Tag Archives: Dublin

Rasam

Among the plethora of foodie TV that dominates the viewing week there should, in my opinion, be a programme for celebrity meeters-and-greeters. Instead of some spittle-frothing, rabid-eyed chef fettling fiddle-faddle we’d never cook in a million years or an uppity broad teaching us how to make an egg sandwich we’d have the likes of Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud’s wonderful Stephane Robin treating us to soothing words and making us feel comfortable, relaxed and at peace with the world when we slump in our armchair after a hard day’s work.

Whenever I walk through the portal of Chapter One, Martin Corbett hails me with “Good evening, Mr.Whalley. We’re honoured to have you here.” It’s a load of old hokum of course, however endearing, and I’m often tempted to riposte “Oh, Mr.Corbett, I bet you say that to all the girls” but, at least until the drive home, I’m made feel like The Most Important Person in the Whole World.

Men like Stephane and Martin are in the minority, alas. There are people working front-of-house in Dublin restaurants possessing all the charm, tact and bonhomie of a Third Reich concentration camp commandant.

Another maitre d’ (silly word) I’d put in the same league as the aforesaid pair is Niseeth Tak. If you are at all into what we’ve come to call ‘Indian’ food you’ll surely have met him. Slim, balding, dignified, courteous, Niseeth in his time has fronted many of our best ethnic restaurants before settling down at his own Rasam, above The Eagle House pub in Sandycove, a venue that previously housed Alan O’Reilly’s great Morels.

The dining room is l-shaped, and incorporates a semi-private booth where, I imagine, consenting parties of six grope one another between courses. There’s one duff table where the draught seeps through the window pane but I’m confident the hyper-professional Niseeth will have this fixed by the next time I visit.

The night Sibella and I were there we were surrounded by gilt-edged food freaks. On my way to our table I distinctly heard the word ‘Locatelli’ and, just behind us, another group were earnestly discussing the relative merits of The French Laundry and El Bulli. That said, there’s nothing pretentious or posy about Rasam. The décor manages to evoke the Indian sub-continent without resort to flock wallpaper, incense sticks and sitars. In fact the background music is the best possible kind – the buzz of animated conversation.

Ethnic restaurants in Ireland face huge difficulties recruiting chefs, lumbered as they are by a strict quota system, plus a reluctance on the part of the authorities to admit to our green heaven people with dark faces wielding huge knives. Rasam takes great pains when it comes to sourcing chefs. While a CV that comprises ‘twelve weeks cooking on a tramp steamer’ may get you a job in a humdrum take-away, you need a track record to work here. Once installed, you will be called upon to contribute. Many of the specialities on Rasam’s menu were created by a chef re-creating a traditional dish from his own region.

We shared a plate of tapas-sized delights, a selection from all the other starters on the menu. As always, we had our own favourites; hers the muscular and flavoursome jumbo prawn, mine the searingly spicy pork.
Sibella wasn’t drinking so I had my run of the wine list which I’d describe as competent rather than inspiring. The accompanying notes had clearly been compiled by some buffoon from the suppliers. Curious to see if it really was ‘the essence of Chardonnay’ as described, I ordered… the Trimbach Alsace Pinot Blanc!

We both took lamb for a main. Mine was a large shank, bathed in a creamy korma-like sauce. I could prise the succulent meat off the bone with my fork
Hers was called ‘varuval’ – a peppery dish tempered by coconut milk. A keen cook would be able to discern the individual spices within the blend (try doing that with a rogan josh from your local curry shop) yet this in no way detracted from the dish’s homogeneous nature. Both were cooking off the highest order.

We rather OD’d on accompaniments. I can never resist a dhal (lentil) dish of which I believe myself to be something of a connoisseur. This was a good dhal but not a great dhal, a tad too watery. The mushroom and baby spinach, on the other hand, was outstanding, a great flavour combination with just enough spicing to keep things interesting but not conflict with the main. For the same reason we ordered plain nan, as I find the tarted-up varieties a bit OTT. Two kinds of rice, a pulao and a soft variety described on the menu as ‘puffed’ completed our feast. We couldn’t resist having a couple of glasses of mango lassi, that quintessential Indian smoothie.

