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THE WINE BUNCH Tasting: SOUTH AFRICAN REDS June 2013

 Caroline_Byrne_and_Ernie_Whalley

SOUTH AFRICAN REDS Week 1

 

In the early post-apartheid years South Africa enjoyed considerable patronage from Irish wine drinkers. Today, however, inflation has ramped up prices, making them a hard sell. Initially, South African wine was massively over-hyped. Years of isolation left the industry with scant opportunity to investigate what was happening in other wine regions and bereft of self-criticism. South Africa was also lumbered with pinotage, an indigenous grape variety seen as a national treasure but which, maladroitly handled, produces a wine with an elastoplast nose and a palate revealing notes of ersatz coffee and smoking tyres. Better wine science, helped by Interaction with winemakers in other countries, subsequently improved the wines dramatically. A key factor in the quality hike has been the transference of varieties such as merlot and sauvignon blanc to more suitable sites. In this tasting we found many interesting wines – including a respectable pinotage! 21 wines tasted, 8 chosen, here are the first four. Caroline Byrne, wine columnist  for Irish Garden, deputises for Martin Moran, away judging in England..

 

Neil Ellis Aenigma 2007, Elgin €18.99 Mortons, Galway; www.drinkstore.ie, D7, 64 Wines, Glasthule. Co Dublin

BRONZE

EW: The cheaper of a brace from a respected winemaker, this was a Bordeaux blend where the mint and herbal fragrance of cabernet franc floated over substantial plum and cabernet fruit. Absorbing and well-made.

CB: Fragrant mineral nose, with a touch of green bell pepper leads into very drinkable merlot-led red and black berry fruit fruit.

15.5/20

 

Post House Penny Black 2010, Stellenbosch €25.99 Many independents including Hole in the Wall, D7; Matsons, Bandon, Co Cork; Grapevine,Glasnevin, D9; Mulcahy’s. Charleville, Co Cork

SILVER

EW: An unfeasible pot pourri of shiraz, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and chenin blanc (ours not to reason why) that  fuse into a beast of naked power that still manages to charm. Skillfully made – but pleading to be drunk with rich roast meats.

CB: Phew! A floral  plus heather-and-herb nose then an explosion of rich ripe fruit – everything from raspberries to damsons. Needs food.

17/20

 

Glen Carlou Pinot Noir 2011 Paarl €16.99 Florries Fine Wines, Tramore Co Waterford; Worldwide Wines, Waterford; www.fallonandbyrne.com, D2   BRONZE

EW: A fragrant floral and true-to-varietal nose segueing into strawberry and cherry fruit with good balancing acidity make for a very pretty, even elegant, wine. Good value too.

CB: An intriguing black pepper-spiked nose, with strawberry, anis and cake spices on the palate with a Graves-like powdery aftertaste. Very pretty wine.

16.5/20

 

Graham Beck Pinotage 2010, Robertson €15.99 www.obrienswine.ie and many independents. BRONZE

EW: Amazing! This ultra-reliable producer has made a ‘pinotage without tears’ even I can enjoy.  Fragrant lightly-roasted coffee, violets and bergamot on the nose. Abundant plummy fruit, highlighted by soft dark tannins and pluperfect acid balance. Long finish.

CB: By far the nicest of the pinotage we tasted. An attractive floral nose, followed by dense blueberry fruit with a hint of cumin and coffee.

16/20

 

 

SOUTH AFRICAN REDS Week 2

 

If your grapes can’t stand the heat, get into shiraz, seems to be the mantra for modern South African winemaking writes Ernie Whalley. It’s a course of action I remember advocating on a visit there over twenty years ago after tasting a good deal of ‘overcooked’ merlot and pinotage. The suggestion was met with decided scepticism from grape farmers ingrained in the old ways. Things change – today syrah/shiraz is the cultivar that has shown the most dramatic growth in terms of plantings, new wines and competition entries.

The first confirmation of shiraz being planted on South African soil was at the end of the 1890’s in the vineyards of Groot Constantia. Later, some 15 examples are recorded as entries in the 1935 Cape Agricultural Wine Competition. Interestingly, 12 of these were sweet wines. By 1978 a mere 20 shiraz-based wines were recorded but the 1990’s saw a boom in plantings. Today shiraz is the country’s second largest planted red variety and fourth overall after chenin blanc (steen), cabernet sauvignon and colombard.

 

Bellow’s Rock Shiraz, 2011, Coastal Region €9.99 www.obrienswine.ie BRONZE

 

EW: A whiff of black pepper and allspice announces classical shiraz with a weight of greengage, dark plum and brambly fruit, with the alcohol sensibly constrained to 14.5% ABV. Excellent value.

 

CB: Floral nose with notes of black pepper and a whiff of spice. Plenty of rich fruit and a long finish. A touch of class about this wine.

 

16/20

 

Boland Cellar Five Climates Shiraz 2010 €13.99 Londis, Malahide, Co Dublin; Fresh Stores; Hole in the Wall, D7; 1601, Kinsale, Co Cork; Village Off Licence, D15 BRONZE

 

EW Spice and savoury fruit, a decent stab at producing a South African wine with Northern Rhone character. Pleasurable, greatly involving and good value for the ask.

