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
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
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
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
Ten things you might not know about Jamie Oliver. One, his parents ran a pub, called ‘The Cricketers’ in Clavering, the Foxrock of Essex. Two, Essex Man’s first job was as a pastry chef, working in Antonio Carluccio’s eponymous restaurant in Covent Garden. Three – Jamie got talent spotted by The Beeb during a cameo appearance in a programme on the River Café, where he was a sous chef. Four, he hated being ‘The Naked Chef’, at least until his first book became a numero uno bestseller. Five, he nicked a catch phrase from Dell Boy Trotter – using ‘lovely jubbly’ on an Aussie TV commercial for Yalumba Wines. Six, he created ‘Jamie’s Ministry of Food’, a TV series where he travelled to Rotherham, Yorkshire to inspire the populace – a task in its magnitude comparable to ending global warming. Seven, Jamie’s eminence grise is Gennaro Contaldo who admits, via his own website, to being ‘the Italian legend who taught Jamie Oliver all he knows’. Eight, Jamie’s head honcho in Ireland is Gerry Fitzpatrick of Chatham Brasserie and Fitzer’s fame. Nine, Jamie has not moved far from his roots – he still lives in Clavering, Essex. Ten, chances of his putting in a stint in the kitchen of the new ‘Jamie’s’ in Dundrum are remote indeed. A shame, because he might have been able to shorten the forty minute interval between finishing our starters and receiving our main courses, during which time I thought of all the above.
There are 31 restaurants in Jamie O’s empire, of which Dundrum is the latest and if you dine there you should be aware that it is a brand as surely as McDonald’s, Burger King or KFC are brands. The Pundit of Pukka will not be there cooking for you; your food will be fettled by some aspiring, perspiring sous-chef working to a recipe that runs on rails. Flair will be off limits; you can bet your life that when Gennaro Contaldo compiled the menu his mantra was ‘tried, trusted and idiot proof’.
Mallory, my guest on this occasion, is in no way as scary as her nickname (Mallory Knox in ‘Natural Born Killers’) except when I have omitted to do my Italian homework. She hails from Toscana, oozes style and class, eats with decided gusto and her mum makes wine and olive oil, all-in-all perfect qualifications for helping me assess Dublin’s latest Italian job. She approved wholeheartedly both of the industrial style architecture and the restaurant’s buzzy vibe, pointing out to me that la dolce vita was still around, evidencing the adjacent tables, occupied by business lunchers. Jamie merchandise is plastered all over the walls. I am canny enough to resist but fear that those who arrive with kids may not be so lucky – apron, gym bag, Vespa t-shirt anyone?
We refused the first table we were allotted. Our request for one in the middle of the room was acceded to pleasantly enough. Service was in the hands of personable young people recruited, I imagine, from the South Dublin equivalent of Clavering. Shining and eager to please, they had assimilated at least a veneer of Italian food culture and had their own preferences on the menu, which they were not unwilling to impart. It’s a trait I appreciate in a waiter, unless done too forcibly.
On our way to table we noticed some platters of inviting-looking salumi – a balanced assortment of finnochiona (fennel salami), pistachio mortadella and prosciutto. We refused their blandishments and settled for sharing a plate of wild mushroom panzerotti, a pasta like ravioli only larger. They came filled with a mix of porcini and brown mushrooms, chilli, thyme, ricotta and parmesan, all of these flavours easily detectable, with the pasta perfectly cooked al dente but not grainy. A very involving starter and good introduction to what Jamie’s acolytes can do.
We summoned up some wine from a list that, though mainly Italian, looked somewhat in transition and picked a bottle of Verdicchio from Le Marche, serviceable, though falling short of exciting, not that I’d expect more for £27. The list contained two bottles that put me between laughter and tears. Both came from cult Alto Adige producer, Alois Lageder and cost between €78 and €90. Not worth the money and unrecognisable to the hoi polloi at nearby tables, thereby diminishing the pose factor, I’d imagine these will be long-tern dust-gatherers.