After all this (which we didn’t manage to finish) dessert seemed an excess but I raised my game enough to order kulfi, a grainy variant of ice cream of which I’m inordinately fond. This one sang of vanilla and came accompanied by a pleasant caramel sauce but it was the presentation that really stood out. On an oversized translucent blue plate, it brought to mind the sculptural masterworks of Jean Michel Poulot at Halo, back in the days when tall, tortured food was de rigueur. It also served to remind me of the men from the tyre factory. In a just and proper world, Rasam would be a nailed-on bet to get a Michelin Star, as worthy as Mint or Bon Appetit anyhow. Some hopes, I fear.

The Damage: €106, ex-tip for everything described above. Sensible eaters could deduct €20 and still come away fulfilled.

Ambience: ****
Quality: *****
Service: ****
Value: *****
Overall: *****

Rasam, 18 Glasthule Road, Sandycove, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin Tel: 01 230 0600

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Layla

Last week Richard Corrigan disconcerted me twice. Firstly, when the big, amiable, marshmallow-centred, life-is-for-living Meath man told me he’d bought a plot in God’s Own County (not Meath). Worse, he name-checked the next village to the one I regard as my personal antidote to the rigours of working in Dublin. My knee-jerk reaction was to envisage a time when I won’t know whether the knock on the door is a neighbour looking for a cup of sugar or Richard, hell bent on dragging me down to the local for a liver-corrosive lock-in.

My discomfort was nothing compared to the hammer-blow I received when I learned Richard had joined the ‘It’s a Cook-out’ brigade of chef-sycophants vying to be allowed to show off at Lizzie Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’s 80th birthday junket. Aw come on, Rich, whatever happened to the spirit of 1916? Your great-grandad, wasted in the GPO along with everyone else’s, must be turning in his grave.
Before I proceed further I should state my position. I am an English republican. It’s in my blood. An ancestor expended a deal of toil and sweat helping boot nasty Charles I off the throne. It turned to tears a few years later when some silly sod invited his son back to rule us and my man had to hot foot it across The Pond, escaping, by the skin of his teeth, from being hanged, drawn and quartered like venison destined for a Balmoral banquet.
I’m right off chefs at the minute. It’s not entirely your fault Richard. Dining out on average three times a week during March and April has me sick to death of what I call ‘cuisine peinteur’ – porcelain-framed edible Klees and Mondrians, squiggle of this, square of that. It would be civilised if someone would buck the trend and present me with an untidy brace of ray wings balanced on a big heap of basil-free or untruffled mash, with a pool of parsely sauce and proper mushy peas.
To compound matters, taking a break from from culinary art galleries I got laid low by a dodgy lump of farmed salmon (knew I shouldn’t have eaten it), a dodgy beef-and-stout pie, or possibly a dodgy clump of nitrogen-laden lettuce. At least I had the good sense to dodge the dodgy coleslaw. Libel laws forfend from revealing the source of my nigh-terminal nausea. Fortunately the establishment in question is a private club wherein the members, few under 50, must be long inured to the chef’s malfeasances. Anyhow, the place maintains an aura of faded mock-posh exclusivity that will deter most from asking to join, hence few will suffer.