 

CB: On the nose a compote of plum and morello cherry. Masses of plummy fruit on the palate, with grippy tannins that will help the wine develop.

 

 

16/20

 

Goats do Roam 2011, Paarl €12.99 www.sweeneys.ie, D11 and many independents BRONZE

 

EW: Charles Back’s vintage pun – Côtes du Rhône, geddit? –  still amuses and this balanced blend of Syrah (61%) plus 5 other grapes associated with the Southern Rhône proves reliable as ever.

 

CB: Not overly complex but well-made tasty stuff that emphasises good fruit selection and confident winemaking.

 

15.5/20

 

Delheim Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005, Simonsberg-Stellenbosch €15.99 www.obrienswine.ie nationwide SILVER

 

EW: Serious wine. Beautifully integrated fruit with an abundance of dark berries; tannins resolving nicely, good length. All-in-all, enticing well-structured wine that belies its age.

 

CB: Extraordinarily aromatic with a touch of smoke, blackcurrant and blueberry fruit. Well integrated oak and tannins.

 

17/20

 

READ ERNIE WHALLEY &  MARTIN MORAN every Sunday in ‘Sunday’ Magazine in The Sunday Times (IE)

RESTAURANT REVIEW – M&L/The Imperial/The Good World

This week has been Chinese all the way, kicking off with a trip to M&L, a down-home unpretentious restaurant catering primarily for Dublin’s Chinese inhabitants, who now number close on 60,000. Latterly, the tastiness of the food and the reasonable prices, coupled with portions bordering on the humongous, have attracted an Occidental clientele. A couple of days later my omnivore buddy Foodmad and I embarked on lunchtime road tests of dim sum at two of Dublin’s longer established Chinese restaurants – The Imperial, which seems to have been here forever and the Good World on Georges’ Street, favourite of most of my Chinese friends.

The Gaffer and I rocked up at M&L bang on 8.30 and I was glad I’d taken the trouble to book. Nigh on every seat was taken and the buzz of happy dining conversations downed the Chinese pop music a treat. Initially, they ushered us to a table for two, near the door. The waiter taking our order showed alarm at the number of items we’d selected. “It’s okay, we have big appetites”, I said. As it turned out, this wasn’t the focus of his concern. “Table too small”, he sighed. He indicated that there were two options, either make the most of our cramped surroundings or wait a bit, until a larger table became free. He left us in no doubt that the second option was his preference, so we complied.

Eventually we were re-seated, along with glasses of that Chinese beer I have so much trouble spelling, Txingao, Tsingdao? Also a large pot of jasmine tea. The cooking style at M&L is predominantly Szechuan, a two-pronged sensory attack deploying chillies, generally little vicious beggars that should maybe come with a “handle with care” sticker and the Szechuan peppercorn – actually not a pepper at all. This reddish-brown fruit, a key component of five spice powder, is the berry of the prickly ash. While not as hot as chili pepper, it does have a unique flavour and is famous for its seriously mouth-numbing capability. In comparison to Cantonese, Szechuan comes over as a one-shot culinary style, at least to Western palates but sometimes plain is what you want.

One of the challenges in dining at this sort of establishment is to get behind the Westernized menu. Chinese at adjacent tables always seem to be tucking into some dish that looks twice as exciting as the one in front of you. Moreover, the waiters want to protect you from your own excesses, perhaps believing that if you are on the receiving end of an unaccustomed taste you’ll bad mouth the restaurant to your friends. The Gaffer and I are both adventurous eaters and come with fire-blankets pre-installed so were unlikely to be fazed but your man was not convinced. In our quest to push the frontiers of acceptability we were only partially successful, managing to acquire the soft shell crab but not the razor clams. He did allow us the whelks.

Soon the food started to arrive and it became apparent that, quantity wise, we’d over done it. The whelks were super – I’d wholly commend these ‘sea snails’, similar in texture to squid but with a more pronounced flavour – as were the soft shell crabs, coated in an egg yolk and spice dip and deep fried. We crunched them like crisps, savouring the succulent meat and there was such a mountain of them we didn’t bother with the extremities, leaving them to litter the plate. We ploughed on, working up to the chicken dish you could maybe describe as ‘death by a thousand chillies’ via a plate of steamed bok choi combined with those caramel-flavoured  rubber-textured mushrooms, a Chinese cousin of the shitake. The food was all glorious with one sad exception – a beef hotpot. I’ve eaten this dish from Glasgow to Hong Kong. Usually it comes in a tightly-sealed earthenware pot; delve within  and you pull out big hunks of long-cooked brisket, slices of ginger and whole scallions, all in an involving, rib-sticking gravy, yum double plus! M&L’s version was straight off the babies’ menu as interpreted by the waiter – bland beef the texture of a wet blanket, hammered into submission then, I’d reckon, dipped in cornflour and fried before drowning in a bland broth.

So it goes. You win some you lose some. One poor dish on the debit side, some exciting gastro treats for credit. Authenticity by the bucket load and portions to match; cheap too – it cost under €70 for everything including tea and copious beers.

