Category Archives: Restaurant Reviews

The Mermaid Café

“We’ll go down to the Mermaid Café and I will buy you a bottle of wine. And we’ll laugh and toast to nothing and smash our empty glasses down.” I sang over the phone.
“That’s great. Did you write that?” said Lefty, my fellow guitar-playing conspirator.
“No, Joni Mitchell did, but I was probably her inspiration.” (I met her once, in 1968).
I go down to the Mermaid Café quite a lot. I’d love to smash their empty coarse- rimmed glasses down. And not being overly padded in the old gluteus maximus and having a slightly dodgy back, I’d like to smash the ‘Shaker-meets -repentance stool’ chairs too. Also maybe chuck out a few tables and push the rest father apart. Where’s the joy in dining out if you can’t impart scurrilous rumour to your best mate without the world sharing the secret? Why should you have to save the scandal for the taxi ride home?
This said, the Mermaid Café is without doubt Dublin’s most enjoyable dining experience. No, it’s not a Thorntons or Guilbaud’s, nor yet a Chapter One or L’Ecrivain. ‘Fine dining’ is not where it’s at. But I love the hi-decibel conversation generated by the ponytail-to-pinstripe clientele. And while, to a pro’s eye the place seems understaffed, service never gets ragged – a little frayed around the edges maybe; still, they always find time to debate key topics like whether you’ll get more pleasure from the loin of lamb than the confit pork. House wines are well chosen and fairly priced – we liked the e20 Penedes Reserva. If you want to go upmarket, there are some nifty New World beauties you won’t find elsewhere. The food is modern in concept but tilted towards satisfying keen appetites rather than gaining the chef membership of the Royal Hibernian Academy. No pointillist paintings with jus or coulis, no LeCorbusier towers, no spun sugar abstracts.
The art on the other walls is modern, too, and maritime-flavoured. Picture windows on two sides lend, Lefty observed, an air of dining on a ship while gazing out at those on deck. I imagined Captain Ahab as a man with a beard and a peaked cap hove into view, though he was probably only parking cars. After a glass of Italian Chardonnay, which was, I’m pleased to say, light on boring old melons and peaches, our starters arrived. My confit of duck salad was succulent and stylish, but not a patch on Lefty’s New England crab cakes which, untypically, contained more crab than crumb. If these are what they eat in New England I now know why people try and row the Atlantic east to west.
When it came to the main course I had my revenge. He got a fillet steak, of good size and excellent quality. I got a whole aquarium! The giant fish casserole came piled high above a soup bowl. So high I had visions of the contents unbalancing and shoaling into my lap. The crown of this king size treat consisted of seven or eight fat-bellied langoustines. I devoured these, then attacked the stack of mussels. In the basement was an assortment of fish: hake, cod, salmon, ray and more, all enveloped in a delicious Thai-flavoured soup that I slurped up with a spoon before ignorantly and joyfully mopping the bowl with the Mermaid’s good bread. Which is why I could only manage half a dessert. Pity, their pecan pie, a benchmark by which to judge its kind. “I can feel my arteries shrinking,” said Lefty, climbing in regardless. We finished with good espressi then went out on deck looking for the great white whale. We didn’t find him – maybe he was in the casserole!

