it earlier that day trawling the web. The rain was bucketing down. I sat at the wheel, morosely pondering whether our expedition, given the conditions, was serendipitous or just plain stupid. Meanwhile, Sibella was out on the forecourt, under her brolly, talking to a pleasant-looking lady in a Range Rover. The latter came to the driver’s window, which I was loath to wind down but did. “Follow me,” she said, adding as an afterthought, “It’s the best restaurant in Naas.”

 Now some may think that but faint praise. Kildare’s county town hardly ranks among the world’s culinary must-do destinations, does it? Lyons, San Sebastian, Sydney, Naas, Copenhagen, spot the odd one out. I would be lying if I said I held out any high hopes for a birthday lunch at Vie de Châteaux. Vie de Châteaux? Shouldn’t it be ‘Vie de Château’ or  ‘Vie des Châteaux’? The grammatical blip would have raised the hackles of my old  pedant of a French teacher, the man who, on hearing “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” didn’t recognise the source of the quotation, instead exclaiming “What a perfect use of the jussive subjunctive!”

 Anyhow, be that as it may, a couple of right turns later we pulled up outside what appeared, through the aqueous curtain, to be a rather stylish restaurant in a pleasantly pastoral location just a short stroll from the Grand Canal. The only picture of the interior I could find on the web really didn’t do the place justice, something I pointed out to the proprietor after we’d eaten. Pastel walls, backdrop to some respectable art, comfortable seating in an unaggressive shade of brown and grey and plenty of light combined to set us at our ease.

Vie de Châteaux, as you’d expect from the name, is a French restaurant. Owned, run, managed, cheffed and staffed by les français -Frank Amand, formerly manager of the excellent La Mère Zou in Dublin is the owner; David Thomas, the manager, is from Brittany – “between Nantes and Châteaubriant” – and Sebastien, the chef, hails form Paris. 

 If you exclude those establishments under the patronage of famous named chefs, French restaurants re-created in alien countries largely divide into two types. There are those who simulate trucker’s dinner stops; the sort that flank France’s major trunk roads, source of so many disappointments for tourists. Tough  thin-cut steak with frites, or maman’s unspeakable chicken casserole are the eternal dishes du jour in such places. The other kind is the restaurant staffed by sneering, dicky-bowed waiters porting menus the size of family bibles, where the chef has a Brobdingnagian hand with cream. “Dining French” is all too frequently one’s worst gastro-dream brought to life.

Vie de Châteaux bucks the trend. The lunch menu comprised everything from tartines, in effect open sandwiches, to a full a la carte. The tartine of grilled scallops and wild mushrooms struck us as enticing and excellent value for €9. Another €2 got you the bargain deal of the tartine of your choice plus soupe du jour. We were tempted but not swayed as Birthday Boy had set his heart on a pig-out.

 

Vie de Châteaux wooed us early with a bowl of astonishingly good bread. I summoned up more of it to mop up my starter. Now I am partial to mussels, they would rank high on my list of favourite edibles. At the same time I get a tad weary of the treatment dished out to these magnificent molluscs in restaurants. “Cook them in wine. Pile them high (in a distressed enamel pan). Flood with the cooking liquid and (often) a swirl of cream” seems, throughout Ireland, to be the bog standard chef’s instruction to his commis. A great dish, but all too commonplace. Here I was jolted out of my ennui. An unusual vessel arrived at table, a cast iron, stylised bas-relief of a bunch of grapes in which every hollow was flooded with a tomato, garlic and olive oil ‘fondue‘ into which tiny, delicate, shelled mussels had been dropped, before baking. It impressed as much for its simplicity and purity of thought as for its rampant flavour. Sibella, in contrast, went for the most complex-sounding dish on the menu, the summer salad with smoked duck magret, green asparagus, soft egg, melon, pine nuts and a balsamic dressing. This too was a triumph despite the profusion of ingredients.

 

Chateaubriand, according to my First English Edition of The Larousse Gastronomique, was created by the chef Montmireil for his employer, author and diplomat Vicomte François-René de Châteaubriant. The dish was on Vie de Châteaux’s specials board. I had to have it, figuring that a man hailing from near the the Loire Atlantique town of Chateaubriant, in the Vicomte’s fief, would know a good one. David confirmed this and kept his promise. What arrived was a hunk of tasty tenderloin, cooked precisely rare and accompanied by crisp frites. The béarnaise, shame, was not available but the proffered green pepper sauce, piquant and lively, proved a good substitute. I was feeling smug until I glanced across the table and saw Sib’s glistening halibut. Immediately I wanted that too and had to be restrained (by Sibs) from ordering a fish course. Shameful greed but Birthday Boy didn’t care.