I envied Mallory her main. The fish of the day, fresh hake in this instance, came with clams, small sweet mussels, anchovies, chilli and fennel on a bed of cracked wheat, turning the parchment bag it was baked in into a veritable hive of aromas and flavours.
I took the saltimbocca, shorn of it’s normal ‘alla Romagna’ suffix. Traditionally, the steak is cut from the girello, the eye of the round, the joint the French call ‘roti de boeuf’, from a veal calf. It is cut thin, pounded thinner, then ‘welded’ to a slice of prosciutto and some sage leaves. At first I could find no evidence of prosciutto on mine, save for a few pink stripes that looked to have been painted on the meat. The waiter was summoned and explained that Jamie’s saltimbocca was cooked by an alternative but still traditional process that involved sandwiching the meat between two hot bricks – in which case there was a brick in the kitchen plastered with the balance of my prosciutto. The result was disillusionment compounded by the meagre garnish consisting of flavourless uncooked cherry tomatoes and slices of red pepper.
“Italians don’t do restaurants,” said Mallory. “They eat well at home and then are invariably disappointed when they dine out.” Italians don’t really do desserts either. Tiramisu, affogato, panna cotta, that’s your lot. Adopting some of the modesty of Gennaro Contaldo, I told her I made a brilliant affogato, from my own vanilla ice cream and coffee I’d roasted myself. It had to be (flourish of trumpets) panna cotta. Jamie’s came with juicy berries which raised it just above the mundane. It could have been wobblier. Mallory fancied a difference between Irish and Italian cream, opining that the latter made a silkier panna cotta. Two espressos, serviceable but not exciting (at this stage, becoming the motto for the lunch) concluded the meal. We had spent €84.90, mainstream Dublin pricing for what we’d had.
Afterwards I managed a chat with Gerry Fitzpatrick who told me of the lengths the group had gone to to source righteous ingredients from Irish suppliers. He thought that this had not been mentioned enough in early reviews. I’m sure the restaurant will do well. The formula is proven and the two I’ve visited in the UK were both jammers, long after the launch. Pricing, Lageder apart, is realistic. Looking at the menu again, it would be feasible to construct any number of harmonious starter and main pairings. Yet, at the end of the day, it won’t meet with universal approval. Jamie’s is designed for sociable souls. Office junkets, family outings, girlie nights, yes. But lovers, gourmands and those weary of celebrity schlock must needs look elsewhere.
Jamie’s Italian, Unit 1, Pembroke District, Dundrum Town Centre, Dublin 16 Tel: 01-298 0600
I was away in Barcelona attending a food and drink symposium and so missed the ‘handbags at dawn’ kerfuffle between Sebastian Masi, owner of Locks Brasserie and the Mail’s man, Tom Doorley, on Marian Finucane’s radio programme. Although I gather there was a broader agenda than simply one bad review, does this spat, I wondered, mark the escalation of strife between restaurateurs and critics, a vibe that’s been rumbling for some time? Earlier this year, Dylan McGrath bewailed “critics don’t get Rustic Stone”. Mikael Viljanen, chef at Dublin’s uber-trendy The Greenhouse took a poke in this paper at the Irish critiquing fraternity, damning us as ‘a cosy clique’. This slur, by the way, is untrue. I don’t know two critics who socialise together. Nor can I ever recall one expressing a positive opinion about his or her contemporaries; in a small and over-crowded marketplace we all zealously guard our own patch, hence begrudgery is a tool of our trade.
As it happens, I was in Locks Brasserie on the same day as Mr.D, albeit a few hours later. The 2012 Michelin Awards had been leaked and the restaurant had been awarded a star. Whilst, as I revealed in an earlier review, I remain immensely sceptical of the Michelin organisation’s credo I was delighted that recognition had been given to another Irish restaurant (we are poorly represented, there’s no doubt) and I wanted to revel in the joy that would doubtless abound. The news broke via Twitter at breakfast time and by dint of repeated phone calls until I got a humanoid voice I managed to get a table ahead of the posse. I announced this to Rixi as a fait accompli, advising her to record ‘Downton Abbey’.