The Mermaid Café 69-70 Dame Street, Dublin 2 Tel: (01) 670 8205

Pacific

Friends always say to me “Oh you’d eat in a railway tunnel long as they served game and truffles” and yes, I would. Some go further and say I’m impervious to ‘atmosphere’. To counter these criticisms I took my sister-in-law, a bona fide interior designer, to dine at Eamonn O’Reilly’s Pacific. Here are her musings: “As you enter, the first impression is of a simple unadorned space, softly lit. The restaurant is divided into two main areas, the first certainly more atmospheric though the stale aroma that meets you at the door is maybe atmosphere of the wrong kind. The rear section is a double height room dominated by a curved partition wall with ‘portholes’. It hangs above you and gives you the slightly creepy feeling that you’re about to be run down by a liner – a counter-productive gimmick. Overall the place is predictable, inoffensive, with no great spark of originality or inspiration.”
Well, that’s the atmosphere, folks. What about the food? Sadly, that didn’t inspire either, Mary’s last sentence could have stood as epitaph for both. Starters: one okay risotto untidily presented, one fairly tasteless king prawn confection with a curiously bitter ‘tagliatelle’ (aagh!!) of vegetables. Intermezzi: a cup of froth-topped soup, ‘cappuccino’ (double aaagh!) of broccoli, tasty once you delved beneath the boring suds. Mains: one slow-cooked lamb shank so small the butcher’s up for infanticide; one admittedly juicy loin of venison served with scallops on a tart purée of beetroot, a total misalliance of flavours. Stylistically everything was very Californicated but real assembly-line stuff, food without heart and even the presentation was greatly lacking in oomph. Halo at The Morrison with their hilariously wicked OTT approach do this sort of thing so much better.
Boredom had by now set in and we picked our way in desultory fashion through a baked chevre cheesecake that in more congenial surroundings might have been very good indeed. Other highs were the decent breads, the good bottle of Macon Villages (e28) and the exceptional staff, mainly young Europeans, all cheerful and professional.
Overall, it was all a bit lacklustre, particularly for the prices asked but I should point out that not everyone shares our view. If you are 28-35, addicted to making serial mobile phone calls and chain-smoking between courses you will very likely have the time of your life in Pacific if last night’s clientele was anything to go by. Incidentally, I don’t recall being asked whether we wanted a smoking or non-smoking table. But then ventilation was so poor the question would have been superfluous.
The previous restaurant to occupy these premises was called Belgo, brainchild of two emigré Belgians who missed the beer, the moules frites and the backslapping bonhomie of their homeland. Their most successful enterprise was located in an old warehouse in London’s Covent Garden. Diners sat on monastic benches at refectory tables, scoffed mussels and cut-price lobsters by the tonne and swilled Leffe and Kriek beer. Fun, informal, irreverent, Belgo opened its doors on the south-western approaches to Temple Bar but by this time we’d become sophisticates who could handle saltimbocca and sushi; mussels were the food of our fathers. Belgo failed partly through Dublin’s harsh gastro-economics, but principally because it was a restaurant born out of its time.
I fear likewise for the S.S.Pacific. Come the day the unsinkable yuppie liner meets the iceberg of reality punters may opt to jump overboard and swim to the lifeboat of comfort food. All except for last night’s regulars who will cluster in First Class, frantically trying to fashion a raft out of mobile phones and fag packets while the band plays ‘Nearer My God to Thee’.
I like Eamonn O’Reilly. I like One Pico where, for some time now, his food has been wondrous in its quality and consistency. But in his new guise as culinary mogul, with Pacific and now Bleu in his portfolio I query whether he may have spread himself a bit thin. So I plead “Eamonn, get down here and crack the whip, mate. And do something about the ventilation.”

Chili Club


Before my first visit to Bangkok I was the recipient of advice that stood me in good stead. The donor, a Hong Kong Chinese who had worked in the Thai capital, cautioned “If you take a tuk-tuk (motorised rickshaw) never pick a driver whose eyeballs have disappeared”. So, three trips later, I have avoided being written off by some spaced out youth with a Michael Schumaker fixation.
The other good piece of advice from the same source was “Eat on the streets.” The Thai compulsion for snacking led to the creation of some of the world’s tastiest morsels – from skewered satay, to jewel-like prawns set on a tiny cushion of hot-sweet dipping sauce, to bowls of searing soup at the heart of which is a sliver or two of prime fish, shellfish or meat. All these gems are available at pavement stalls in the environs of the royal palace.
Thai restaurant cooking is an extension of this passion for perfect miniaturisation. Portions never overwhelm. But Thai food is not about filling the belly, it is about indulging a whim – fishing in a pungent sauce for a succulent slice of duck; scooping up and savouring a tiny whole aubergine. It’s about being surprised, astonished even – lulled with soporific Thai basil then suddenly blown apart by ginger, camphorous galangal, or chilli, like a ship hitting a submerged mine in a tranquil sea. I love Thai food. As does my dining companion, who’s been feted in these very pages (with utter justification) as The Attractive Brunette.
I owed TAB a favour. She’d dug me out of a hole at work so as ‘thank you’ I gave her choice of cuisine. Which is how we ended up at the Chilli Club on a 6pm table which I’d browbeaten them into letting me have at 6.45, secured by a promise to get the hell out of there by twenty-past eight.
The best atmosphere in a restaurant is that created by the buzz of conversation and the clashing of knife and fork. But in the near empty restaurant, atmosphere was not an option. Lighting was subdued, cowed even, mainly supplied by stumpy candles on the tables, making it hard to read the menu. Service was pleasant and helpful, though hardly tested in the void.
TAB has a healthy appetite verging on the cusp of hearty, amazing for such an elegant wand. We had no difficulty clearing three starters between us plus a bowl of soup ordered because I’m greedy and a tom yam goong junkie. Alas it was insipid and ‘muddy’, the chilli under specified, no light and shade, no surprises. One of the starters was good (battered prawns), one just okay and the third, the beef satay, frizzled and leathery like it had been reheated. My main was a red curry of rather dry duck, pretty mediocre really. TAB’s fish, a generous piece of hake, nicely cooked and served with a spicy sauce, was the high water mark of the meal.
We drank Gewurztraminer, perfumed spicy varietal that’s conventionally supposed to team well with Oriental food. Domaine Schlumberger 2000 from Alsace did. By now atmosphere, in the shape of more diners, had arrived. We had two coffees, filter, not great, paid the bill (not cheap at e96 although the gewurz took up e30 of that) and departed at 8.29 precisely. Overall, disappointing, I’m afraid. Nothing wowed you. It was all a bit flaccid. Seafood apart, the meal left us feeling the chef was working to a formula, failing to give the punters the magic that comes from the application of skill, care and creativity. Sometimes Thai food fails when a restaurant makes concessions to western taste but this was not so much dumbed down as dulled down. Shame.
Chili Club. 1 Anne’s Lane, South Anne Street, Dublin 2 Tel: (010 677 3721
L Mon-Sat 12.30-2.30 D daily 6-11 (2 sittings)