The Imperial v Good World face-off was the conclusion of a two-year quest to find Dublin’s best dim sum, those tasty Chinese tapas equivalents. There are few better ways of lunching than to enjoy a selection of these with a pot of Chinese tea. Foodmad is also a fan and together we hatched a plan that would involve trying a similar selection at both restaurants. We decided on prawn cheung fun, a wide rice noodle roll, filled and served with a sweet soy sauce; siu mai, a steamed pork and shrimp dumpling  and the crispy squid. In addition we sampled a further dish at each restaurant  – fried turnip cake at the Imperial and  fun quoi  which, from the look and taste, I’d guess, is minced prawns in a crispy torpedo-shaped pastry.

Food wise, The Good World shaded it, earning plaudits for the succulence of the squid, cased in ethereal  batter and  for the delicacy and the surplus of prawns  in the cheung fun. Pricewise, there was nothing in it – around €24 for the selection, including tea. Service-wise, though, it was a different story. At the Imperial we were grudgingly given a table by one of the two waiters. Both bore the demeanor of pile-crippled undertakers who’d just read that the elixir of life had been discovered and made us feel we were lucky indeed to get any service at all.  Contrast with the Good World where we were civilly ushered to a communal round table which we shared with some jolly Chinese ladies and looked after by caring staff. This is where we’ll be doing our dim sum in future.

M&L, 13 Cathedral Street, Dublin 1, Tel: 01 08748038

Food ***

Wine *

Service ****

Ambience ***

Overall ***

Imperial Chinese Restaurant

12A Wicklow Street Dublin 2 Tel: 01 677 2580

Food ***

Wine **

Service *

Ambience *

Overall **

The Good World

18 South Great Georges Street Dublin 2 Tel: 01 677 5373

Food ****

Wine **

Service ****

Ambience ****

Overall ****

 

READ Ernie’s reviews on Thursdays in The Dubliner, FREE with The Evening Herald

 

 

 

 

BOOK REVIEW ‘Turkey – Recipes and Tales from the Road’ by Leanne Kitchen

I’ve been anxious to get my hands on this book for some time now and the minute I slipped  ‘Turkey – Recipes and Tales from the Road’ out of its padded envelope I knew it had been worth the wait. Fair dues to Murdoch Books; considering the author, Leanne Kitchen (a trained chef turned food writer, originally from New Zealand and now living in Sydney), is not a major media squeeze, the quality of production and finish is remarkable, from the sensuous padded cover, to the simple-but-stylish motif that adorns the edge of the recipe pages, not forgetting the photography. I’m not only talking about the ‘food porn’ although Amanda McLauchlan’s photos, shot mostly with available light, will have you salivating for sure. Leanne herself is no slouch with a camera and her own shots, taken on her travels, bring insight into this magical and, for many, mysterious country. Her felicitious name, by the way, is no nom de plume – “I married a guy called Mr.Kitchen”, she insists. Savvy typography gives the book a classical feel and allows easy access to the recipes.

‘Turkey…’ combines a cookbook and a travelogue. The recipes, in the main are simple, with most of the dishes well within the capability of the average home cook. There’s nothing super-cheffy or twiddly here. What you get is the real Turkey, light years away from the sad kebab shop offerings we’re fobbed off with in Ireland. As Leanne points out, Turkey divides into seven extremely diverse regions, each with its own culinary tradition.  In Istanbul, she says, mezze are elevated to the status of art. Within the pages of this book is a rich and varied cuisine with which the majority of home cooks will be unfamiliar and one that will reward exploration.

Leanne takes you  well off the ‘Turkey for Tourists’ route and writes beautifully about places many will never visit. “My new friend takes me on a ferry ride to Akdsamar to see the thousand year old Cathedral of the Holy Cross an architecturally-important pink sandstone church erected by the Armenian Catholics…  From the island we look back over the sparkling lake to the vast open expanse of land on the other side where farmers are fashioning dried grass into huge round bales of hay. Behind this farmland lies a string of snow-capped mountain peaks. It’s a place of dramatic and breathtaking beauty and it’s fitting that we finish our day trip off by gorging on the local delicacy, inci kefali or pearl mullet. “

Food, always back to food, great. I’ve already got the recipe for Yoghurt and walnut stuffed eggplant with tomato and pomegranate sauce on the go for tonight’s dinner. My quinces, now barely thimble-sized  will be under scrutiny until autumn, earmarked for incorporation into a sweet cheese pie. The slow-roasted lamb with apples poached in pomegranate will get a run out soon – how delightful is the instruction  “To serve, pull the lamb apart into chunks.” I’m going to get massive use out of this book, I can see.

To sum up, ‘Turkey – Recipes and Tales from the Road’ has got to be an early contender for Cookbook of 2011 and currently, for me at least, it’s the one the others have to beat and one I can’t recommend  or praise highly enough, as both a cookbook and a damn good read.