We walked down the canal to Locks, a pleasant stroll on a rare summery evening. I’m always taken aback by the lack of activity in the area. The equivalent of Portobello in any city in the UK would be thronged with people enjoying themselves, the canal side and the surrounding streets replete with restaurants, cafes and bars. South Richmond street is slowly gearing up its act but the rest is still Rue Morgue 2012.
Inside Locks, there wasn’t much joy to be had. We were greeted civilly enough but the atmosphere could scarcely be called festive. Perhaps staff were still in a state of shock after hearing the news. Alas, Thomas Pinceley, the urbane and efficient maitre d’ had taken the day off. Service was in the hands of two guys and two girls, the girls restricted to the role of fetchers and carriers, the guys taking the orders and looking after the wine service. I’d hazard a guess that neither of the girls was vastly experienced. My late mama was a genuine expert in all aspects of table service and she’d have gone crackers watching this pair. One of the things she taught me was the importance of the height of the hands when ferrying plates to and from the table. “Nobody wants their nose wiping with their dinner,” she’d say. The feeling that chaos was imminent was reinforced when someone else’s main courses were set down before us. Meanwhile, one of the guys was doing a mean Mrs.Doyle impression, topping up our glasses after we’d only taken a couple of sips. (If any sommeliers are reading this, please chill, lads, if I want two bottles I’ll buy two bottles, if I don’t, I won’t.) That said, I did take an extra glass, a Parkerised syrah from the very modern Rhone producer Stephane Montez.
Still, the Michelin men avow that they aren’t that concerned about having professional service at one star level. So what about the food? Well, I must say that if I was designing a menu to appeal to the tubby geezers from the tyre company I wouldn’t stray far from Rory Carville’s carte. Sweetcorn veloute with trompette de la mort and black truffle duxelles; butter poached snails with watercress risotto, shallots and garlic crisps; quail and foie gras – all good French classical-inspired stuff, bang-smack in the comfort zone of a food-sated, lonely, travel-weary, stressed-out inspector (don’t believe me, read some of the biogs that come out whenever a crack appears Michelin’s wall of silence). Rixi took the’beetroot plate’ with its goat curd and buttermilk mousse, orange purée, shaved fennel and red radish. She enjoyed it but at the same time opined that there was rather too much going on. I did the snail thing; the pungent, peppery, slightly acidic watercress contrasted perfectly with the creamy delicacy of the snails.The colour of the risotto was of that shade of green that people used to paint their sheds in when I was a nipper, a bit startling at first but I got used to it and enjoyed the dish hugely.
Rixi’s pan fried hake, surrounded by a ginger blanquette, a crab ‘mezzaluna’, baby leeks and wilted spinach looked a picture on the plate and tasted good, too. Unusually for me, I plumped for the quail over the loin of rabbit, maybe swayed by the presence of foie gras which came cooked to the point of absolute perfection, melting away on the tongue as foie gras should. We accompanied the main course with a bottle of Alsace pinot blanc from Meyer Fonne, a wine I drink often, from a producer I rate highly. Later when I got home I looked up my previous review of Locks and found I had ordered an earlier vintage of the same wine on that occasion. The 2011 vintage lacked the balancing acidity of the 2009 and 2010 and I judged it a tad flabby, the consequence of a difficult year in the region.
When it came to dessert I ducked the panna cotta for once, opting instead for a cheeseboard, four cheeses, mainly French, in pristine condition, whilst herself took a selection of ice creams and sorbets, all fine. Espresso, surprise, surprise, sucked as it does in most Dublin restaurants. I won’t bore you with the technical reasons. We spent €155 for three courses each, a bottle and a glass of wine, plus coffee. The wine list is fairly sound but there’s nothing on it worth drinking at under €30 a bottle.
Ambience? Throughout the many manifestations of Locks over a long history I’ve always loved this dining room. It is at its best at lunchtime on a summer’s day when the sunlight floods the room, causing me to over-linger and take that second Armagnac more times than I can recall. At night it is cosy and elegant, with a special mention for the comfortable seating.