With all this churning round in my head (though stomach rumblings had ceased) it was a relief to get to Layla, Ireland’s first Turkish restaurant and a chef-free zone. The cook is the proprietress, LL who cheerfully admits a lack of professional training. If she’s to be believed she seems to have started the restaurant as a relief from housewifely ennui. Layla is family run. Her son does the front-of-house thing, in a manner too delightfully informal to damn him as a maître d’. Another young Turk sees to the bar. He seems to function as family too, like one of those friends of your children who hangs around your house so much you give him his own key. He’s a handy guy, makes a mean Bloody Mary. I’m not sure whether the daughter has a role to play or whether she just hangs around for the craic looking demure. I suspect the former.
The food is, surprise, surprise, Turkish. Rustic, honest, unsophisticated, the sort of grub you find in downtown Istanbul, Kusadasi, Bodrum, name the town, served by friendly people intent on showing you a good time. We started with mixed mezze, taking a choice of three from the fifteen or so hot and cold dishes on offer. Our selection comprised tender squid rings in a minimalist batter with a bespoke garlic sauce; ciz bik kofte, delicately spiced lamb and beef meatballs and delightful cheese-in-filo cigars served with a small green salad and Turkish flat bread made on the premises.
We had a hiccup with the wine. The list was nicely structured, fairly priced but short. We curtailed it still further by asking for two wines which, after a search, proved to be “not here”. Our third choice, an unwooded Chardonnay, was corked. It was replaced willingly and cheerfully, with non of the pouting and sulking that sometimes accompanies a critical thumbs-down. We settled for a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, Cousino Macul 2005, simplistic but decent, therefore a good partner for the food.
The Dark Lady took the Sultan’s Pleasure, shredded lamb on a bed of herb-scented puréed aubergine. I had the Hungry Person’s Plate aka the Chef’s mixed grill and good it was too, atop its bed of pita or whatever the Turkish equivalent is called. The generous portion of lamb shank, long-cooked into submission was especially tasty as were the spicy kebaps. The burghul was excellent.
Milady’s figs (preserved) were advertised as coming with ice cream, perfect counterpoint, but wisps of aerated cream were the sole accompaniment supplied. Baklava was good but not great. A pity because in Turkey desserts are a particular delight. In the sweet shops, ‘baklava’ is the generic name for a dozen or so sophisticated sweet pastries with exotic handles like twisted turban, lady’s navel or nightingale’s nest. Muhallebi or pudding shops shops often have a dozen different types including the best crème caramel you’ll ever taste. The Turkish coffee didn’t seem as strong as I remembered although that may have more to do with my accentuated caffein tolerance these days.
About the only thing non-ethnic in the whole evening was the Spanish belly dancer. She made up for it by being both beautiful and talented. Belly-dancing displays are all too often a wobbly, nudge-nudge end-of-pier type of entertainment but hers was a graceful ballet.
We liked Layla a lot. It’s unphoney and loads of fun, the food wholesame, tasty and unprententious, total antidote to two month’s overload of unremitting cheffery. The service simply couldn’t be faulted. The bill came to e112 including wine, coffee, a G&T and the aforesaid Bloody Mary, very reasonable. Dublin needs more restaurants like this.