‘Turkey – Recipes and Tales from the Road’ is published by Murdoch Books at GB£25

Footnote: Leanne Kitchen, by her own admission, is by inclination a lone traveler and uncomfortable in groups. This is untrue. At Tasting Australia 2010 I was in her company for two days, both of us part of an unusually harmonious mob of food writers and chefs. Leanne, with whom I share an enthusiasm for hats, contributed a good deal to the travelling experience, not least with her on-bus rendition of Rogers & Hammerstein’s ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning’ which I hope to hear her reprise in 2012.

 

BOOK REVIEW – Martin’s Fishy Fishy Cookbook by Martin Shanahan

Ah, fish, the great Irish paradox.

We live on an island surrounded by fish but, by and large, we shun them unless they come battered or breadcrumbed.  This is because (or so the theory goes) we were forced to eat it on Fridays we don’t really like fish and don’t eat it now we don’t have to. Killarney Restaurateur Paul Treyvaud told me that, of almost 100 covers on Good Friday this year, he only sold a dozen fish main courses. We have some of the best fishing grounds in the world but our fishing fleets are depleted and it’s harder than ever to earn a living as a fisherman.  Bily Joel’s poignant ‘Downeaster Alexa’ might as well have been written for Burtonport or Duncannon as for New England’s Outer Lands. Other nations, however, do recognize the excellence of the fish that abound in Irish waters and will joyfully take the cream of the catch. Dublin, our capital, a city on a bay, doesn’t have a fish restaurant worth the name. I could go on.

The most frequent truism you hear about fish is that we love to eat it but we don’t like to cook it. Fish is commonly perceived as fiddly and difficult. Smelly too, in its raw state.  Hence, we will eat bass, sea bream, salmon, lemon sole etc in restaurants, as long as it comes to table filleted but we won’t buy it from a fishmonger and cook it at home. These are of course ‘truisms that aren’t necessarily true’.

Martin Shanahan’s new book, a companion to his two successful TV series, aims to change this culinary aversion. Fish, he says, is “nature’s fast food”. You can cook a piece of fish as fast as you can cook a sausage and if you can cook a sausage, you can cook fish, that’s his proposition and the recipes in the book go a long way to proving it. Martin, for those who don’t live in Ireland, is the proprietor of Fishy Fishy in Kinsale, Co Cork, a successful enterprise now in its Mark III version that majors on giving diners fresh fish without the fear factor, skinless,  boneless and wholly enjoyable. If you haven’t eaten there, that’s your misfortune, you really should make the effort. Martin is a crusader on behalf of the less popular species – ray, gurnard and haddock to mention but three.

The recipes are tasty but, by and large, uncomplicated. Plain but not too plain, with a fair bit of fusion and ethnic-influence. From fisherman’s pie to salmon with hollandaise sauce; squid with chorizo to potato, leek and mussel soup; avocado with prawns to Thai-style pollock fishcakes, there’s nothing here that the modest home cook couldn’t manage with ease and that’s the great strength of this book. No other fish cookbook I’ve seen demystifies so efficiently. Buy this book and your most difficult challenge will be finding a decent fishmonger.

Martin’s Fishy Fishy Cookbook is published by Estragon Press, John and Sally McKenna’s imprimatur and although soft-covered and plainly produced it doesn’t have that low-budget feel that many publishers seem to think de rigueur for non- ‘A List’ Irish authors. Typesetting and layout have come on in leaps and bounds since Estragon’s early ventures. The book gains considerably from the sensitive photography of Kevin O’Farrell too.

Fish has undeniably lagged behind meat in its appeal to cookbook writers. Had we had Martin’s book twenty-odd  years ago it might have had the equivalent impact of, say, Alistair Little’s ‘Keep it Simple’ which for me was a signpost on the road to Damascus. But, better late than never, as they say. Martin’s Fishy Fishy Cookbook deserves a wide audience and the news that, at time of writing, it has climbed to 9th place in the Irish Best Seller List is heartening indeed.  Hopefully, further onwards and upwards.

Martin’s Fishy Fishy Cookbook is published by Estragon Press, price €20

Footnote: The ‘big one’, the Fish Cookbook for the Really Keen Cook is still out there. Maybe some chef will take up the challenge and write the blockbuster that will do for fish what Dennis Cotter’s ‘Paradiso’ series did to enhance the status of vegetables.

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: Loose Birds & Game by Andrew Pern

 

Game seems , thank God, to be making a comeback. My local Dublin butcher has, in season, venison, pheasant, partridge and mallard. Rabbit, which disappeared from the high street for years is now back in the shops with a vengeance. Yet cookery books dealing exclusively with game are few and far between.

Angela Humphreys’ ‘Game Cookery’ was first published back in the mid-eighties and takes an unashamedly traditional approach.

‘Fat Lady’ Clarissa Dixon-Wright, one of cooking’s great characters whom I had the pleasure of interviewing when I was editor of ‘Food & Wine Magazine’ gave us ‘The Game Cookbook’ in conjunction with Johnny Scott. This one is a massive statement for espousing the ‘wild and real’ produced at a time when our culinary aspirations had got very fey, wimpish even.

