Tag Archives: Recommended

ON TEST: Lidl frozen (cooked) Canadian lobster


Fantastic price, but is a fantastic bargain? Lobster at Lidl, €4.99 for a specimen that yields 350g, enough for 2-4 persons depending upon the dish. This mean dude comes frozen, pre-cooked and, though it’s dead as the Celtic Tiger, still scary looking, even swathed in a protective block of ice.

I love lobster. I’ve eaten it, at a quick reckoning, in 14 countries. Best ever? Straight from boat to BBQ in county Wexford. Runner-up, South Australian rock lobster on a beach on Kangaroo Island, kudos to chef Tony McMahon, and washed down wth the gorgeous Jacob’s Creek Steingarten Riesling. And the worst? At a posh resort in Fiji, years ago, the memory of fish-flavoured toothpaste haunts me yet.

Lidl’s lobster comes from Canada, presumably Nova Scotia, cold water territory. Cold water means the lobsters have to jog to keep warm. This builds muscle tone, texture and flavour. No lounging about with the shades, the Stieg Larsson and the Factor 40 for these guys.

There’s a perception that lobster is tricky but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Just give these rascals plenty of time to defrost. The pack recommends defrosting 24 hours or by leaving in running water until the ice melts. The eco-freak in me won’t allow such wastage so I left them in a sinkful of cold water and refreshed the water from time to time. Ice melted, I increased the water temperature to ‘tepid’, adding a little sea salt.

Preparing the beasts is not rocket science. Cut off the claws, as near to the body as you can. Whack them lightly with a hammer or the blunt end of a cleaver. Peel off the shell and prise out the meat (using fingers and a metal skewer). Twist off the head. Draw a sharp knife down the underside of the belly, splitting the body into two. Extract the meat, easy-peasy. You can save the half-shells for serving the lobster in but I prefer to collect all the residue and make stock, boiling it up with water and any vegetable trimmings I can find.

Lobster salad with homemade mayonnaise, lobster bisque, lobster Thermidor and a Thai lobster green curry were possibilities that sprang to mind. First time out, I made a risotto, taking a mere 20 minutes, start to finish, mainly because The Evening Herald were sending a photographer and I was time-strapped.

I’ve subsequently cooked the recipe twice for friends and both times it’s been a winner, the Lidl lobster receiving plaudits for both texture and flavour. Now it’s a staple in my freezer.

As that lovable TV rogue, Arthur Daley, said: “Bit o’ this, bit o’ that, the world’s your lobster.”

VERDICT: Good product, well worth the money.  Obviously it will never be quite as succulent and flavoursome as a fresh-caught Lobster from cold waters but it’s a cheaper and a very satisfactory alternative.

Recipe: Lobster and Leek risotto here

RESTAURANT REVIEW – Olivier’s at The Schoolhouse

Were I to make a list of the qualities I demand from my ‘dining companion’ it would be a very short one. A healthy appetite and, ideally, a willingness to push the frontiers would do. I still remember with horror the night I was dining with A Famous Person who, halfway through the meal turned round to me, saying “All this stuff is rather wasted on me; I only eat to stay alive.” I do like to take someone with an appreciation of décor, to cover up my deficiencies in this department – if the grub is fantastic (or terrible) I maybe wouldn’t notice whether the chairs are black leather or gold velour.

Reviewers differ in ways of referring to their ‘co-pilots’. Some opt for initials, leaving the reader to ponder whether ‘SG’, let’s say, is Serge Gainsbourg or Sam Goldwyn. Others leave clues – ‘depressing singer-songwriter’ or ‘accident-prone goalkeeper’. My own preference is to cloak my guest in a pseudonym you’ll have noticed Bangles, Sibella, Petite Chef, etc cropping up. It’s not often that I break someone’s cover but this week I’m going to reveal that my guest ‘KD’ is the foodie lady behind The Cookbook Club, one of the most inventive and enjoyable innovations to hit the Irish dining scene in 2010 (check it out on www.the cookbookclub.ie, I’ll say no more).