Layla, Pembroke Street, Dublin 2

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Cooke’s Café

Recently I’ve had three memorable meals in Cooke’s Café. The first occasion involved the pleasure of watching former fashion model, now PR doyenne, Sonia Reynolds demolish a seafood casserole that would have fed the crew of the Pequod. Indeed, the portion was so substantial I’m convinced Moby Dick’s kid brother was lurking in the bowl, along with Jaws and half a dozen life-threatening ‘prawns of the Baskervilles’. This elegant wraith sure does love her food.
The next was an ‘invitation only’ lunch – a grub hack’s perk of the kind that makes up for all the naff dinners endured on the rubber chicken circuit. Johnny was launching his new menus, plus a series of themed evenings and, after a brief “Hello,” he went into the kitchen and bombarded us with a selection of turbocharged tapas, beguiling in taste and bewildering in variety. Alas, I had to leave after plate no.7, oh the shame of it!
The third Cookefest was last Thursday when I took Daughter Two, the eagle-eyed front-of-house expert who featured in my Roly’s review last year. She was on her best behaviour but did I detect a furrowed brow as she took in the more technical aspects of the ambience? I think it might have been the wine glasses, I’m not fond of rolled rims either, but at least the vessels were decently sized.
I like the street level room a lot. Situated on the corner of South William Street and Castle Market, it has to be one of the best spots in Dublin for people watching. The décor is nicely restrained, unlike that of the old Rhino Room upstairs, whose unrestrained eccentricity always seemed to trigger Pavlov-like aberrant behaviour in the diners.
Johnny didn’t seem to be in evidence on this occasion. From our mid-room table we could see two chefs grafting away. We observed a slightly frantic demeanour as though they were short a couple of pairs of hands in the kitchen; although it was early doors and the restaurant only half full. On the floor, we were left slightly too long before anyone proffered a menu and this slightly stretched pace continued throughout the meal, a minor irritation, as both of us remarked afterwards.
Nowadays, it’s hard to remember and impossible to convey to younger diners the impact that Johnny’s cooking had on the Dublin food scene when he first opened his doors. At a time when many emerging chefs were struggling to shed the cloak of classicism or make something intelligible out of the signals given out by cuisine minceur, Johnny Cooke gave us our first Cal-Ital and explored fusion’s frontiers, but not in a “Lets chuck in some five spice and lemongrass and see what happens” fashion. His was thoughtful, constructive cooking, well ahead of its time, with a lightness of touch and a reverence for flavour that was refreshing. Johnny’s new menus are in the same vein but more Med-inspired.
Rachel copped for the crab cakes, a sensible choice as Cooke’s are the best in town in my opinion. The Mermaid’s are good, as are Town’s but neither quite have that extra ingredient, that ‘walk along the seashore’ zing that Cooke’s manage to incorporate. For my part I couldn’t wait to get my chomping tackle around the Ahi tuna in Nori seaweed set off with a delicate beetroot chutney, a picture-book starter I’d enjoyed on a previous visit. We’d ordered a bottle of Chablis (e34) from the brief-but-entertaining wine list and as it was decently full-flavoured it just about stood up to the tuna while complementing the crab perfectly.
Rachel, on my recommendation, took the wild venison – last time I had it, it came as scallopini, with a delicious forest mushroom sauce. Alas venison was off – “Getting towards the end of the season” as the waiter remarked. She took the sirloin which proved to be as good a piece of beef as anyone could wish for and perfectly cooked, too. To prove that nostalgia is what is used to be (and it was), I ordered the Ciopino, the same seafood blockbuster I’d seen Sonia devour. There was, as they say “eatin’ an’ drinkin’ in it” and of the finest quality. We also ordered a rocket salad, fresh, spiky, intense and a portion of asparagus, new season’s, at an extra e4 each; spuds, boiled, waxy, especially flavoursome, were thrown in. By this time we’d nobbled the Chablis and Rakes was looking for a glass of red with her steak. I counselled against this saying “That’s e7. For twenty we could have a bottle and I’ll save my half for the cheese.” We summoned up a bottle of Château Biarnes, a e20 Bordeaux of no breeding but, having checked that the 2000 vintage was still available, always a safe bet for hearty quaffing.
Pretty orgasmic stuff, I have to say, at this point but with dessert came rapid post coitus tristus. “Crème brûlée,” rapped out Rachel, ever decisive. “Sorry,” said the waiter. “It’s off.” “Chocolate thingy then.” “Off.” As were her next three choices. A blonde lady who seemed to be acting in a maîtresse d’capacity then came over and said “You look like bread-and-butter pudding people to me. Go on, have the bread-and-butter pudding, it’s really good.” A virtuoso Fawltyesque performance followed – “Go on, you’ll love it!” We almost weakened. But no, we both had a quantity of red wine left, so elected to go for for the cheeseboard. There was a pregnant pause. Then “Sorry, cheese is off.” ‘Off’ was becoming a given so we quit while we were behind; pity really, I bet the bread-and-butter pudding was really good. We paid the bill (e125-ish, ex-service) and lit out in a taxi for Chapter One where all desserts (and dessert wines) were thankfully on the menu. Johnny, to his credit, phoned me a couple of days later and apologised. It seems the pastry chef had shot off back to France to take care of some family crisis, leaving Cooke’s stranded, sans pud. Doesn’t explain the cheese famine though…
After much soul-searching I felt I had to tell it as it was on the night. That is what reviewing is about. At the same time I wouldn’t like to put anyone off going to Cooke’s. I’m going back anyhow – and soon. The flavours, textures, the sheer élan of the cooking make dining there a pleasurable experience. And all restaurants have the odd hooky night, I know. But it reamins one of life’s mysteries that Cooke’s couldn’t put a cheese board together when you’re located a mere 400 yards from Ireland’s best cheesemonger. Ah well…

Cooke’s Café, 14 South William Street, Dublin 2. Tel: (01) 679 0536
Open: L –12-4.30pm Mon-Sun; D – 6-10pm Mon-Thu, 6-10.30pm Fri/Sat.