Trish Hilferty and Tom Norrington-Davies’s ‘Game: A Cookery Book has got some good reviews. I haven’t read it but , among my culinary chums the main complete seems to be that the recipes are quite labour intensive – personally I don’t find anything wrong in that. It gets a lot of plaudits, particularly for the step-by-step instructions and the photography.

None of these books has quite the flavour of Andrew Pern’s ‘Loose Birds & Game’ which, between its tactile covers is rampant with  ‘personality’. Anthony Hodgson’s classy layout and design has resulted in a tome to treasure. In the hands the book feels gorgeous; there’s a textured, padded silk cover, based on a sepia-toned photograph of a wild bird’s feathers. The inside pages are printed on heavy matt stock, which lends an attractive ‘retro’ feel. In contrast layout and typography are bang up-to-the minute, logical and easy on the eye, helping the reader to follow the recipes. Everyone I’ve shown the book to says ‘Loose Birds & Game’ would be a lovely book to own and they are dead right.

There’s a Foreword by Michel Roux and an Introduction by TV personality/chef Brian Turner. From then on the exuberant enthusiasm of author Andrew Pern takes over. Andrew is the chef patron of the Star Inn at Harome, North Yorkshire, now the recipient of a Michelin star. Loose Birds & Game is the  follow-up to Andrew Pern’s critically acclaimed, multi-award winning first book, Black Pudding & Foie Gras. You soon find, if you hadn’t guessed after reading the ‘nudge-nudge’ title, that Andrew is one of those chefs who believes in living life tothe full, ‘work hard and play hard’ seems to be his mantra. He’s a Yorkshireman, a countryman, a denizen of the moors and fells, ‘coveys of grouse whistling overhead’ and ‘the honeyed perfume of coarse heather’ are a huge part of his heritage. On to the recipes, many of which involve local products like the kiln-smoked Yoadwath Mill ham that Andrew combines with Rievaulx red-legged partridge and Cumbrian speck. Though the presentation is ‘cheffy’ – unsurprising as this is the food that won him his Michelin star there is little that a reasonably competent home cook couldn’t manage. I don’t think this is a book for culinary virgins anyhow – those who are currently cooking their way through Delia or Rachel Allen’s repertoire are unlikely to be tempted to cook game but there are abundant thought-provoking ideas for the keen cook to mull over. I’ve already wowed guests with an adaptation of Andrew’s pan-fried wood pigeon breasts with fig tatin, prune and bacon rolls and spiced juices. When my own figs come in to season in early September I foresee this dish getting a regular outing. Next up is the smoked pheasant, savoy cabbage and beetroot terrine. There are are few innovations, too. I’m itching to make the liquorice gravy Pern used in his fallow deer pie. Plus one or two interesting drinks – like the gooseberry spritzer and wild cherry chocolate brandy. Nor has Andrew Pern left out finned game – there’s a particularly appealing sea trout ballotine. And I like his game pie.

If I have one small quibble it’s that the gorgeous photographs – mainly by Drew Gardner of whom I hadn’t heard – would be done more justice by printing on at least semi-gloss stock. But that’s a personal thing and, overall, Loose Birds & Game is a book I’d be more than happy to own, one that I’d get good use of, as would anyone who likes this rich, properly textured flavoursome food.

Loose Birds & Game by Andrew Pern is published by Face www.facepublications.com at sterling £39.99 or you can save £12 by purchasing from the website http://www.facepublications.com/books/buy/loose-birds-and-game/

RESTAURANT REVIEW – The Box Tree

 

I got taken to task in strange fashion the other day. I was having a quiet pint in Neary’s when a guy I hadn’t seen for years hailed me. I did the “hello, haven’t seen you for ages, must do lunch” thing and sat down with him and his mate. On learning I was a restaurant critic, the latter’s manner changed from affability to antipathy, going on the offensive with “Why is it you lot never review restaurants beyond the pale?” My flippant retort – “I review many restaurants I’d consider beyond the pale” – only served to provoke his aggression. Soon I was on the back foot, struck dumb, unable to explain that The Dubliner/Evening Herald didn’t have too many readers in Roosky, Cashel or Carrickmacross.

I recalled this conversation last Satuday as Sibella and I were driving out to a restaurant in the boonies. Stepaside is, in all honesty, about as far as I’d drive for a meal out, unless maybe Juan Mari Arzak was cooking in Kildare. I suspect most people feel the same, hence the recent rise-and-rise of locality restaurants. Stepaside’s version, The Box Tree, is one-tine wunderkind Eamon O’Reilly’s latest brainchild. Eamonn’s career started with a stint under the guidance of his father and mentor Patrick O’Reilly chef at a leading Dublin hotel, going on to become the youngest chef ever to complete the London City & Guilds cheffing course. He then worked at a number of leading hotels and restaurants including The Ritz-Carlton Boston, The Sheraton Casablanca, ending up at the Michelin 3 star Restaurant Meurice in Paris. Aged a mere 25, he opened his first restaurant in Dublin, One Pico.