So is Locks worth the Michelin Star? Absolutely. Rory Carville’s cooking is intelligent precise and the presentation, with the side dishes in small copper pots, as elegant as you could wish for. By now I trust Thomas is back at his post and the service shudders consigned to history. But one thing does puzzle me. How come Sebastian Masi’s other restaurant, Pearl Brasserie, in many ways a more complete, more polished dining experience has never been honoured with the same accolade?
Locks Brasserie, 1 Windsor Terrace, Portobello, Dublin 8 Tel: 01 420 0555
“What exactly is ‘foraging’?” demanded Rixi. The question arose out of my attempt to describe the ethos of Aniar, a Galway restaurant I’d heard much about but never, until now, visited.
“Foraging means searching for food resources. I’m not talking about trawling Dublin supermarkets for Doppio Zero flour, or scrumping apples from neighbours’ gardens. Foragers spend their days combing the fields, the hedgerows, the beaches, for wild things.”
“ Plants mostly. Sorrel, wild garlic, nettles, seaweed, that sort of thing. ”
Abandoning my habitual modesty I revealed that I was something of a trail-blazing forager myself in the days when knees and back allowed me to stoop and pick things with no danger of spending the rest of my days bent over like a human croquet hoop. Too broke to afford even a single frond of saffron, I made the discovery that marigold petals, multiplying like triffids in our front garden, made an acceptable substitute for flavouring boiled rice. I was an early reader of Richard Mabey’s seminal ‘Food for Free’ (first published in 1972 and still in print). I alienated many friends by serving them soup made from nettles. I can’t count the times I risked death by drowning, wading the salt marshes of North Norfolk to gather wild samphire – “sanfer”, in the local vernacular. Rixi wasn’t impressed. “If sorrel’s that tasty, how come it’s not in Tesco, alongside the spinach and celery?” she riposted. A fair point.
Foraging is the new F-word in restaurant kitchens. In order to have diner cred these days a proportion of the fare on offer must have been acquired gratis. At a symposium in Adelaide two years ago I met a trio of young chefs who scoured the urban wilderness of Perth, WA on roller blades for the purpose of finding, uprooting and cooking obscure weeds. Last month I saw ‘we employ our own forager’ on a menu here in Ireland. The patron saint of foragers is a chef called Rene Redzepi, unsurprisingly from Denmark, the nation that gave us detectives in hand-knitted cardigans.
Anyhow, Aniar is wholeheartedly committed to foraging. On the menu I found ingredients such as meadowsweet, ramson, verbena and the aforesaid sorrel. The restaurant came recommended by my friend Tim who told me “It looks like an arts-and-crafts shop run by a New Hampshire divorcée but the food is divine”. The dining room was decked out in pastel shades and the furniture genteelly distressed, I could see what he meant. We’d been given what I call ‘the critic’s table’, the slightly-too-small one overhung by a big loudspeaker and located next to the bog door. A good sign, they hadn’t recognised me but from such a base it’s nigh impossible to be objective. Lucky for Aniar, I managed to get us moved.
From our new location I had a clear view through the large hatch into the kitchen, noteworthy for its lack of theatricals. Immediately we sat down we were brought an amuse bouche, a tasty duck croquette and a bowl of really good bread followed hard on its heels. From the minimalist menu – five starters, mains, desserts – Rixi chose the soused mackerel. The sousing had been but lightly done, allowing the flavour of the fish to come to the fore. It was accompanied by golden beetroot, less overt than the red variety, plus a wafer-thin slice of spicy radish and a dab of good yoghurt, all-in-all a visually entertaining dish with an impressively contrapuntal combination of flavours and textures. I took a ham hock and cheek combo which came with a speckling of hazelnuts, slices of firm pear and a tarragon dressing. The flesh had been stripped from the cheeks and formed into, guess what, a croquette. The jewel, though, was the ham hock, a dream of a terrine that put me in mind of my mother’s Lancastrian peasant cookery where the flat iron, brought out to press ham, ox tongue and rabbit, was a key culinary implement.