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Thai Orchid

The Thai Orchid is located at the junction of Fleet Street and Westmoreland Street, Dublin 2, a spot where Temple Bar meets the civilized world. To a degree the location reflects the custom; the night we were there the clientele consisted of English revellers, of the sort who liked a good time but didn’t drink their lager by the neck and by the gallon; their Irish counterparts; a few Darby and Joans who looked as they’d been going there for years; and Bangles and me.
It was not an easy choice as I’d spent the afternoon in Temple Bar, dodging the rain, waiting for a chance to have a word or two with Silke Cropp, currently, thanks to the Irish Food Writers Guild, the most feted of our stellar cheese makers. This pursuit also involved some hearty alfresco dining on Frank Hederman’s smoked mussels and the ever amazing Sarah Webb’s Gallic Kitchen pies and cheesecake. There are some nights you could do without contemplating undertaking a restaurant review and this was one of them.I hung about town in early evening, pondering, fretting while drifting between Mulligan’s and Bowes’, thinking three courses and coffee was just not on. Unhungry, if there is such a word. Then Bangles rang and, sound woman, suggested the Thai Orchid.
If there’s one thing that can refurbish you to the prime of eating condition it’s one of those Thai soups, Tom Yum-something–or-other. The Thais, who are a lot niftier than we are when it comes to tucking away course after course, use soup in just such a way. As a restorative, a mid-meal aperitif, something akin to the way the Normans use their native spirit, Calvados. At a Thai meal soup is on hand throughout and a mouthful or two instantly refreshes the weary palate.
Like the story of Icarus the bird-man, the Thai Orchid may be enjoyed on two levels. We were directed to the upper one. Our initial thought was that the tables were rather too close together and this was reinforced when a party of eight climbed the stairs and claimed the table behind us. The aroma emanating from the four women in the party (at least, I hope it was the women) led me to paraphrase Noel Coward’s oft-quoted quip, “Extraordinary how potent cheap scent is” I whispered sotto voce to Bangles.
We were presented with menus. One of the extraordinary weaknesses of Western restaurants who essay Oriental food is that everything is pre-ordained as if you were dining European. It’s such a mistake to shoehorn Thai food with its great mix-and-match, pick-and-snack tradition into starter/main course/dessert. Like seeing a magnificent Mongol warlord stuffed into a dinner jacket. We did our best to avoid the pitfall by asking that food arrived at table as and when it was cooked and, no, we didn’t want the soup first. But it didn’t quite happen.
“Like many Asian cuisines, Thai cooking is a ‘throw-together’ style of cooking that allows much room for creativity. The foods in season and available fresh at the marketplace… ..are the important deciding factors of what will appear on the dinner table. Of course, a good sense of what foods and flavors work well together and a comprehensive knowledge of the basics are helpful.” The words aren’t mine. They come from a fine book, It Rains Fishes, published in 1995 and written by Thai cookery guru Kasma Loha-unchit. While they could stand as a bench test for any restaurant, they are particularly relevant to Thai food which stands or falls on freshnessand seasonality. How would the Thai Orchid measure up?
Well, the Tom Yum Koong, that’s the soup with prawns, didn’t taste as fiery as I’d hoped. Not quite dumbed-down but certainly told to hush. I can quite understand that no Saturday night reveller wants to end up in The Mater having a re-roofing job done on his mouth but I do think a little more fireworks would have been in order, particularly as the dish carried a three-chilli rating. A slight disappointment redeemed by the excellence of the two “starters” the fried squid, just off-wriggling and the melt-in-the mouth chicken dumplings. Fragrant rice arrived, every grain rolling, plus a large bowl of plain soft noodles and, almost instantaneously, beef with ginger and spring onion, a prawn dish and, to my mind the highlight of the meal, a red curry of duck with lychees and fresh pineapple in a clay pot with a night light heater underneath. Unlike a meal I’d eaten in a much more expensive Thai restaurant the week before, the flavours weren’t muddy and indistinct – here was palm sugar, there was galanagal, coriander, nam pla, Thai basil, lime leaves, everything playing a part, like musicians in a chamber orchestra, everything contributing to the whole symphony.
The wine list, as expected, didn’t win any prizes for originality. But I did find an Alsace Riesling I’d not had before and this lent an excellent counterpoint to the aforesaid musical mix. The staff, mainly young Thais, were worthy representatives of The Land of Smiles and served to enhance our enjoyment of the restaurant no end. The bill came to e104 something, ex-service, which I regard as extremely good value as its getting harder and harder to have a night out in Dublin for two without breaking into four fifties. To my shame I hadn’t even noticed the Thai Orchid’s existence before, for which I’d like to make amends by recommending it now.