2010 was, for Eamonn, an extraordinary year. One Pico gained numerous awards and Eamonn was lauded for kick-starting what’s been called “the move back to realism” being the first to do a competitively-priced three-course lunch of gastronomic propensity. The year ended with the opening of The Box Tree and its adjacent gastro pub, The Wild Boar. Eamonn is very much a chef’s chef. I first heard of the Box Tree’s existence from a couple of his contemporaries who were singing its praises.

When it comes to dining out, we are looking for a balance of the three significant components: (a) good food (and drink) (b) congenial ambience and (c) decent service. Most people I believe would prioritise by putting ambience first and food second. Deviants like me would have them the other way round. For the evening to work, though, all these components have to meld, fusing into the total experience that can be deemed enjoyable. Let’s examine how The Box Tree matches up.

First off, the room is warm and inviting. There is one duff table, immediately before the front door but more of that anon. The décor is immaculate; tasteful grey pastel shades, offset by burnished lampshades adding a note of warmth. Seating is comfortable. That marvelous buzz of people enjoying themselves over-rides background music, if there was any.

On the night, the food was pristine. Sib’s salad of beetroot and Ardsallagh goat cheese mousse, garnished with candied walnuts and ‘baby leaves’ (unfortunate term but we seem to be stuck with it) was a gem of presentation and tasted as good as it looked. My Castletown Bere crab salad actually tasted of crab, no mean feat these days it seems and came with a lightly-curried crème fraiche and excellent Guinness bread, causing me to feel guilty as I’d already whopped up the best part of the bowl of good assorted breads placed on the table on our arrival. We were dining on the early bird – two courses for €19.95; lured by the magic words ’30-day aged’ I plonked down an extra fiver to secure the rib-eye. This superb piece of steak had been manicured, for presentation purposes into a round and was, again, nicely styled. The accompaniment, a fiery, retro (but none the worse for it) green peppercorn and Armagnac sauce, delighted. It also came with ‘three times cooked fat chips’, Heston Blumenthal’s patent version of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. Twice-cooked thinner ones would have done me. Sibs had the special, ‘confit of salmon’, whatever that means, with a mussel risotto and a lobster bisque, stylistically and taste-wise a “Wow!” We both took a dessert, greedy pigs that we are. I had a generous platter of good ice creams, of which the Bailey’s and brown bread was the standout. Sibs collared the hugely satisfying baked apple and wild blackberry crumble. I applaud the wine list for its quirkyness. I hope people take to the Wirra Wirra ‘Lost Watch’ Riesling, a personal favourite deserving of wider appreciation. From Adelaide Hills, with much less minerality than its Clare of Eden Valley cousins, and a surprisingly substantial mouthfeel, it’s available, like much of the list, by the glass or bottle or by the 50cl carafe.

Service was calm, professional, without being intrusive, invigorating to see young waiting staff up on the balls of their feet, looking out for each other and for the diner. A grease spot on my steak nife was spotted and the tool replaced without me having to raise a finger. A couple fretting at the aforesaid draughty table were moved at the first opportunity and given a complementary amuse bouche for their pain. My late mother, a lifetime in the serving game, would have appreciated this display of competence and care. I can bestow no higher praise.

Value? Oh, yes, we spent £86.30, ex-service for three courses, a carafe plus a glass of good wine and a correct espresso. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, as of today, The Box Tree is the most complete and involving dining experience you can get in Dublin for anything like the money. In fact it might just be the most complete dining experience full stop.

The Box Tree, Stepaside Village, Dublin 18 Tel: 01 205 2025

Food ****

Wine ****

Service *****

Ambience *****

Volume 3 bells

Overall ****

 

Restaurant Review – McHUGH’S WINE & DINE

On Christmas Eve a US food critic who remained anonymous for 16 years has had her cover blown by a Los Angeles restaurant. Irene Virbila, who works for the Los Angeles Times, had her picture taken at the Red Medicine restaurant in Beverly Hills and was asked to leave. The restaurant then posted the picture on the internet.

Noah Ellis, managing partner at the restaurant, said some of Ms Virbila’s reviews had been “cruel and irrational” and had “caused hard-working people in this industry to lose their jobs”. The aggrieved restaurateur said “I asked her and her party to leave, as we don’t care for her or her reviews.” Ms Verbila riposted “I never expected that a restaurateur would stick a camera in my face.”

A few days later, I got a call from a radio station in LA, asking for my views. For what it’s worth, I said there are more important issues than anonymity – like honesty and integrity; like the ability to entertain one’s readers; most of all, like the experience and cop-on to see things for what they are – a good critic should be able to tell the difference between a crap restaurant and a good restaurant that’s having one hell of a catastrophic night.

The subject was also aired on my website forum, where I invited contributors to air their views on what makes a restaurant critic. One of them (presumably another miffed restaurateur) wrote “the ability to travel more than 15 minutes from their home”. I don’t know if it was aimed at me – during the recent spell of inclement weather I certainly didn’t stray from Dublin 2/4. Shamed, if not named, I used all my powers of persuasion to get Sibella to spirit me to one of the “here be dragons” enclaves of Dublin for the purpose of this week’s review.