When it came to mains I was undecided whether to take the Skeaghanore duck, a superior hand-reared quacker from Ballydehob, West Cork or the lamb loin and shoulder. Rixi solved the problem by nabbing the former and then surprised me by tucking in with some relish into the pinkish breast, something she’s never done before. It came garnished with apple, beetroot and an elderberry jus, also with some tangy pickled stalks that the amiable waiter identified for us as lovage. My lamb loin, also perfectly pink, came with the tang of ramson (wild garlic) and shell-shaped slivers of onion. The shoulder meat had been formed into, guess what, a croquette, the third so far. I was beginning to feel that Aniar was croquette central. We were also given a generous bowl of small roast potatoes, perfect accompaniment.
We drank white. For sentiment’s sake, a sauvignon/garganega blend from the Valpolicella estate of the Serego Alighieri family, descendants of the poet Dante. The Count, present day head of the family is as nice a man as you’d wish to meet and I have fond memories, too, of a tour of Verona in the company of his daughter, the Contessa. I also took a glass of respectable Languedoc syrah with the lamb.
For dessert, I chose, as I am wont to do, panna cotta, a goat milk one, at the same time praying that it wasn’t served as a croquette. Top dog panna cotta is wobbly to the point where if you give it a black look it dissolves in tears; the worst is set like school blancmange. This was in the former category, flavoured interestingly with meadowsweet, a foraged substitute for vanilla. Rixi had the improbable beetroot and rose parfait on a wave-shaped bed of hazelnut praline, perhaps the most visually stimulating dish in a meal where everything was ‘a pictures on a plate’. The other thing that impressed about Aniar was the service – young people; enthusiastic about what they do; constantly backstopping one another and, withal, ensuring that the tempo of the meal (a particular bee-bonnet of mine) kept diners in anticipatory mode; neither fretful as to when the next dish might arrive nor sated through three courses arriving in rapid succession. Aniar’s staff gave a masterclass in pacing, which many a more highly-rated establishment would do well to copy.
We felt we had good value for the €130, we had spent, which included two coffees. Happy bunnies, we slid off towards still-heaving Quay Street to forage for a nightcap.
Aniar, 53 Lower Dominick Street, Galway City Tel: 019 535 947
53 Lower Dominick St, Galway City. Tel: 091 535 947 53 Lower Dominick St, Galway City. Tel: 091 535 947
My chum Bangles had a word for it. “The attention to detail throughout this meal,” she said, “is positively forensic”. This as we stared spellbound by a juxtaposition of geometric shapes and swirls in rich colours and gradations on a white ground. Art on a platter, my immediate thought was it could have been painted by Wassily Kandinsky in his Bauhaus period. Hesitant to deface the masterpiece, it took me a few moments to dig a fork in. Eventually, conscious that sorbets time expire, I scooped up a mouthful, letting my palate explore a dazzling panoply of scents and flavours, ranging from fragrant basil to luscious, corruscating pomegranate. Bangles, who had never eaten in an Indian restaurant of this calibre before, went from scepticism over the prices to ecstasy over the food in the space of three courses.
Ananda, perched above the cinema in the Dundrum Centre, is the flagship of Asheesh Dewan’s Jaipur group, which also boats restaurants in central Dublin, Dalkey, Malahide and Greystones. Of the five, Ananda, in the charge of the hardworking and extremely talented chef Sunil Gai could be described as the group’s nerve centre, the ‘laboratory’ where the potential of Indian cuisine is explored to the outer limits.
We parked in the shopping centre, on Level 2, and strolled down the hill. There is a low key entrance on Sandyford Road. Ascending the stairs, I made my usual faux pas in turning the wrong way and ending up in a broom cupboard. We got there in the end, to be welcomed by Benny Jacob, the manager, a man who must surely have a PhD in meeting and greeting.
The room is warm and inviting and, on the night we visited, almost full. The impressive lighting always reminds me of a fleet of spaceships, reinforcing my ‘outer limits’ conceit. We selected a corner table and sat down to study the menu. Like many of Ananda’s non-Indian restaurants with upmarket aspirations there’s a fair chunk of puffery on it, of which the William S.Barnum-inspired ‘pan-seared, hand-pounded Wicklow lamb cakes’ is probably the supreme example. I mean, could you sear meat without using a pan? Do people really care whether their cakes are ‘hand-pounded‘ or no? Still, get behind the hoopla and you find some very serious food.