 The revels continued through dessert. When juxtaposed Sibella’s raspberry vacherin with spiky swirls of red coulis on a silver-hued plate and my own eccentric-shaped glass coupe of strawberries with coconut ice-cream speared with a vertiginous shard of praline looked like culinary sci-fi creations.

 Mention  must be made of the wine list, an eclectic selection of mainly French wines, with a good deal of thinking outside the box by someone who knows his stuff and possesses a well-honed palate. Many of the wines are available as ‘drivers’ glasses’, large glasses, 50cl carafes and bottles. There were two very credible house wines, a Cote de Duras sauvignon and a  Minervois. As Sibs was driving the reds had it for a change and I enjoyed the lion’s share of a very civilised Crozes Hermitage. Following which, there was a small hiccup over the meaning of ‘double shot espresso macchiato’, soon sorted by the efficient and delightful girl in charge of our table.

Verdict: an astonishingly good restaurant I can only describe as ‘French without tears’. The lady in the Rangey had called it correctly and, if she’s reading this, heartfelt thanks. I had a great birthday lunch at Vie de Châteaux, do get there.

 Vie de Châteaux, The Harbour, Naas , Co Kildare. Tel: 045 888 478

 

Food ****

Wine ****

Service ****½

Ambience ****

Value **** 

Overall ****

RESTAURANT REVIEW – Cleaver East by Oliver Dunne

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.”

 

images-1

 

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

 Food: ****

Wine ***

Service ****

Ambience ***

Value ****

Overall ****

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)