Thai Orchid, Westmoreland Street, Dublin 2

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Mint

Now you see me, now you don’t.
Zucchini, a restaurant that graced Ranelagh’s trendy dining strip for barely longer than a wet weekend, is no more. Under the same ownership it’s made a fresh start as Mint, as in “Is this gonna cost me a mint?” for it was clear from the minute we walked in that the joint had jumped upmarket. The interior was pleasing, all pale wood and pastel shades. Good table linen, decent cutlery. In the modish ‘no hiding place’ style, chefs could be glimpsed at work in the kitchen if you sat with your back to the door. Those facing the other way were less fortunate: the plate glass frontage afforded a view of the street and the street a view of you. Lefty, my dining companion remarked that the feeling that a light-jumping lorry might come careering off the Appian Way and through the front window was ever so slightly neurosis inducing. Maybe some curtains, or are curtains passé?
It’s normally our policy not to review a restaurant unless it’s been up and running six months, theory being it gives the staff time to bed down and sort things out that need sorting. Sometimes I think this is crazy: you buy a e200 fridge and if it doesn’t work straight out of the box you tell the world it’s crap. Why can’t you do the same with a e200 meal? Anyhow, this month we’re breaking the rules because we wanted to review both Dublin’s oldest and latest restaurants and Mint, a mere two weeks in existence when we walked through the door, qualifies for the newbie title.
In fairness, I’d been buttonholed only the day before by another reviewer, not one of the shot-in-the dark pseudos who wouldn’t know their artichoke from their elver but someone I respect. He drawled laconically “Get to Mint. Have the sweetbreads!” a signpost that wasn’t difficult to follow. We found it on the Starters menu – ‘boudin of veal sweetbread and wild mushroom with truffle scented celeriac purée and truffle jus.’ Starkly presented on a square white plate, it set the neo-French classical tone for the whole meal and both of us agreed it was utterly delicious. Lefty went for the confit chicken and ham hock terrine, with a French bean and celeriac salad and truffle dressing, another winner.
The wine list was, I have to say, all over the place. Of the house wines, e18.50 a pop, De Bortolli William’s Well Chardonnay is pretty respectable. Not so sure about the Espirit (sic) de Nijinsky (Ballet dancer or racehorse?) red. Two adjacent diners claimed they weren’t enjoying it all that much. The Mint with the hole? Absolutely. Above base level the list was as full of holes as the Naas Road with one or two yawns (if I see Martin Codax Albariño again I’ll scream); a few ho-hums (Madfish Bay Sauv/Sem e32.50); and some crazy prices (Sancerre, Domaine Vacheron e42, Ribera del Duero, Moro £41, Ch.Gloria 1999 e64). Biggest complaint was the two wines we ordered arrived as different vintages to those specified on the carte – the Lawson Dry Hills Sauv B 2002 was 2003 (hooray!) and the 1998 Salice Salentino was 2000 (boo, hiss!). All in all, the hallmark of the dilettante was clearly evident, more enthusiast’s wine rack than restaurant cellar.
I spent last Sunday in the company of BrookLodge’s Evan Doyle, the pair of us bemoaning the fact that no-one hangs game anymore. As if to prove the point, my venison tasted as though Rudolph had walked in off the street and died in the oven.
Yes, it was very, very pleasant, tender and succulent, but it lacked real oomph – I really can’t see the point of serving venison that’s merely beef with boy racer go-fast stripes. I want the full bifta GTi Turbo. Still, it was smartly conceived with a fine turnip and prune gratin with ‘confit cabbage’ whatever that is. I was always taught that to confit was to cook something in its own fat and preserve it. Confit cabbage is yet another of those ugly, inaccurate food neologisms creeping into the vernacular.
Lefty’s roast rib of beef, though, was veritably the real McCoy, tender yet full-flavoured, with a stylish accompaniment of new potato fondants, caramelised shallots and a red wine jus, perfectly cooked à point. The young chef, Oliver Dunne, with a background comprising The Tea Room at the Clarence under that great bringer-on of chefs Anthony Ely, Gordon Ramsay’s Aubergine, Gary “he wasn’t around much” Rhodes and Shane Warrington at Pied de Terre, is clearly one to watch. His flair and professionalism is already making itself felt. Nowhere was this more evident than in the desserts which were edible embodiment of Ramsay’s mantra “save the pictures for the puddings”. The Mille-feuilles of chocolate and chestnut mousse with toffee chestnuts and crême anglaise was pristine. Lefty and I stuck the spoons in and found it was imaginatively conceived, too; a wonderful balance of flavours and contrast of textures. We finished by sharing a plate of French cheeses including some ripe Epoisses that had me back in Burgundy and wonders, wonders, a decent espresso.
The bill came to e148, ex service and you could easily go up or down – wouldn’t have minded seeing if the Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (e50) was as good as I remembered. Alternatively, 2 x 2 courses, a bottle of house wine and coffee would set you back around e85, really good value, I fancy, given the quality of the ingredients, the skill and bravura pizazz of Oliver’s cooking and the enthusiasm of the young staff, including Paul, a face I remembered from One Pico.
I’d love to see this restaurant succeed and take its place as a valued member of Dublin’s fine dining establishments. Having made an impactful start I think it just might.