Havana



In Spain, the origins of tapas are hotly debated. In Castille they claim these appetising morsels were created by King Alfonso X’s calorie zapping chef back in the 13th century. This notion is laughed to scorn in Seville where they believe tapas are heaven-sent to be eaten outdoors accompanied by a glass of sherry. Why, the very name comes from an Andalusan word for the glass dish used to keep flies out of one’s fino.
I discovered the joys of tapas on an assignment in the Algarve. We were held up on the photography by inclement weather and, wearying of the tedium of our hotel bar, the frustrated paparazzo and I fled over the border to a small town, notable only for the size of the parish church. Or so we thought, until we found the amazing tapas bar, where sixty varieties winked, beckoned and cajoled. We saw off twenty, killed two bottles of fino, all served with considerable charm by two brown-eyed girls. We drank our host’s free aguardiente and, for sport, watched the locals tumbling base-over-apex on the submerged cobbles in the Town Square. There are worse ways to pass the time.

Havana in Portobello, an area that’s becoming a synomym for bohemian buzz, has but twelve varieties. One of these is paella, hardly tapas in the true sense but my guest decided to try it anyway. It was a good, but not a memorable paella. We ordered tortilla, another Hispanic staple – again, it was a ‘small portion’ rather than ‘a small entity’ which I’ve always understood to be fundamental to tapas culture. Still, it was fresh and appetising. The third dish, the best to my mind, was a bucolic stew of spicy chorizo over chillied lentils, warming and welcome on a cold March night. The food came in traditional cazuelitas, brown earthenware bowls; or on shallow decorated dishes – the sort you bring home from the Costa del Anywhere to serve crisps and peanuts in. We ordered a e22 bottle of bog-standard Rioja from CVNE, (pronounces ‘koonay’) the big co-operative, fine, but entirely without a “Wow!” factor, common to latter-day Rioja, I find. Leave it to other regions of Spain to inject a dash of pizzazz.

As in Spain, we were served at table. The room, bare when we arrived, was now heaving. There were two parties of six girls, all having a high old time and causing me to wonder “What the hell is up with us males? Why is it we always finish up rendezvousing in the same grotty pub instead of going out for a nice meal?” All the while music boomed unabated. Manuel, Miguel and the lads, thrash flamenco with rocky drums, suddenly gave way to Handel – ‘Royal Fireworks’, ‘Queen of Sheba’ or some such – I half expected Mad King George to come bursting through the door.

Desserts were nothing but the same old story: “We had some nice Spanish ones but they didn’t sell.” Sad, restaurateurs really would like to see you lot get your munching tackle round something other than cheesecake, tiramisu and banoffi pie, so how about it?

Verdict? Havana doesn’t quite have the flavour of old Seville but it does provide honest Spanish-style food at honest non-Irish style prices and an exhilarating night out for not-too-much money, viz. e51 for three ’tapas’, two desserts and the wine.