Though the bar at The Schoolhouse was heaving, the restaurant was quiet. I was not surprised. There is value in it for a business prepared to shout about what it doing yet noise of the recent changes at the Northumberland Road hotel was so low key it would need a basso profondo to sing it. The cooking was now in the hands of the talented Olivier Quenet of La Maison  in Castlemarket, formerly responsible for the stylish pub fare at Vaughan’s of Terenure.

I do like the room, although with its high ceiling it’s difficult to cosy up. There’s one duff table by the door – avoid if possible, as we did. Tables are a decent size, each with its own space. Chairs are comfortable. Glassware and table linen are of excellent quality and the waiting staff, from the off, proved civil and professional. We might have guessed, but didn’t until we were handed the menu, that this was going to be ‘fine dining’. I’m sure our intake of breath was audible as we realised there was no table d’hote nor ‘two for twenty-five’ special.

Still, the menu, in French with English translations, winked and waved like a siren. Every supplier was name-checked, viz: “Salade de noix de St. Jacques du petit bateau de John O’Donnell (Balbriggan)” which is what I ordered for my starter. Five plump, sweet, caramelized scallops with a generous amount of cauliflower puree, a scattering of crisp salad and a nicely restrained hazelnut vinaigrette. KD’s butternut squash soup, perked up with a discernible trace of nutmeg was another winner.

My braised wild partridge main course came with a lovely jus (gravy not emulsion) and, a nice touch this, the trimmings arrived on foot of the main plate, made into a warm salad. The bird itself was perfectly cooked, tender and succulent, on a bed of chicory a vegetable rarely seen these days. The trademark slight bitterness pointed up the feathered game a treat. KD had what would have been my second choice the ‘Cote de porc Saddleback organique’ from Coolanowle House in Carlow. Yes, there was a square of the commonplace belly. There was also a large thick-cut chop and some melt-in-the mouth black pudding made from the same breed. Truly, pork as good as it gets.

We selected a simple Chardonnay from the Pay’s d’Oc to accompany the starters. Then a bottle of Cahors red (thankfully, in the modern style of Cahors, not the savage, colour of school ink tipple) which complemented the robust flavours. There’s a good deal worth drinking on this savvy list but much is arcane, so average punters won’t find too many of their regular stand-bys. As with the food, the restaurant’s wine suppliers are top-notch and even at lower levels (a relative term since the base bottle is €24), there’s no crap. Relax and put your fate in the hands of the excellent young French sommelier would be my advice.

To finish we split a dessert – a wonderful adult version  of one of those kids’ ice creamy treats, with pear, caramel, fresh yoghurt and good vanilla ice cream  – and cheese, a selection from seven or eight Irish cheeses all in prime condition.

We found we had spent €141, ex-service. Knock off the two glasses of white and that’s €125. Seems maybe expensive but I’ve lost count of the times I’ve spent €100 on 2 x 3 courses and a bottle of humdrum wine and come away feeling robbed. From the service to the sparkling glassware to the even more sparkling food, at the Schoolhouse everything was top notch. I really want things to work out for these guys. Olivier Quenet is an exemplary chef and a decent skin. Creating a fine dining establishment in the current climate seems a brave and risky move. What’s more, fine dining in the proper sense needs more bodies to service the customer than were in evidence the night we were there. I’d like to think they will be able to gear up their game when they get busy, as I fervently hope they will.


Food ****

Wine ****

Service ****

Ambience **

Overall ****

The Schoolhouse, 2-8 Northumberland Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4 tel: 01 6675014

ON TEST: Thermal Chef low energy cooker

Not often I’m impressed by a piece of cooking equipment. I’m a believer in buying the best, telling anyone who listens that “good kit doesn’t let you down”.

Hence I own sturdy, functional pots and pans, with handles that don’t wobble or fall off. Keen knives for all purposes, from filleting plaice to dissecting a deer. My espresso machine is of commercial quality. My coffee roaster, made in Korea, looks like something out of a Heath Robinson cartoon but is as dependable as the Swiss railway system. Lately I’ve bought the ice cream maker I’d always craved. Blini pans, crepe pans, woks, steamers, got the lot – in fact there’s not much I don’t have, or need. But lately a new piece of kitchen gear has insinuated itself onto my shelves.