Mint, 47 Ranelagh, Dublin 6. Tel: (01) 497 8655 Lunch 12-3pm; dinner 6-10pm, 7 days.

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Food Safety Authority Issues Strong Warning to Food Industry

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) today highlighted its concern in relation to the current outbreak of E. coli O157 at a Dublin hotel and urged the entire food industry to rigidly adhere to the best food safety practices or face the consequences. The FSAI stated that as investigations continue into the biggest outbreak of E. coli O157 in Ireland to date, this should serve as a ‘wake up call’ to the entire food sector that no area can be overlooked in the proper monitoring of food safety systems. In particular, it stressed to the industry that there needs to be extra vigilance in ensuring that all food workers wash their hands after using the bathroom and before handling foods, and in ensuring that food safety systems are able to cope despite warm weather conditions or busy periods.

According to Peter Whelan, Director of Service Contracts, FSAI, E. coli O157, is the most serious food poisoning threat to consumers as up to 30% of people infected with E. coli O157 can develop kidney failure and 3-5% of these people die. The food industry is compelled by law to have robust food safety systems in place based on the principles of HACCP and to ensure that every single food worker is trained in best food safety techniques.

“This outbreak should serve as a strong reminder to the entire food industry that they can not be complacent about the need for robust, rigorous and closely monitored procedures for ensuring food safety. Training all food workers in the practice of food safety is now imperative for the industry and for the good of the public’s health and well-being. One food worker can spread food poisoning bacteria and cause infection of consumers and colleagues. If food workers are not trained to abide by the most basic and simple food safety guidelines, such as washing their hands after using the bathroom, the industry risks causing another serious outbreak,” says Mr Whelan.

Mr Whelan also states that food workers who are suffering from symptoms of food poisoning should not be at work as they are putting customers and other workers at risk. Additionally, once a food worker has recovered from illness, he/she can still carry the bacteria and pass it on to others.

“What a lot of people don’t realise is that food workers can also be asymptomatic, whereby they display no symptoms of illness and continue to go to work, unaware that they are carrying a potentially lethal bacteria. This is where personal hygiene becomes absolutely vital, to ensure that the bacteria is not passed to food or on to others,” continues Mr Whelan.

The FSAI has produced a suite of literature to advise food businesses about the dangers of not complying with the legal requirements.

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Dublin Chippers

This fish-and-chip shop has been family owned for three generations, The cod is glistening fresh, the batter couldn’t be bettered by a Japanese tempura chef, featherlight, crispy and cooked through. The chips taste great – freshly cooked so they’re hot and free from grease. If you don’t fancy fish, then how about a pie, maybe cheese-and-onion, home made with a nice thin water crust pastry? Or steak-and-kidney pudding, choice of two, one steamed in foil, the other in muslin. Peas? Certainly. Mushy or black? For dessert, another pie, this one filled with apple or rhubarb, again, made on the premises. Grandma Pollard’s must be on a shortlist for World’s Best Chipper. Alas it’s in Yorkshire, not in Dublin.