Havana Tapas Bar, Grantham Street, Dublin 8 Tel (01) 408 4800 Mon-Sat 12-10.30 (later Sats)

Monty's of Kathmandu


Someone, I forget whom, told me that Monty’s of Kathmandu (the Dublin version, not the famous Nepalese original) is Quentin Tarantino’s favourite restaurant. Which begs the question why does a guy who has both means and opportunity to eat out in any Michelin bespangled gaff anywhere in the world single out a Dublin 2 curry shop?

I began searching for clues. Could it be the décor? Surely not. The ambience was hardly benchmark Asian save for the Nepalese landscapes and the occasional idol littered about. The white walls, table linen and bent wood chairs made the place seem as though Monty’s could be quickly converted into a brasserie or tapas bar – maybe an essential element of an architect’s brief when commissioning a restaurant in Temple Bar.
Nor could it be the welcome. We were motioned to a cramped table by the door and thwarted when we tried to exchange it for a better one by the waiter’s fawltyesque “Sorry. Party for six”, a blatant lie. The background music, courtesy of The Chieftains of Kathmandu judging by the noodling and the monotonous drum beat, would hardly have raised QT’s pulse either.
The menu presented a challenge, even for the writer, who grew up in the shadow of Manchester’s ‘Curry Mile’. But nothing was going to keep either me or my guest away from The Scary Option. Kachela came as a plate of raw finely-minced lamb, herbed and spiced (we detected garlic, coriander, ginger, maybe saffron) and served with a shot glass of what was advertised as Jameson but wasn’t. I know some of you won’t have eaten raw meat (carpaccio, say, or steak tartare) and I can anticipate your sense of shock, even revulsion. Let’s just say that these delicacies never taste ‘raw’, any more than smoked salmon tastes ‘raw’. Nevertheless, I always feel a slight thrill, maybe a harkback to a more primitive, more dangerous life whenever I taste flesh that’s not been heat-treated. So how was it for me? Delicious.
The other dishes were tame only by comparison. It was clear that the lamb in the hasina tandoori had been given a proper marinating – rare, these days. The prawns in the ledo bedo were springy and full of flavour. The sauce, creamy, tomato-based, vibrant with fresh coriander, hid booby traps of ginger and green chilli. The final show-stopping dish was begum bagar, a bed of filleted chicken pasted with spicy minced lamb accompanied by what seemed like a milder version of the ledo bedo saucing – an unlikely but interesting juxtaposition of meat and poultry.
Proprietor Shiva Gautam’s lager was commissioned from the Celtic Brewing Co. I approve of micro breweries but a frequent common factor of their beers is an oleaginous quality that mars the enjoyment somewhat. I yearned for Carlsberg Special, king of the curry lagers, or Tasmanian James Boag.
I’m indebted to the Irish Times’ Louise East for the revelation that the restaurant uses Australian baby lamb in the kachela. If true it doesn’t sit comfortably with Monty’s boast of being the first ethnic restaurant to go Feile Bia does it? But I don’t really care. I don’t have the same touching faith in Bord Bia’s quixotic charter as many of my fellow grub hacks, I just like food to taste good.
It’s irresponsible to expect a single word to embrace the diverse culinary heritage of a whole sub-continent but it’s hard not to treat Nepalese food as a mini-species of what we’ve come to call “Indian”. Monty’s insist there’s a difference but even their otherwise informative website montys.ie doesn’t explain how, why or what. It probably doesn’t matter for if you like Indian food you’ll assuredly love Monty’s, especially if you are weary of things korma’d, madrassed or roghan joshed. Fine ingredients, appropriately spiced and sauced, combined with stylish cooking spell enjoyment whatever the idiom and Monty’s has all these qualities in abundance. I bet Tarantino comes here for the food.
28 Eustace Street, Dublin 2 Tel: (01)670 4911. Mon-Sat 12-2.30; 6.30-11.30 Sun 6-11