The Thermal Chef is not a new gadget. The Japanese, who invented the concept, have been using them for years. Basically, it’s a pot inside a pot. The inner one, which you can place on the hob, has a close fitting see-through lid. The outer one is, in effect, an insulation chamber.

I’m using the Thermal Chef for stews and casseroles – like my classical boeuf a la bourguignonne in the recipe pages here or my favourite carbonnade Flamande; for making large-ish batches of things like ragu for Bolognaise or lasagna, for steak and kidney pie fillings; for slow-cooked lamb shanks or for tenderizing cheap but tasty cuts of meat like skirt or shin beef.

The basic technique is simple. You prep your raw materials, place them in the Thermal Chef with an appropriate amount of water/stock/wine to choice plus seasoning, put on the hob, bring to the boil and cook for 5-10 minutes. Then you lift the pot from the stove, place the container inside the outer pot and click down the lid, leaving the food to continue cooking for, say 5-6 hours. I actually like to sweat or brown the veggies and meat in a little olive oil before adding stock, but that’s a counsel of perfection. Recently I made four litres of stock from the shells of a batch of Lidl’s excellent Canadian frozen, cooked lobsters.

By now the advantages (considerable) should be obvious. A low energy requirement – Thermal Chef must be the ultimate ‘Green cooker’; a claim that vitamins and minerals are retained (haven’t checked it); convenience (no need to stand over the dish or even be in the house while it’s cooking; flexibility – mealtimes can be a moveable feast; portability – I’ve carted dishes to friends’ houses; flavour and succulence – the long, slow cooking gets the most out of meat. For anyone camping or caravanning or couples who are both out at work this gadget would be a boon. All the above makes the sturdy Thermal Chef well worth the €99.99 ask.

One further thing. I don’t like to waste food and am keen on making stocks from offcuts and leftovers. But after enjoying a meal who wants the whiff of boiling bones through the house? You can let stocks simmer away in the double Thermo Chef and, thanks to the efficient insulation, there’s absolutely no smell.

Further details from the website: http://www.thermalchef.com where you can also buy the equipment.

Restaurant Review – The Lock Brasserie

As one who once put his money where his foodie mouth was, I have an enduring admiration for restaurateurs, most of whom work heroic hours for the sort of reward that could probably be exceeded if they’d stayed in bed and put their savings in prize bonds.

Very few of the restaurants now considered members of the Dublin dining establishment have had it easy. I can’t think of one that was an overnight success and most have had wobbles along the way. Ask Ross Lewis, Kevin Thornton, Derry Clarke, I’m sure they’ll give you chapter and verse.

What always amazes me is when a restaurateur who has climbed inch-by-inch up the greasy pole of profitability by dint of a combination of talent, hard work and that rare commodity cop-on decides to open another outlet. Take, for instance, Sebastian Masi and Kirsten Batt who, within weeks of begetting a first child, have begat a second restaurant. Having nurtured Pearl Brasserie to the age where, in Sebastian’s words “it rattles along nicely” and, obiter, picks up awards along the way (Food & Wine Magazine Restaurant of The Year 2009) they decide to acquire and re-open Locks. Mad or what?

Making a go of Locks is undeniably the most challenging yet intriguing restaurant project in Dublin. Picked up and dropped into any other city in Europe the canal bank at Portobello would be awash with restaurants, cafés, bars, etc. As it is, Locks and the estimable Nonna Valentina stand alone and the adjacent waterside remains the province of swans, joggers and snoggers.

Back in the 1980s Locks, along with the Coq Hardi and the Mirabeau was a place that caused you to exclaim “Hey, someone in this benighted country must have money!” I was taken there once; you could hardly see across the room for Havana cigar smoke and a tramp could have got a year’s pleasure from a night’s discarded butts. Paradoxically, Locks descent started around the time the rest of us acquired enough sponds to dine out under our own steam. In decline, it changed hands and became an all-things-to-all-people eaterie and that didn’t work either. Despite good chefs, a semi-scenic location, parking outside the door and a room other restaurateurs would kill for, Locks Mks 1 and 2 eventually didn’t hack it.