So how do our own measure up to this potato paragon? To find out I took my lady’s Mazda coupe, collected my asbestos-throated pal Paul and set out on a high-speed tour de frites. First pit stop was Burdock’s, Christ Church, coal-fired range and all, Dublin’s benchmark chipper. Next, Angelos, 35 years in Wexford Street. Then, off to the Liberties where they like things a bit traditional so the one-on-ones ought to be up to scratch. We pulled up at Fuscos in Meath Street. Paul remembered that The Manor Take-away in Stoneybatter was well spoken of so we went there next. Finally, we trekked to Quirke’s, under the bridge in Amiens Street, something of a northside legend. By now our palates were all codded-out so we called it a night.

Here’s what we found
BURDOCKS:
Fish: Good and tasty cod, nicely cooked, pieces flaked away with the sea-fresh sheen still on them *****
Batter: Concrete overcoat with a woolly lining. **
Chips: Floury potatoes. A bit limp and only lukewarm. *
ANGELOS
Fish: We had to wait a bit while they cooked it but it was worth it. Angelos had run out of fresh cod so we ordered haddock, which being a drier fish, doesn’t taste as good deep-fried. Still they gave a decent-sized portion of very fresh fish. ****
Batter: Thinner, crispier than Burdocks. Still room for improvement though. ***
Chips: Best we tasted. Nice and hot. A slightly waxy potato which gave the chips more bite and flavour. *****
FUSCO’s
Fish: Watery, as though it had been standing around too long. Not much flavour, poor texture. **
Batter: Nothing remarkable. Again, too thick so the inside wasn’t cooked. **
Chips: Hot and free from grease, but didn’t taste of much. Quite a lot of very small chips. ***
THE MANOR TAKE-AWAY
Fish: Quite a good thick piece of cod. Flaky and fresh. ****
Batter: Best of the night. Although pre-battered it was crisp through and not too thick. ***
Chips: Decent, big chunky chips commendably low in grease ***
QUIRKE’S
Fish: Decent fish, moist and fresh but… ****
Batter: Thick crusty cocoon, soggy within. Dripping in grease – we suspect the range hadn’t been heated to a high enough temperature. *
Chips: Rancid taste. Very floury potato with little flavour. *

Best Buy: 1. Angelo’s. 2. The Manor 3. Burdocks.

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Bond Gone

Another martyr to Dublin dining economics!

I had a phone call from Karl Purdy yesterday to tell me that Bond, his innovative restaurant with low mark-ups on wine has closed.

A shame, for I thought Karl and his colleagues deserved to succeed. I reviewed Bon for F&W last year. The food was enjoyable and, helped by sommelier Julien, I selected two excellent bottles that set me back e50 to drink in the restaurant. These same bottles would have cost me e90 elsewhere.

Incidentally, it’s one of the restaurants where tips and service charges (only on large parties) have always gone 100% to staff.
Like everyone else, I never went there often enough so must share some of the guilt – alas, pressure on my dining out committment is immense and I probably don’t get to any restaurant more than twice a year unless it’s for a corporate jolly.

Bond, sadly missed. I do hope the essentially decent Karl doesn’t emerge too financially savaged and that staff find new billets soon.

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Where's Our Market Then?

Almost alone among Europe’s major cities, Dublin is lacking a permanent market.

Yes we have the excellent Pearse St Saturday co-op, still existing in the face of adversity from the Food Police.
Yes,we have the monthly farmers’ markets on the periphery – but no-one except the most extreme foodie is going to drive down to Aughrim and back to get their fruit and veg.

Yes, we have the Temple Bar saturday market, that “draw the wagons into a circle” establishment in Meeting House Square in the middle of the tourist trap. Musn’t knock it, it’s a valuable resource, but really it’s too precious, too artificial to sustain a food culture.

If the current interest in real and fresh food is to be transformed from faddism into everyday normality we have to have a place where it’s the norm for Mr and Mrs Joe Dublin to go along and fill up their shopping bags with farm produce, fresh fish, well-hung meat and speciality foods.

So we URGENTLY need

1) A vocal presence by all of us who’ve got beyond the stage where “real food” means something more than shopping in M&S.

2) The goodwill and co-operation of the corpo and the Food Safety Authority

3) Food writers to spread the message that decent food is a right, not a privilege for the few who are “in the know”.

The recent French market in Wolfe Tone Square has whetted our appetite, allowed us to glimpse the possibilities. Cork’s English Market would make a handy role model, for starters. Let’s keep the impetus going.

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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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