Our opinions were divided on the lamb cakes, clearly the hand-pounder had done a conscientious job and beat the bejasus out of the raw materials. Bangles hated the toothpaste texture whereas I quite liked it. Enhanced by smoked cloves and cardamon, mine slid down like an oyster. There was unanimity, however, over the accompanying crispy lamb cigarillo; we both gave it an unqualified ‘thumbs up’, especially when dunked in the piquant raspberry & curry leaf chutney provided. The free-range Barbary duck also came ‘two ways’, a duck tikka with passion fruit & date chutney and a succulent potted duck leg confit, enhanced by plum & anise jelly.
I imagine, readers, that by now you’ll be aware that we had ventured considerably off piste, taking the normal flock-wallpapered curry shop as the baby slopes. Our third starter, fresh Dingle Bay crabmeat with onion, sweet chilly, raw mango chutney, crab samosa & squid ink, with a chilli dip took us hurtling downhill to the fringe of black ice. How the chef could provide that pot-pourri of flavours while at the same time retaining the essential sea zing of fresh crab is quite beyond me but retain it Sunil did.This Gai is some chef.
If we thought we could return to the main run by choosing pork vindaloo we were mistaken. This one was a far cry from the post-pubbing dish fit for heroes we knew and feared. The essence of vindaloo – a sharp-sour, hot curry popular in Goa – was there alright. But the centrepiece was a sizable 18 hours marinated Irish organic pork chop with a slab of crispy belly for good measure, served with the chef’s stylish version of a vindaloo masala & ‘Konkani baath’, rice with coconut. The meat was tender enough to make a knife superfluous.
The menu of mains is divided in two categories, styled ‘Main Courses’ and ‘Traditional’. Intrigued by the latter I plumped for ‘Lagan Ki Biryani’ (no, it didn’t come from ‘Norn Iron’ but from Hyderabad, capital of Andhra Pradesh in Southern India), a local specialty in that city comprising perfumed basmati rice & lamb scented with mint, saffron & rose water with a raita and a fairly mild curry. It came intriguingly presented in a bowl similar to the ones in which my late mother used to make both her steak-and-kidney and Christmas puds. It had evidently been baked in this vessel, covered with a flour-and-water pastry crust to keep the juices in. The lamb was cut in fairly large chunks to preserve texture. A simple dish, exceedingly well put together.
We also scoffed some of Ananda’s fine nan bread;although they do a range ofit, plain is my preference. Reluctant to abandon even a few millilitres of juice, we tore off strips of nan to scour our plates. As a result we were far too full to accommodate a dessert each, although I abandoned the kulfi (egg free traditional Indian ice cream), one of my favourite things, with considerable reluctance. We ended up with the dessert with which I introduced this review, the homemade raspberry sorbet with caramelized ginger and – oh no – ‘meringue burger’. We had eaten so well that even this gem of pure hokum failed to depress me.
I would also like to make mention of Ananda’s excellent wine list which includes no less than 17 wines by the glass, with a good few favourites like Jonathan Maltus’ Pezat, the stunning Portuguese red Herdade Dos Grous and Yalumba Unwooded Viognier among them, all fairly priced.
All in all, we spent €110, ex-service, including 2 glasses of wine. About the same as we’d have spent in a European-style restaurant of any repute. Since its inception Ananda has won its fair share of awards, including a Food & Wine Magazine chef of the year for Sunil Gai in 2009. The restaurant’s initial menu was designed by Sunil in conjunction with Atul Kochhar, chef/patron of London’s Michelin starred Benares who has a close relationship with the Jaipur Group.
Clearly, Ananda has left the conventional concept of Indian food way behind. What was a workaday culinary cliché, albeit a tasty one, is here developed and elevated to a plane that is at least the equivalent of the food that top chefs steeped in European culinary culture are creating. By my reckoning Ananda has to be one of the top half dozen restaurants in the whole of Ireland.