Ernie on Ernie's

Ernie on Ernie’s, now there’s a headline. Alas this magazine’s tasteful typesetting constraints prevents me from flagging it Sun-esque fashion, in 90-point Cooper Black Ultrabold. On second thoughts, perhaps as well, as this Dublin restaurant no longer enjoys the high profile of yore. The tiger generation who dine at places like One Pico and Halo would only wonder “Where the hell is Ernie’s?”
A good question. One could live a lifetime in Dublin 4 without finding Mulberry Gardens. The location is discrete, to say the least. “Up the laneway alongside Kiely’s pub/opposite Marion Gale’s” is maitre d Robert Cahill’s direction, depending upon the sex of the inquirer. This non-PC categorisation is a clue to the nature of Ernie’s. It has a slightly old-fashioned, almost ‘clubby’ atmosphere; it wouldn’t be a first choice for a clutch of feisty females on a night out; and the clientele could best be described as ‘mature’ – on the night we dined there even those couples who must have been under forty didn’t look it.
Remarkably, the place still reeks of the late, well-remembered Ernie Evans, on whom be peace. A genial, expansive, amply-proportioned chef-proprietor of the old school, Ernie kept table principally for deal doers, especially high-living politicians, their ladies and their businessmen friends in days when Dublin didn’t have too many fine-dining restaurants. It was a place for discreet assignations of every kind. Ernie Evans’ private art collection (some absolute beauties) hangs on the walls, his key to an American city in a glass cabinet in the side-room that serves as a before-and-after bar.
Yet Ernie’s is not stuffy. The courtyard and fountain, the white cane furniture upholstered in powder blue, the soft pink walls and the paintings combine to give an airy and Provencal feel. Service, by a skilled team who’ve been together a long time, is attentive, expert, deferential but not grovelling.
The food is by today’s standards conservative. The menu lists a mere seven starters and ten mains, plus specials. Poached salmon, Dublin bay prawns, rack of lamb, fillet of beef and supreme of chicken all make an appearance, there are no novel twists, no signature dish. Robert Sultan, the talented young chef, has not really got to grips with putting his own stamp on the food and indeed it’s doubtful that the regulars would wear it if he did. The wine list is rather old-hat. It’s Ernie Evans’ list, largely French, the great names of yesteryear are all there and if you want to drink high-priced bordeaux and burgundy, Baron de L or La Chapelle, you can. Italy, Spain and the New World get a scant two pages, after a whole page of port. We couldn’t find a bargain or a surprise anywhere.

My starter was not great. The concept appealed – a tian of fresh crabmeat and green-lipped mussels over a bed of pickled cucumber, served with a roasted lemon mayonnaise – but the execution appalled as vinaigrette and lemon combined to overwhelm the seafood and murder the Chablis (Albert Pic, e35).

Back to the drawing board for this one, Robert.

From this false start it was onwards and upwards, the food got better and better. I made frequent raids on (let’s be appropriately discreet and call her) Madame X’s lovely pancetta and goats’ cheese risotto. I had to go for the panfried veal sweetbreads in a port wine and tarragon jus. Sweetbreads, the flared trousers, the purple Robin Hood vest of meats, nostalgia on a plate, are us. Well, me anyway. And they were great, crisp outside, succulent within, the jus, liberally bestowed, tasting of its components. I had to have a half bottle of St.Emilion 1998 (turned out to be Lussac-St.Emilion) to wash it down with. Meanwhile the dark lady of my sonnets had plumped for the roasted monkfish, coconut, ginger and coriander sauce and the rhetorical “Do I really like monkfish?” was soon replaced by “This is brilliant”. She was spot on. After a year’s worth of premium-priced disintegrating, flavourless flab I too had convinced myself that monks weren’t what they used to be. This crisp, aniseedy, just landed specimen, superbly fettled, restored my faith at first bite. Portions of both mains were generous. The accompanying vegetables – carrots and french beans conscientiously reworked and a flavoursome mash – met with our approval. Altogether, honest cooking of decent ingredients. Nor did the desserts disappoint, except that the tiered lemon meringue (I bet if they took this off the menu a riot would ensue) was a trifle too sweet for my inamorata’s taste. My own hot soft chocolate pudding, served with a passion fruit and Campari sorbet was everything I’d hoped for and a bit more. Coffee was good, not great. One plus point – iced water was provided and freely given. No one tried to flog you a bottle of Ballyhoo Spring loaded with a sky high mark-up, increasingly the trend these days.

The bill came to e185. Expensive? Yes, but I’m not going to debate the value for money/are we being ripped off question other than to say that it’s getting harder and harder to start/own/run a restaurant in Dublin. And harder and harder to find three courses, coffee, and a half-decent drop of wine in anything like a sympatique ambience for much less than e200. There seem to be an awful lot of people around who can afford to dine out on this scale. There may not be for too much longer, then market forces will take over and changes will come. We may be asked to sign a claims waiver on entering a restaurant, who knows. If you have the wherewithal and are weary of the trendy and ephemeral, you might just like Ernie’s.

Ernie’s, Mulberry Gardens, Donnybrook, Dublin 4 Tel: (01) 269 3300 Fax: (01) 269 3260

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