RESTAURANT REVIEW – The Tannery, Dungarvan

tannery ext
Until the other weekend I hadn’t been in Dungarvan for twenty years and only then for a lunch stop at a pub I somehow remembered was called Merry’s. Today the town hosts the West Waterford Food Festival, as I was soon to find out, a 72-hour bacchanal revered by food fanatics, especially those  possessing a cast iron constitution.
I had spent the previous evening assembling a portfolio of local knowledge. Dungarvan’s most famous citizen is the late Ernest Walton, the physicist who worked successfully with John Cockcroft on a project called (erroneously) ‘splitting the atom’. Oddly enough, Cockroft was born and educated in Todmorden, the West Yorkshire hill town where my elder daughter resides. Poet laureate Sir John Betjeman wrote a poem,‘The Irish Unionists’s Farewell to Greta Hellstrom’ in which every other stanza concludes with the phrase ‘Dungarvan in the rain’. It’s a very bad poem. Seemingly inaccurate, too, for when I arrived in late afternoon the sun was splitting the stones. 
Dungarvan is a pleasant place. Spruce and chirpy, with a palpable civic pride. It passed all my tests for provincial towns, chief of which are “Does the optician’s window exhibit a pair of glasses I’d actually wear?”  and “Are there at least two pubs where the staff don’t do Trappist monk impressions and where physical assault  by some nutjob is not a given?” The barman at The Moorings patiently outlined the full range of Dungarvan Brewing Co’s beers then gave me a heads-up on the one they’d got ‘on special’ for the weekend, Helvick Gold. My friend and dining companion Blanche Fleur duly arrived, whereupon the talk immediately turned to food, or to be more precise, chefs. Blanche Fleur, who has eaten the food of some of  of the world’s most revered, began by eulogising Paul Flynn, at whose restaurant, The Tannery, we were to dine that night. This would be my first visit though I’d enjoyed Paul’s cooking during his brief stint at La Stampa in Dublin and at a couple of Cookbook Club events. I’ve also cooked recipes from his enjoyable cookbook/autobiography ‘An Irish Adventure with Food’ which we made ‘Cookbook of the Year’ when I was editing Food & Wine. 
At the restaurant, we were welcomed by Maíre, Paul’s wife, who is to aspects of décor and organisation what Paul is to the food. I was unprepared for the clean-limbed minimalistic elegance of the Tannery’s dining space, with its high vaulted ceiling. Pale colours, pristine white table linen and subtle lighting which charmed while putting no distractions between diner and food, very heaven for a plate-focussed person like me.
Blanche Fleur commandeered the squid and mussel soup almost before I’d read the opening line of the menu. I riposted with the raviolo of osso bucco which came with bacon, Little Gem lettuce and what used to be called ‘garden’ peas – maybe they were because The Tannery has a large vegetable garden off an adjacent street complete with a polytunnel capacious enough to hold a small festival. The raviolo was a thing of wonder, the veal moist and succulent, the pasta surrounding it, ethereal. As I knew would be the case it didn’t really matter who’d chosen what as forks and spoons clashing would be the music of the meal as we robbed each other’s plates and bowls. In my picaresque around Ireland’s restaurants I frequently encounter a dish superficially akin to the squid and mussel soup in which the broths fall into three categories : (1) some kind of quasi-Thai treatment  (2) curry soup – generally the least successful, with throat-clutching raw spices (3) a liberal quantity of cheap wine, sometimes laced with an oil-slick of cream. Paul Flynn’s version was simple and honest, just a well-fettled broth, enhanced with spring vegetables and the head-spinning kiss of wild garlic. “For the table” – Blanche’s phrase – we took the Helvic crab crème brûlée, pickled cucumber and melba toast, Paul’s ‘signature dish’, though from the many occasions I’ve seen it (unacknowledged) on restaurant menus, you’d imagine it a celtic classic since Brian Boru was a lad. The ‘trick’ is to use only the best crab meat and get the proportion of crab-to-crème correct, others please copy – and credit.  
In training for the anticipated meat orgy of the following night (we had booked again to eat Paul’s interpretation of ‘nose to tail’ chef Fergus Henderson’s repertoire) I ordered the beef short ribs. These redefined ‘melt in the mouth’, melting somewhere between lips and palate but I’m still not quite sure where. I also relished  the salsify chips, the wild sorrel and the delicate lobster cream that further heightened the overall succulence. Blanche had the quail and foie gras pie, another clever Flynn original, very much in the French mode but given an Irish country twist by the inclusion of a sharply piquant apple jelly. Paul has spoken recently about simplifying his cooking; maybe a red herring because the craft skills and inspiration are still there in bucket loads.
My passion fruit soufflé and sorbet with ginger custard was subject to a compulsory fifteen minute delay but was well worth the wait. The more so because it gave me time to dig into Blanche’s artisan cheese plate, one of the best around. My companion declined coffee. I took two espressos to ensure I kept awake for the subsequent late night postmortem in Downey’s pub.
We initially partnered dinner with a Givry which, though good wine, wilted in facing the onslaught of rich flavours. A switch to a lovely Morellino di Scansano  Poggio Argentiera Gianpaolo 2011, brought more pleasure. Omitting the false start on the wine, all we’d had worked out at a touch under €150. Amid this excess of gourmet piggery I should state that there are cheaper options, starting with a 3-course €30 dinner with some inviting items on the carte.
The Tannery is a superb restaurant, operating on the night with Swiss watch precision for a full house. Plaudits to the young, mainly local, waiting staff. Paul Flynn is, in my opinion, one of the handful of Irish chefs who would be celebrated were he working in any city in the world. He proved his worth in London at a young age and we are indeed fortunate that he chose to leave Nico Ladenis’ empire and return to Ireland. Dungarvan got lucky too, with Paul and Maíre establishing an outstanding destination restaurant in his home town. I’m sure the existence of the Tannery is a major factor in the civic pride I spoke of in an earlier paragraph. Move over Ernie Walton.
 
The Tannery Restaurant, Town House and Cookery School, 10 Quay Street, Dungarvan, Co Waterford Tel: 058 45420
 
Food *****
 
Wine ****
 
Service ****
 
Ambience ****½
 
OVERALL ****1/2

 

RESTAURANT REVIEW – The Hungry Monk

1a52933a-dbb9-4f2b-bd5f-54c401ee74c4

Flashback to twenty five years ago. I’m sat in a pub in Rathdrum, County Wicklow with cartoonist the late Terry Willers with whom I’m collaborating on a writing project when in walks a guy I know from the wine business. He is accompanied by his wife and daughter, the latter porting a long cardboard tube. From his briefcase the man takes a ring binder filled with notes, observations and naive sketches. He takes the tube from the daughter and extracts a set of plans, which he spreads out on the pub table. 

 

Pat Keown, the incomer, now proceeds to unravel his dream, his vision for a new restaurant. It is a strange concept, involving medieval monks and a good deal of religious imagery from churchy oak furniture to gregorian chant piped to the toilets, sorry, ‘convent’ and ‘cloisters’. Wife and daughter do not seem entirely convinced the project is a goer, judging by the sly way they look at each other before simultaneously raising their eyes to heaven as your man speaks. Terry is initially diffident until his cartoonist’s imagination takes over, whereupon he waxes enthusiastic and commences to visualise glasses place mats, menus and framed cartoons to reinforce the theme. A deal is struck.Later, Bill, the colleague who has driven me down, and I laugh all the way back to Dublin. “I’ll give it six months” he ventured.

