My favourite proverb – and, sorry you won’t find it in the bible – goes “blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed”. When, years ago, a friend took me to Lindsay House in Soho, I hadn’t the least idea who the chef was. An amiable porky geezer with an Irish Country boy accent, he emerged from the kitchen at the end of the evening to greet some regulars. The name, Richard Corrigan, meant nothing to me then, though I subsequently got to know him well. On the night, though, his cooking blew me away.
When Richard announced his return to Ireland to open Bentley’s I got quite excited. Surely here would be a restaurant worthy of gracing that fine town house on Stephen’s Green? Alas no. The menu was, by and large, a yawn fest; the cooking, unless our hero was in the back tweaking and kicking butt was woefully imprecise. I was, too, less than whelmed by the Dublin debut of Marco Pierre White a man whose cooking once had me surreptitiously running my finger around the empty plate but who now lends his name to a diner for the chattering classes.
Gallagher? McGrath? Both their recent enterprises disappointed me. Were these guys better when we didn’t know who the hell they were? Having become ‘a celebrity’, does a chef take his foot off the pedal? Or is it simply that the volume of hype heightens our expectations to the point where it would be nigh on impossible for the gastronomic effort to deliver?
I had heard nothing, sweet nothing, about Camden Kitchen. I couldn’t recall any opening junket or any press release trumpeting its merits. I had visited the premises before, they used to house a tapas bar that was a byword for mediocrity. The dining is on two levels. The ground floor, seating approximately twenty, had been simply but tastefully got up. At one end was an open kitchen where three people were preparing food in an atmosphere so serene you’d have thought they had taken Trappist vows. You couldn’t tell by their demeanour who was in charge, we somehow sort of guessed it was the guy in the middle, he looked vaguely familiar. I immediately started turning the pages of the Filofax in my head but we were having dessert by the time I came up with the name.
Padraic Hayden used to cook at Still at the Dylan Hotel in Dublin 4. At the time this restaurant was one of Dublin’s undiscovered gems for the quality and inventiveness of the cooking, the civility of the staff and the style and comfort of the room. If there was a distaff side it was that prices could escalate skywards if you lost the run of yourself and started ordering dishes fettled from glamorous ingredients.
The food at Camden Kitchen is less exotic than Padraic’s previous billet, for sure, but it has plenty going for it. From the off, Sibella plumped for goat cheese croquettes, with dressed baby leaves, apple purée & beets, omigawd, I thought, 1995 revisited. But no, the aesthetic shape of the croquettes, their featherlight crisp crust, the tartness of the purée and the freshness of the salad ingredients made you realise why this dish, so often murdered, was such a good idea in the first place. Meanwhile, I was oohing-and-aahing over the foie gras and girolles a majestic combination so easily ruined if the foie is cooked beyond evanescent. Not so here, it oozed luxuriously down.
The bright young waiter/sommelier busied himself sorting a medley of white wines for Sibs. With rabbit and black pudding to follow I wanted a red of some delicacy. The Alsace pinot noir, mellow, uncomplicated, coped perfectly. My rabbit dish was a triumph. Sensibly, Padraic had elected to use a soft textured black pudding, not the chewy Clonakility. Coco beans, sprouting broccoli and pancetta added further variety to the composition. Lots of people were eating this dish. Are we at last losing our fascination with fillet and hen tit? I do hope so. Sibella had picked another winner, the organic cured salmon, with fresher-than-fresh crab meat, fennel and apple, a brilliant combination spanning a range of textures and flavours.
We crossed swords over dessert, forks flashing across the table as each reluctantly yielded to the other a morsel of the Bourbon vanilla panna cotta, with fresh raspberry and shortbread or the citrus creme brulée, with shortbread biscuits, coconut and an intriguing lychee sorbet. What we really wanted was the whole bloody lot on one plate – I am not, generally, a dessert person so was amazed that I found it so hard to share. I topped the feast off with an espresso better than Dublin restaurant norm and called for the bill. We’d spent €120 on three courses apiece plus a bottle and three glasses of wine and a coffee and didn’t begrudge a sou. Mulling it over, I reckon Camden Kitchen and its ilk are the converse of the ‘oh so safe’ eateries exemplified by MPW. If there’s to be a battle for the diner’s buck in these tight times I hope the good guys win out. Fingers are xx’d Padraic doesn’t become famous.
CAMDEN KITCHEN, 3A CAMDEN MARKET, GRANTHAM STREET, DUBLIN 8 TEL: 01 4760125