Ananda, 4 Sandyford Road, Dundrum, Dublin 14. Tel: 01 296 0099
American business psychologist Warren G. Bennis, described by Forbes magazine as ‘the king of leadership gurus’ is on record for saying “People who cannot invent and reinvent themselves must be content with borrowed postures, secondhand ideas, fitting in instead of standing out.” An adage that should be learned and committed to heart by restaurateurs, too many of whom seem content to stick rigidly to the same timeworn formula until the closure sign goes up on the door.
It’s generally recognized that five years is about as long as a restaurant can survive before major changes have to be made and that the trick is to make such changes before doing so becomes a last resort. The other trick is to make sure you are not making changes for the wrong reasons; there’s a world of difference between the restaurant going stale and the proprietor going stale.
Alexis, popular restaurant in Dun Laoghaire, has been in business about four and a half years. Recently Patrick O’Reilly and his brother chef Alan decided time for change had come and the opportunity presented itself, in particular, to remedy the two most persistent criticisms made by diners one, that the dining room is noisy and two, the service sometimes got a tad ragged around the edges. Here’s Patrick announcing (on my website forum) the proposed changes:- “ Over the next 4 weeks we will be renovating the restaurant, reducing the numbers and taking the food, service and wine list up a level. We will be making the room a bit softer and more intimate and have been advised by an acoustics expert to help us along. In addition, we have recruited a new head chef and have replaced some other staff with more experienced personnel. We will be doing intensive training with all of those remaining to upskill them to the level we want. We’re seriously excited about the direction the food is going to take and I’m personally buzzing about the new wine list I’m in the process of putting together. The key element in the new project will be that, despite the proposed improvements in every area of the business, we plan to keep our pricing at or about the same level and retain the accessibility and relaxed nature of the service.” Bloody hell, I thought at the time. That’s some mission statement. If Pat and Alan could pull it off, we should give them charge of Ireland’s regeneration.
Accordingly Ruby, Pearl and myself, dining companions with a long mutual history, navigated the challenging Dun Laoghaire one-way system intent on checking whether the Alexis revamp had ticked all the boxes. First off, the dining room, while you couldn’t call it intimate, is certainly cosier. The new soft furnishings and the acoustic baffling have given the space an altogether calmer, quieter demeanour. We leaned back into comfortable chairs. The piped music, initially intrusive, got less so as the room filled up, dampened by the buzz of conversation.
Our service requirements were amply met by a skilled and personable South African lad and by Pat himself. The timing between courses was immaculate – only a small matter but getting it right makes such a difference to the enjoyment of a multi-course meal. The new wine list justified Pat’s “buzz”. Picpoul seems to be making an impression at the minute and I’m glad. Too me it seems like the white wine all you Pinot Grigio drinkers have been marking time for, a wine for our times, a felicitous half-way house between stingy Sauvignon Blanc and fat cat Chardonnay.
But the glory of Alexis is the food. Always has been. Impeccably sourced ingredients, ‘real’ and seasonal treated in the kitchen with love, affection and respect. Venison, rare breed pork, sweetbreads, pigeon and other rustic delights featured regularly, flying in the face of conventional restaurant wisdom which says that for every portion you sell you could do a dozen chicken breasts and make more money. Could this food for foodies get any better?
It soon became evident that it could. Starters, even the goat cheese one, avoided the habitual clichés. The dressing that came with my sweetbreads and wild mushrooms had the pluperfect amount of ‘zing’. The flavour burst from my wood pigeon was incredible, putting me in mind of those sherbet things I used to enjoy as a kid. Ruby’s hake positively glistened and the sight of Pearl’s slow-cooked beef had me making preposterous promises in return for a mouthful – “Hang my shirts up? ‘Course I will, dear.” Presentation has been considerably sharpened up. Whereas Alexis’s food previously had substance it now has real style too. Nowhere was this better exemplified than in the desserts. You could have hung ours as a triptych on the wall at The Tate Modern and charged a tenner to view. As to value for money, there is currently no better to be had within the confines of The Pale than Alexis Bar & Grill’s €24 three-courser.
Alexis Bar and Grill, 17 / 18 Patrick Street, Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin, Tel: 01 280 8872