 

Well, Bill old son, no second career as a prophet for you. Last week I dined in that very restaurant. Pat Keown’s off-the-wall vision is still extant, full of monky business. Pat  himself is still around. His son Julian runs the bistro that the original restaurant has spawned. Here we dined and observed it full-to-bursting. The restaurant’s masthead, ‘The Hungry Monk’, set in a mock medieval typeface that would seem ludicrous and vulgar in any other context, has been a fixture in Church Road, Greystones these past twenty-five years.

 

We had not bothered to book, not thinking it necessary of a Monday and were gobsmacked to find the dining room near-full. However, the pleasant waitress found us a table without any delay. We leaned back into our upholstered, somewhat less than penitential monks’ benches. I suggested to my companions that saying grace might be seemly.

 

A peek at the menu told us that the food offering, too, falls short of being penitential. We could see from the plates going to adjacent tables that portions were ‘humonkous’ (might as well get in on the act). The grub is unashamedly retro-mainstream, reading like a history of home cooking between 1960 and 1990, with a few nods to modernity here and there. There’s a fair bit of ‘monk-style’ this-and-that, as in the chips, the spicy chicken wings, etc. Clonakilty black pudding features, a yesteryear Irish success d’estime, considered abroad an epicurean treat. Did nobody tell them that this pud is largely passé, that 2013‘s chef favours a softer, oozier style of black pudding? Would they care?

 

My starter, the lamb’s kidneys Dijonaise, was a throwback to the days of Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson. I don’t know how many Wicklow lambs had donated their organs to this hunger-salving dish which comprised a substantial plateful of properly pinked tender slices, smothered in a rich fudge of cream, brandy, Dijon mustard and more cream. “Aren’t you afraid for your arteries?,” enquired Fenella, a local who had led us there in the first place. “Yes, but what the hell, I’m back on the rabbit food and green tea tomorrow.”  Sibella and Fenella were sharing the nearest The Hungry Monk gets to a ‘healthy option’, the goat cheese salad and the tautological ‘deep-fried Dublin Bay prawn scampi’. “Go easy on the homemade tartar sauce, dears,” I advised, mockingly.

 

The menu lists suppliers, denotes vegetarian dishes with a ‘V’. There is also a ‘C’ but I am unsure what this is for – mayhap the dreaded traces of nuts? The wine list, as one might expect, benefits from proprietorial input. The bistro offers ‘A selection of beauties from our list upstairs’, around 35 bottles, plus another 20 or so listed ‘house wines’ and a few half bottles. I know, from my omnipresence as a food and wine award judge, that the full Hungry Monk carte makes many a short list for ‘Wine Experience of the Year’. I was surprised, though, that vintages were not detailed. The thought of, say, an oaked white Rioja more than a couple of years old fills me with dread. I had the gut feeling that mark-ups were slightly high, but not enough to get antsy about. With two of us destined to drive we took it easy, ordering a bottle of the ever so reliable Joseph Drouhin St.Veran, priced, at €30.

 

While Fenella was negotiating for a seafood risotto containing zero molluscs, Sibs and I bickered over which one of us was to eat the retro classic duck with orange sauce. Oh, joy, no mere quintet of fey fanned-out slices of breast here, imagine a  big bold chunk, half a duck, honey-roasted until the skin gets crispy-crunchy then laid  on a bed of good scallion mash, surely a feast fit for Friar Tuck. In the event, we both ordered it and were pleased to find that the sauce, unlike the cornflour-driven swamp of memory, was light, sweet and piquant, the orange’s appeal augmented by sensitive use of Cointreau and star anise. If I am to be picky Sibella’s was perfectly cooked, mine a tad overdone, to the extent where the leg meat had become slightly stringy. Again, a minor gripe, for roasting till crisp is, by its nature, an imprecise process. Fenella’s risotto, of which I scammed a spoonful, was excellent.