I’ve nothing against Raheny. Well, yes, I have actually – because 66.33% of the people who have done me a bad turn in my 24 years in Dublin hailed from there. Still, all in the past, I mused, as we queued to cross the river. The journey from Sandymount took us the guts of an hour. We found out later that we could actually have got there in half the time on the Dart as our destination was only 800 yards from the station.

Situated in an improbable location, in a small parade of shops in a quiet residential street, McHugh’s Wine & Dine was buzzing. The room is warm and inviting, with slightly larger than average tables and very comfortable chairs. We arrived on the cusp of the early bird and the regular dinner menu and it therefore seemed appropriate to try one of each. It was a night for comfort food and I immediately plumped for the bowl of spicy free range chicken wings. There were a full dozen of them, enough for me to trade with Sibs for some of her inviting looking slow-roasted butternut squash salad, a mélange of squash, crispy pancetta, sage and crunch hazelnuts over crisp green leaves. The wings themselves were delightful, piquantly spiced, with enough flavour in the meat to stand up and be counted, with a clean-textured glaze, light years from the habitual ketchup-and-sump oil treatment this dish usually receives. These were among the best I’ve ever eaten. Apparently they are popular with young people in the locality of who order an even bigger bowl as a main course. I can see why. We took two glasses of Zenato’s admirable Lugana, likewise crisp and spicy and a perfect match for the food. The wine list as befits a restaurant related to the local wine merchant was concise, sensible with a few intriguing items and a couple of stunning bargains. The Oriel ‘Lo Zoccolaio’ Barolo, for example, at €40, is a steal.

Continuing the winter warming theme, I took the ‘special’, the daube de boeuf. This comprised a mound of slow cooked beef cheek, meltingly tasty, accompanied by what appeared at first to be a sausage roll, some excellent truffle mash and rivulets of a pale purée, maybe parsnip. The ‘sausage roll’ turned out to be filled with succulent oxtail, a super idea. Herself, after a flirtation with haddock and chips, settled on the burger and we were both glad she did. It was generously topped with melted cheddar and supplied with a crisp salad and some good relish; neither of us could think when we last had a burger as good. It came garnished with those big square chips seen everywhere these days, of which I’m not a huge fan. These, though, were well fettled, perfectly cooked and didn’t have me yearning for the thin crispy variety. I was so stuffed I couldn’t manage dessert. Well, except for a smidge of Sibs’ choice, a sort of pear and ginger sponge served with vanilla ice cream. Coffee, espresso, was on the decent side of acceptable.

Oops, nearly forgot. Commendably, Mc Hugh’s sports a small range of interesting beers including Budjevicky, Leffe, Chimay, Sam Adams, Fuller’s London Pride and the rich, coriander and apricot-flavoured Bishop’s Finger (the name refers to the signposts which pointed the pilgrims towards Canterbury) that proved the perfect accompaniment for the lavish flavours of the daube and oxtail. Overall, we spent just over €74 to which we were happy to add a tenner tip for the efficient and friendly service from two local girls.

Good neighbourhood restaurants are one of the oft overlooked blessings of Dublin dining, frequently unconsidered as, lemming-like, we rush uptown. Browne’s in Sandymount, Alexis in Dun Laoghaire, Bistro One in Foxrock and many others are doing a smashing job in allowing locals to dine out well but without formality for reasonable cost. They are also well worth travelling to get to. On this evidence, McHugh’s Wine & Dine is up there with the best of them and I’m already looking forward to my next visit.

Rating

Food ****

Wine ****

Service ****

Ambience ****

Overall ****

Mc Hugh’s Wine & Dine, 59 St.Assams Park, Dublin 5 Tel: 832 7435

RESTAURANT REVIEW – Camden Kitchen

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

RATING

Food ****

Wine ***

Service ****

Ambience ***

Overall ****

BOOK REVIEW – Inside the Italian Kitchen

I really like this book, a collaboration between chef Marco Roccasalvo of  the restaurant Capo de’Fiori in Bray and Anne Kennedy of greatfood.ie. who, in her introduction, says “If you think some of his recipes are too simple to be excellent, then his (Marco’s) work is done.”

There’s a long and informative section on the Italian store cupboard, stressing the importance of using top class ingredients and giving a few wrinkles, hints and tips on how to choose and use them. Marco stresses the importance of matching pasta to sauce, for example and teaches you how to tell good mozzarella from bad.

The section on coffee is not mega-helpful; I can’t help thinking it’s a shame that the Italians, who invented that marvelous gadget the espresso machine, overlook coffee’s potential complexity of flavour in favour of the ‘big hit’. A lifestyle thing, I suppose – ‘drink your espresso and move on’.

And so to the recipes. Simple is right and none the worse for it. There’s nothing here that couldn’t be replicated by the average home cook and nothing that your guests wouldn’t enjoy. And, from first page till last, the author’s honesty shines through, contributing to the book’s authenticty.

‘Inside the Italian Kitchen’ would make a wonderful first cookbook, a perfect primer to teach young people away from home for the first time how to cook tasty, nourishing food with the minimum of fuss and bother.