So what of Mk.3? Sibella and I arrived and were delighted to find  Thomas Pinoncely, formerly of Pearl Brasserie, installed as maitre d’. Thomas is one of those suave-but-not sticky, friendly-but-not effusive meeters’n’greeters and it was early evident that his version of hospitality is rubbing off on the front-of-house staff. Chef is Rory Carville who has done stints at The Four Seasons and L’Ecrivain in a peripatetic career, a man with a reputation for revering the fresh, wild and real.

From the a la carte Sibs selected the goat cheese beignets, a tastefully appropriate presentation of this eternal crowd pleaser. I homed in on the (bottom to top) daube of beef, monkfish cheek and foie gras. For ages I just stared, marveling at the serendipitous combo of three of the things I like most; the glistening fish, the crisp-yet-deliquescent foie, the juicy beef – seduction on a plate. Or thankfully in a dish, as there remained a heavenly sauce to mop up with the good bread provided and enjoy like the encore at the end of a great gig. A short odds candidate for ‘starter of the year’, I decided.

“The rare breed pork belly or the lamb?” I enquired of Thomas. “The pork, undoubtedly. It is the chef’s signature.” I needn’t really have asked. The words ‘rare breed’ always suck me in. There’s a universe of difference between the flesh of a cosseted Gloucester Old Spot or a Tamworth and that of a flabby cartoon porker that’s been fed on God knows what. This piggy king came crowned with two tortellini, both stuffed with pork shreds and soused with a sherry vinegar reduction. The presentation was modern – dots and zig-zags of a pea puree and good tart apple sauce. In contrast the vegetables we’d ordered were delivered in traddy-looking copper pots – crisp small chips (I’m getting a tad fed up of the ubiquitous fat feckers) and a harmonious mélange of small peas, garlic, pearl onions and celery, styled ‘a la francaise’. Sibs had a wonderful piece of hake, a much under-rated fish, again pristinely arranged. Locks’ new chef has created a see-saw where ‘food you’ve just got to eat’ and ‘food so pretty you shouldn’t spoil the picture’ swing back and forth before coming to rest at the ‘eat me’ end. Sebastian Masi has this talent in spades so I’d guess he was pleased to find someone cast in his own image.

I wimped out of dessert, taking only a selection of (excellent) ice creams and sorbets. Then I was mildly miffed to find I could indeed have eaten Sibella’s ethereal strawberry fool, with ice cream on the side too. Afterwards, I couldn’t resist espresso and was, of course, disappointed. Why is it the last thing you have before you leave a restaurant is so often a let-down? (Memo to all restaurateurs: get over to Third Floor Espresso on Middle Abbey Street and watch Colin Harmon in action). On the other hand wines, some available by glass or 375ml carafe, were excellent. We took an Alsace Pinot Blanc (Meyer-Fonne, fine producer) and a Cote du Rhone smugly secure in the arcane knowledge that they bore the hallmark of Le Caveau and Simon Tyrell, two of Ireland’s best specialist importers. Service throughout was first rate.

We parted with €121, ex-service, including coffee and two carafes of wine. I already love Mk 3 or The Lock Brasserie to bestow its proper title. I intend going back, next time for lunch and soon, picking a day in which sunlight floods that gorgeous room, lingering for as long as they’ll let me.


Food ****

Wine ****

Service ****

Ambience ****

Overall ****

The Lock Brasserie, 1 Windsor Terrace, Portobello, Dublin 8 Tel: 01 420 0555

Restaurant Review – Wolfe's Irish Artisan Bistro

With a significant birthday to celebrate I decamped to Brittany for two weeks in August, renting a house and gathering my nearest and dearest together to ensure the occasion did not go unmarked (we’re woeful at sending cards and giving presents). In the evenings we took turns to cook. On the last night I fettled a Thai green curry, one of the best I’ve ever cooked. Not, I hasten to add, because of my culinary skills. Simply because the prime ingredients – langoustines, scallops and a huge monkfish tail that glistened like diamonds in a mountain stream – were the finest you’d see anywhere. A joy to buy and a joy to cook with.