 

The Hungry Monk, I saw from the menu, has a dedicated pastry chef, one David Gonzalez. Sibella and I benefited from this by way of an enchanting mille feuille, while Fenella’s request for a small cheese plate was readily accommodated. Interestingly, it contained three cheeses which different from those listed on the standard platter. I finished with an unremarkable) espresso. All we ate and drank came to €134, including a 10% service charge which I only noticed in hindsight. All three of us gave the Bistro a thumbs-up. Behind the playful gimmickry there’s a serious intent. I’m already planning to go back for a venial glutton-fest on the dry aged beef and pale ale pie.

 

The Hungry Monk Bistro, Church Road, Greystones, Co Wicklow Tel: 287 5759

 

Food ***1/2

 

Wine ****

 

Service ***1/2

 

Ambience ****

 

Value ***½

 

Overall ***1/2

RESTAURANT REVIEW – Bison Bar

images

This review comes with a health warning. Enquiring after the vegetarian option at The Bison Bar on Dublin’s Wellington Quay is likely to gain you nothing but a punch in the face. Or so I imagined, as I perused the bill of fare. The place (you couldn’t called it a restaurant though the food on offer is more substantial than many) is a temple to the consumption of dead animals in stalwart quantities. If you or your loved one are of the carrot-crunching tendency you will find Cornucopia on Exchequer Street considerably more congenial.

The Bison sets out its stall early. A huge stuffed head of one of these American icons makes eye contact the second you walk through the door. Waiting for The Food Nymph, I found myself frequently turning round to stare at the beast, riveting as Juliet Binoche at a mud wrestler’s convention. The other wall-hung trophies, springbok, kudu, I wot not, hardly got a glance. To say The Bison’s menu is limited would be an olympian understatement. There are no starters. And but two desserts.

 Meat, as I’ve said, is king, cooked on a ‘Texas barbecue’ whatever that is, secreted, I presumed, in a kitchen resembling that of Hades on party night. Pulled pork, smoked brisket, chicken, sausage and ‘St.Louis-style’ ribs are your options. Shamelessly, I pulled rank on The Nymph, selecting the pulled pork and the ribs and leaving her to perm two from the remaining three. She chose the brisket and , after deliberation, the chicken. You had to order and pay for the food at the bar. In exchange you were handed what I’d describe as a small sceptre bearing a number card. You placed it on your table where it served to identify you to the waitress who brought in your food, a sensible,fairly foolproof way of ensuring you got what you’d ordered if the place got busy. For each plate we were charged €16.95, a price that  included a choice of two sides, from chips, potato salad, coleslaw, beans and onion rings. We ducked the coleslaw, regretfully, in my case because I had enjoyed it – freshly made, with beautifully crisp cabbage – on a solo visit the week before.

The tables are small. We pushed two together when the waitress was otherwise occupied. Plastic squeezy bottles of barbecue sauce and mustard were prominent. These tasted best when mixed together, we decided. Sensibly, each table was allotted a roll of kitchen towel. Main course portions, brought on metal trays, were generous in the extreme and the food was, by and large, well-fettled. Our criticisms were minimal. The Nymph thought the beans, while good and tangy, were a tad sweet. I liked them. The chips, though crisp, were not hot enough. For me, the tender ribs were the pick; I could have ordered more but commonsense prevailed.The pulled pork was delicious; most and succulent. We were both impressed by the brisket, the delicate smoking teasing the flavour out of this plebeian, decidedly unfashionable, cut of beef. Normally I don’t eat chicken unless I’ve been personally acquainted with its parents but the Bison’s bird, provenance unknown, had great texture and flavour. Did I mention a few weeks ago that I was on a mission to find Dublin’s best onion rings? Here they were – a thin, dry batter over a thick-cut, hence firm and crunchy, slice of onion, deep-fried golden brown. The potato salad, made from admirably waxy potatoes, also pleased. A black mark, though for the bendy plastic cutlery. Next time I’ll bring my own.

We spotted another food writer and went over to say hello and scam a slice of sausage,also of merchantable quality.  Any reservations the Nymph and I had were confined to the drinks list. I kicked off with an interesting beer – Róisin, a hoppy pale ale from Alloa, historically, one of the significant towns in Scotland’s brewing heritage, additionally flavoured with tayberries, bringing a slight fruity tang and a distinctive dark pink glint. But there was only one other craft beer, Kelpie, from the same source  as Róisin and somewhat off-puttingly labelled ‘Seaweed Ale’. Kelpie is a rich brown ale, made with dark roasted malts  and given its distinctive flavour by infusing bladder wrack in the mash tun. The Nymph wanted wine, of which there was a choice of two, red or white. The red was throat-clutchingly dire. The Bison makes a big deal out of its affinity with whisky/whiskey, with over 100 varieties listed. Sated after the meat mountain, I decided to have a Scotch single malt  as a palate livener. The first three I specified, all fairly mainstream, were, surprisingly, not on the list. I settled for Laphroaig which always reminds me of TCP crossed with liquefied kippers but which, in a perverse fashion, I enjoy.

