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