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