By now The Nymph had climbed out of the window to indulge one of her noxious cravings. This is not as hazardous as it sounds; the sill is under two feet high and diners were climbing in and out all night. The yard beyond had tables at which folk could both smoke and eat, flanked by an impressive fresco featuring a charging bison. The muzak, fairly commercial country claptrap, was somehow more in your face outside than in.

We had no room for dessert. This mattered not as, the previous week, I had  seized the opportunity to taste both the peach cobbler and the chocolate brownie. The former is one of those ‘just like granny made’ treats; the latter, a tad tawdry, ought to be replaced by something less boring and better flavoured. I would actually have loved to have seen a starter on the menu. Something retro and robust, perhaps a huge prawn cocktail or a plate of home-soused roll mop herring.

The Bison Bar amply fills another hole in the Dublin dining experience. It serves real food, tasty food, filling and satisfying food. So far as I know there isn’t another Texas barbecue around. Furthermore there are enough quirks to give The Bison Bar potential as a watering hole for the Dortspeakers – though the somewhat unnerving stroll down Wellington Quay might inhibit – whilst, at the same time, being  homely enough for the Howayas, especially the ones who like to cut loose with the occasional whisky sour. As well as being a great value pig-out (we had an epic night out for €72, of which half was for food) the Bison Bar is truly a pub for Dubs. All of us. We should keep it to ourselves. Sod The Gathering, let’s not tell the Tourists.

The Bison Bar, 11 Wellington Quay, Dublin 2 Tel: 86 0563144

Food: ***½

Drink ***½

Service ***1/2

Ambience *****

Value ****½

Overall ****

 

RESTAURANT REVIEW – The Blackboard Bistro

img_0181
This picture was taken after a revamp shortly after the review was published in The Sunday Times (IRL). Comments about the décor can be discounted as it’s now much nicer.

 

 The poet T.S.Eliot wrote “I can smell fear in a handful of dust”. I know what he meant. Spending three years of my life scratching a living as a restaurateur has given me a nose like a mass spectrometer when it comes to anxiety. It doesn’t take perusal of a balance sheet to tell me when the proprietor and staff of a restaurant are running scared. I can smell fear in a plateful of Puy lentils or in the time it takes to say  “Good evening, sir and madam”.

 There is a lot of hot air inflating the hospitality balloon at the minute. People who should know better are talking up the number of new restaurant openings as a sign that the dining economy is healthy as taking exercise. What these same people are forgetting is that approximately the same number of restaurants have closed as have opened. It is also apparent that these same new developments are, by and large, springing up only in certain geographical locations and particular dining formats. There’s no doubt that, at the minute, central Dublin is flying. Whereas down the country and in the suburbs the spending of those who like to dine out has been drastically curtailed and restaurants have suffered accordingly. I’d cite Cork city, for so long a source of pride among gastronomes, it now struggles to sustain a nap hand of restaurants worthy of patronisation.

When it comes to a successful format, all the evidence is that novelty and sociability win hands down over the the food offering. This has been brought about by the shift in spending power. Dining out is now a social event, to be accompanied by cocktails, strident music and unremitting jollity. Well set up forty-somethings and expense account funded business dining is no longer where it’s at. It’s the twenty and thirty-somethings, unencumbered by mortgages and school feels and many of them living at home who have the discretionary income and who have lustily embraced the zeitgeist. The likes of Bear, 777 and Damson Diner have caught the vibe perfectly. As has Fade Street Social, though it will take both imagination and energy to keep a venue of that size at the hub of the Dubliner’s craving for novelty.

But what of the other side of the coin? Those restaurants, often family run and intimate, that have not embraced the trendy and ephemeral? Well, they are finding things hard. Twice in the last month Sibella and I dined out in establishments of this ilk where the sense of gloom is palpable the minute you enter the premises. This usually transmutes into an excessive sociability on the part of front of house staff as the evening proceeds. Waiters come to your table frequently to enquire whether you are having a good time. And to learn things about you. It’s as if knowing the names of your children will secure regular patronage.

