What’s the last thing you have before you leave a restaurant? Do I hear “a cup of coffee”? Right. So why is 90 per cent of Dublin restaurant espresso absolute shite? And how come Italian restaurants are no more immune from delivering a decent cup than the rest, when Italy is supposed to be the home of espresso?
Okay, so I’m picky. I love my espresso. I like to see it made properly, bitter but not headache-inducing; hot, but not scalding; with a thick cushion of crema sitting on top. And I like the coffee in the cup, not streaking the outside of it. Is that too much to ask of any restaurant? I think not. Anyhow, rant over.
Last night Wee Tam and me were in Il Primo in Montague Street which, according to the word on the street, specialises in Tuscan cooking. It’s a restaurant I used to eat in quite a lot some years ago until I got fed up of being bloody patronised by the bloody patron. Latterly it’s been taken over the the chef and the manager who seem to be continuing the trend of pack ’em in informality.
Decent bread and flavoursome olive oil got the evening off to a good start. From the wine list, which held nothing of any note until you got way up into the forties we selected a red from Bolgheri, at e35 overpriced for what it was. . Maybe it was the ‘trip round the vineyard’ aspect of this bottle that intrigued me, with no less than five grape varieties involved. The waiter wasn’t much help in assessing its likely quality. In the event it proved to be fine with food but during the gap between main and dessert it started to bore the butt of me. I’d happily have given away the last glass and a half.
Every one of the half-dozen or so pasta options was available as starter or main. I opted for the oxtail, braised in Barolo with papardelle, which I’d heard was something of a signature dish along with the crab lasagne. I sat back, trying to imagine how it would be presented. In the event the oxtail had been prised off the bone and strings of it mingled with the pasta. It was quite dry. I’d imagined something more moist and juicy, unctuous even. The pasta itself, made on the premises, was immaculate. Tam chose a pan-fried marinated sirloin steak, which came with a rocket and parmesan salad. The mini-sirloin was a fine bit of meat, nicely cooked and Tam was still enthusing about it on the way home.
For the main course I took the boiled wing of ray, one fish I really love. It came prettily presented with what seem to be pukingly termed these days ‘sun blushed’ tomatoes, artichoke hearts and potato wedges; the last, I surmised, parboiled in stock before being finished off in the fry pan. The fish was marginally overcooked. Tam continued his dead animal fest with a big portion of melt-in-the mouth cider-braised belly of pork. He thought it fabulous.
It’s when it comes to dessert that Italian restaurants start to struggle. Italians as a race are not mad into desserts and their native restaurants don’t generally get beyond offering some anonymous chocolate cake, cantucci biscuits with vin santo, panna cotta if you’re lucky and… here it comes… that old banger, tiramisu. There was no panna cotta so I took the last option.
I’ve had more terrible tiramisus in Dublin than Gordon Ramsay has spat dummies. The only outstanding one was at Nonna Valentina. Il Primo’s was very fair and were there ever an Irish tiramisu olympics it could be a contender for silver. Tam opted for the cheese and was not impressed, particularly with the biscuits which looked and tasted like a yellow pack version of Tuc. The cheese selection comprised two tiny wedges, Dolcelatte and Pecorino and a sawn-off end of a goat cheese log. It drives me crackers (sorry) when restaurants don’t take a pride in their cheese. There’s no need for a vast selection; three or four in prime condition with some agreeable biscuits will suffice. Concerning the coffee, I’ve perhaps said enough. I gave them a second stab at getting it right but the replacement was only marginally better.
Il Primo is essentially a collection of three rooms. There’s a tiny area downstairs, visible from the street and adjacent to the kitchen. Intimate, no. Entertaining, yes. The rooms above are fine but at the foot of the stairs there seems to be an inordinate amount of clutter that you have to struggle by. The naked tables are too close to each other for comfort, the waiter has to indulge in vertical limbo dancing to get around without jostling the food off peoples’ plates and the furniture itself is utilitarian. Not that I’ve anything against spartan dining except…
..the bill came to €133. About average, you might say, for a night out in Dublin. But when, for another €30, two of you can have 3 courses and a bottle of wine at a Michelin-starred restaurant, with pristine starched linen, top-class delft and glassware, scrupulously trained waiters and the services of an ace sommelier, Il Primo and its ilk begin to look like less than value for money.
The damage: €133, ex service for 3 courses, coffees, 1 bottle wine.
IL Primo, Montague Street, Dublin2 Tel:
Value for Money: **1/2