‘Inside the Italian Kitchen’, €20, is published by www.Greatfood.ie and available from the restaurant, from bookshops and from the website.

RESTAURANT REVIEW – China-Sichuan

The China-Sichuan is unique among Dublin restaurants. Firstly, for its uncompromising culinary credo. Secondly, for the clean-cut way in which it divides the dining out fraternity. The China-Sichuan you either love or hate, it seems. Extreme foodies, the sort who rattle their Globals on my website forum, are in the former camp. They agonised when the restaurant shut down earlier this year and rejoiced when, phoenix-like, it reopened. Many others, particularly people who relish Chinese food of the sticky toffee sauce variety are dismissive of the China-Sichuan and I can see why.

The food we’ve got to know and love as Chinese comes from Canton province. It was brought to the western seaboard of the USA by Chinese sailors and labourers, whence it got re-exported to Europe. Canton, in the south of China, enjoys a sub-tropical climate, giving two crops of rice a year and all manner of vegetables and exotic fruit in addition to an abundance of fish, fowl and meat. The variety of foodstuff available allows its culinary artists to paint with a rainbow palette and produce food that’s as beguiling to the eye as it is tasty to eat. The Cantonese are the poster boys for Chinese cuisine.

In contrast, Sichuan, in China’s western interior, has an altogether more austere culinary take. The main feature is an assault on the taste buds via a two-pronged attack using the tiny, russet berries we know as ‘Sichuan peppercorns’ which give a tongue–numbing sensation combined with dried red chillies, more potent than in their fresh state. This violent assault has to be curbed to suit Western palates and it may well be that Sichuan food, throttled back in this fashion, comes over as a tad monochromic, impeccably fresh ingredients notwithstanding.

Another controversial aspect of the China-Sichuan is its relocation to Sandyford, not so much a love/hate vibe as “Can I be bothered going there at all?” I can see the advantages of this non-City centre, non-Ranelagh dining strip location. There’s plenty of parking, easy accessibility via the LUAS if you want to have a jar or two.  It works in other cities – for instance in Adelaide, South Australia, where locals are happy to hike out to a nondescript shopping mall in the boonies because of the existence of a good restaurant. Yet there are many who would find the lack of external ambience depressing. A trading estate is only a trading estate, no matter how much it was bulled up as one of the seven wonders of modern Ireland during the Tiger Years.

Sibs and I rocked up on a Thursday night to find the China-Sichuan agreeably busy. Kevin Hui, proprietor, greeted us at the door and took our coats. The split dining room is decently got up in a restrained contemporary fashion. Chairs are comfortable and tables far enough apart to allow for intimacy, or at least the feeling that your bons mots won’t be repeated at someone else’s breakfast table. It was the first chill autumn night of the year so I kicked off with a hot-and-sour soup, made in Sichuan style with chicken shreds, not the typical mock-Cantonese assortment of pork, prawns and tofu. Greedy guts me also had a second starter, the chili soft shell crab, of which I could have eaten a mountain. Sibs, frugal darling, had opted to eat off the two course early evening menu (€20). Something of a connoisseur when it comes to spring rolls, she pronounced the China-Sichuan’s just about the best she’d had in Dublin.

Next came a complimentary dish on which Kevin asked for feedback. “It’s not quite on the menu,” he said. It was another starter. A roll of sea bass, cooked just a point, into which was stuffed spears of green asparagus and slivers of daikon. We gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

For a main course I took the ‘spicy’ aged rib-eye, coated in three peppers, a dish a friend had eulogised about as “better than the similar dish at Hakkasan”, praise indeed. Taking his tip, I asked for it a little spicier than the norm. More than anything else, this sophisticated dish gave a clue as to where the China-Sichuan is at; it’s now a restaurant that’s combining top-class ingredients and thoroughly modern cheffing, going upmarket to make the most of a relatively restricted culinary tradition. Unlike Cantonese cooking, where the saucing steals the show, Sichuan stands or falls on the quality of the raw materials and this was a top drawer steak, sensitively treated. Sibella was more than happy with her fried prawns with ginger and scallions, the prawns springy and flavoursome. The China-Sichuan is one of the few restaurants in which I’d be happy to eat fried rice, all too often the real culprit for the next morning malaise that’s normally laid at the door of MSG. We also took a side dish of perfectly cooked bok choi.

It was heartening to see the ever-more widely adopted practice of making wine available by the glass, carafe or bottle. Kudos to the China-Sichuan for a wine list that included the excellent Alsace gewürztraminer of Meyer-Fonne We drank it, by the way, not because gewurz is the best partner for Chinese food, a  daft old saw you often hear, but simply because that was what we fancied drinking.

To sum up, we were happy with the €91.50 ex-service, including wine and Chinese tea, we paid. Ireland needs some high end Chinese restaurants to remind us just how good the cuisine of that country can be. The China-Sichuan is working very hard to take pole position and I’d like to see a Cantonese emerge that has equivalent aspirations.

RATING

Food ****

Wine ***

Service **

Ambience ****

Overall ***+

China-Sichuan The Forum, Ballymoss Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18. Tel: 01 293 5100