 Both these restaurants were located in basements and it’s a dining out cliché that’s become a truism that we (the dining public) do not like basements. This is, frankly, stupid and we really ought to become a bit more grown up. In London, in Paris, in Stockholm, in L.A. many significant restaurants are located in basements, many are flying.

 

At The Blackboard Bistro, opposite the National Galley extension in Clare Street and a few minutes walk from Pearse station, the food was as good as any restaurant I’ve eaten at in the last six months. Simple, classical French cooking from a capable and caring chef-patron, Pierre Heyraud. At €32 for three courses the set menu, offering restricted but interesting choices, represented extremely good value for money. My duck oozed flavour and Sibs’ hake glistened, the spiced up roast red pepper and coconut milk coulis, an intriguing accompaniment. The pommes sarladaise, which I took as alternative to the baby new potatoes were excellent and I reprised them at home the very next night. My panna cotta was suitably quivery. The compact wine list (entirely French and why not?) has been put together by someone who understands and cares about wine. The wines on the list come from three or four specialists whom, as a wine critic, I’d regard as experts in their field. Here again, value is exemplary, many of the bottles are listed at slightly less than twice retail – amazing value when you consider 2.5 or 3 times is the norm. Proper, fine wineglasses are provided. The service, from a young guy trained under the sharp eyes of Aidan and Joan McManus at Howth’s King Sitric was, while manifesting aspects of the nervousness mentioned earlier, knowledgeable and efficient. To anyone serious about their food and wine I’d recommend the place unreservedly. No, on second thoughts I wouldn’t -  I’d can the cheesy muzak for something more nostalgic or more thought-provoking.

Sibella’s reservations largely concerned décor. Plum, apparently, is passé; what’s more it’s sombre, whereas paler hued walls would help alleviate that “I’ve just crossed the river Styx” mood brought on by subterranean dining. The ‘Christmas party in a bordello’ light shades will have to go (even I could see that). What would really make the place, she opined, would be crisp tablecloths. I gave her my lecture on the economics of linen laundering but she stuck to her guns. Her parting shot was “It wouldn’t take much investment to make the ambience warmer and more intimate. But it does need an outsider’s view.”

It doesn’t end there. I wondered, albeit fleetingly, if greater use could be made of the long bar counter, maybe there’s potential for the sale of a Sex in the Basement or a South Side Swingaling with a taster plate? Restaurants, however worthy, however sound, still need to promote and occasionally reinvent themselves. Here, in case anyone should get the impression that I’m recommending Blackboard Bistro turns itself into a jolly Parisian pastiche like Chez Max, I’m not. Restaurants are always better when they have their own personality rather than borrow someone else’s. It is, however, worth them keeping a sharp eye on what’s out there in case there’s a trick they’ve missed.

Maybe, hopefully soon, small, intimate, family-owned and run places will come into their own again.Trends are trends and are not cast in concrete. The current lemming-like rush toward the trendy and ephemeral could become as outré as the carvery. 

 The Blackboard Bistro, 4 Clare Street Dublin 2 Tel: 01 676 6839

Food ****

Wine ****

Service ***½

Ambience **½

Value ****1/2

Overall ****

RESTAURANT REVIEW – Asador

 

images

Last week occasioned a reunion with a long-term buddy, Noel’s Nephew. In the way-back-when, we both fancied ourselves singer-songwriters, barking our wares in the public bar of a noisy Dublin 2 boozer of a Tuesday night to a largely indifferent clientele who regarded our presence as an intrusion on their TV sport-gazing. We were an ill-assorted pair. Me with my coruscating witty lyrics, hailed by chants of “Ooh, aah, Billy Bragg’s da!” from the plebs in the audience; NN with his exemplary guitar technique, mellow melodies and James Tayloresque looks. How I hated him. Still, time heals all things as the song (not mine, Frank Loesser’s) says and I was looking forward to catching up. Meeting up for a pint, I was glad to discover the guy fancied a meat fest and “somewhere not too noisy where we can talk”. I had dined in Asador just before Christmas, as the guest of another critic and figured it would fit the specification.

Asador is located in Haddington Road, Ballsbridge in a location that used to house a mediocre Asian fusion restaurant whose name escapes me. The room is l-shaped with a short leg and a long one. Against the outside wall on the long leg are ranged attractive curved-ended modern banquettes; modern paintings hang and the floors are pine throughout. Lighting is sympathetic and, wonder of wonders, sporting enough lumens to facilitate reading the menu. At the far end is the open kitchen where chefs tend the restaurant’s namesake, the 7-foot long, custom-built adjustable in height stainless steel fire pit they term, in the menu, an asador.

Actually, I’m not sure this is the correct term. In Argentina, where grilling humongous quantities of beef over an open fire is a national sport second only to watching Messi and Aguero, the asador is the chap who tends the grill. The occasion and the cooking method are called asado. The grill itself I’ve only ever heard referred to as a parrilla. Maybe it’s different in other Spanish-speaking countries.

Whatever, you say asador, I say parrilla, the principal is the same and the whole shebang’s success depends only on two things – the skill of the chef and the quality of the meat. Here the main man is Eric Mooney who formerly worked for the One Pico group and the Michelin-starred Bon Appétit and Chapter One. So far as the meat is concerned, both the menu and Asador’s website give ample assurances about the integrity of their sourcing. Friends Shane Mitchell, Rebecca Murray and John Quinn are behind the operation and Shane was out front pulling strings on our arrival.

I had scanned the menu before making the booking. If you are tempted to do likewise I’d recommend you consult the restaurant’s website www.adasor.ie. The version on menupages.ie contains more typos than ‘The Grauniad’ on New Year’s Day, with gnomic treats such as ‘sauteed plasm’ and ‘cmilielion mayo’. For the first time in years, I ordered chicken wings. They were ‘of merchantable quality’ and came accompanied by a sticky barbecue sauce and a liberal quantity of crunchy celery sticks. Noel’s Nephew, bent on trying something new, took the grilled halloumi with flatbreads and Greek salad, a well-contrived dish that made a pleasant change from the ubiquitous goat cheese offering.

The menu advised that “Theatre is our signature. Witness our chefs work the ASADOR as the smoke and flames embrace your meal.” All very well but from where we were seated you’d need a good pair of 10 x 50s to do so. I didn’t mention this to the waiter because I needed his and  Chef Mooney’s cooperation. Having eaten here before, the only thing I wanted for the main event was a kingsize portion of the baby back ribs. First of all I had to negotiate a price. The waiter’s opening bid caused my eyebrows to hit the 7th floor, at which he realised more compromise was needed. After a short haggle I got what I wanted, a sticky, succulent, melt-in-the mouth meat carnival. Meanwhile my buddy had plumped for the spatchcocked chicken with crumbed bacon, shallots and a rather fine potato gratin which, if I’d realised it was there, I would have asked for instead of the skinny chips. The wine list, though it showed signs of some thought, didn’t overly excite. In truth I thought the prices just a tad high. My thought were still homing in on Argentina so I specified the Trivento Malbec, fast becoming a restaurant commonplace in Dublin.

Come time for dessert, Noel’s Nephew pinched my trick and nabbed the selection of ice creams. For me, it had to be the chocolate fondant. We were told it would take fifteen minutes, which I took as a good sign. I should now explain my love/hate relationship with chocolate. I love chocolate, it hates me. I have an exceedingly low tolerance of sugar and can only eat chocolate if it has  a high proportion of cocoa solids, the cheap stuff destroys me. Fortunately I can assess quality at first bite as  my stomach is by now the gastric equivalent of a mass spectrometer and  so I am rarely incapacitated. This fondant proved very good indeed; one stab of the fork releasing a gush of cocoa-laden liquid of the proper, rich sort. A real grown-up dessert and plaudits to the pastry chef. Factor in a waiter who, at coffee time, knew what the word ristretto meant and I for one was going home a happy bunny.

I had been watching the waiters watching out for each other all evening, a most impressive performance. We sat down at 8.45, by now it was nearly midnight. The restaurant was full, unusual for a Dublin Tuesday and the clientele, mainly female, in parties of six and seven, looked like they were superglued to their seats. Throughout, staff showed no expressions of anguish or ennui. The boys were bouncy, as up-on-their toes as they had been when we came in. It was clear that this was true professional service, of a kind disappearing from many places – and yes, it must be a demoralising time to work in the industry but these guys rose above it. Well done, whoever trained them.

Verdict: there are many restaurants in Dublin offering a flesh orgy and Asador is up there with the best of them.Finally, the waiters’ spirit of cooperation must have rubbed off on us. Noel’s Nephew and I split on Waterloo Road but not before promising to collaborate on that big hit. Remember, you read it here first.

 

Asador, 1 Victoria House, Haddington Road, Dublin 4. Tel: 01 254 5353

 

Food ****

Wine **½

Service *****

Ambience ****

Value ****

Overall ****