In Ireland we have a problem with seafood. We love to eat it. But we rarely cook it at home because it’s (wrongly) perceived as fiddly, even difficult. At the same time, for a nation surrounded by sea, there are remarkably few reliable seafood restaurants.

I found Wolfe’s Irish Artisan Bistro after a quick trawl through the forums on my website www.forkncork.com. It’s on Capel Street, roughly half way between Jack Nealon’s and McNeills if you are travelling by pub and easy to miss as Bangles and I walked past it twice. Telephoning in advance, I had taken the receptionist’s offer of “a nice table upstairs, by the window.” On arrival we were initially disappointed as the ground floor room seemed busy-buzzy whereas upstairs we were the only diners. The room was decently tricked out, though, and the chairs comfortable. As Bangles and I had a deal of catching up to do we soon forgot about the lack of company. Someone has good taste in music. Tom Waits and Nick Cave, damped down as not to impede conversation, entertained us.

I noted with approval that there was a fifteen euro bottle of wine on the carte, not a bad one either. We went medium upscale, taking the always reliable Willunga 100 viognier at €27.Most expensive wine on the list was €34. Bangles nabbed the chicken terrine, following up with the rack of free range pork, my initial fancy until an urge to continue the shellfish-fest I’d started in Douarnenez surfaced. The starter was total ‘me’ – four plump scallops, quickly caramelised and finished with girolle mushrooms, a little cream and a scattering of summer truffles. Bangles’ coarse terrine was tasty yet delicate, served with a rivulet of carrot purée kept the right side of bland with a touch of citrus and garnished with spicy carrot cress, nice touch. I was initially dismayed by the absence of bread, needed for mopping up the delicious residue of the scallops and cream. A call to the personable Czech waiter remedied this but really it shouldn’t have been necessary – it would cost little to provide a basket of bread and should have been put on the table when we arrived.

The pork, an emperor-sized chunk with the crackling on it, came topped with crispy morsels which, the chef informed us later, proved to be slivers of pig’s ear, (don’t shudder, they were delicate and delicious) and robust mustard mash. Though the pork was a gastro-treat in itself, it could have done with some spicy chutney, maybe a little Hungarian style red cabbage or even plain apple sauce to point up and enhance the flavour. My Irish lobster, a monster, did full justice to the cold sea around our shores, a submarine gymnasium where these kings of crustaceans develop muscle tone, and hence texture and taste. It was cooked to perfection, springy but not tough. Lobster is filling food so I didn’t eat too many of the excellent, properly crisp chunky chips. I thought the price of the dish, €38, even given the size, was a trifle expensive. There’s a glut of lobster at the minute and the price per kilo has dropped considerably. Many restaurants are using Nova Scotia lobster (of only average quality), enabling them put it on the menu for under €30. Were I in charge of The Artisan I’d maybe dispense with the chips or just add a few for garnish and keep the price down to around €32.

We shared a passion fruit panna cotta which Bangles thought on the tart side (she has a sweet tooth). For me, the taste was fine. I enjoyed the sharp tang of the fruit, heaped on the top, complementing the mellow cream heavily laced with what I detected was good vanilla.I lost a mark or two for texture. The perfect panna cotta is, to borrow from Paul Simon, one that slip-slides away. This was ’hearty eating’.

Open three weeks, Wolfe’s Irish Artisan is not yet the finished article though it shows much promise. Suppliers, all of excellent repute, are listed on the menu; cooking, by young chef Peter Fisher, is extremely sound; prices are reasonable, extremely so if you shy away from plutocratic items like lobster and scallops. There’s a 3-course pre-theatre for €30. Service-wise, we initially felt somewhat neglected. On the night the bulk of the business was downstairs and in such circumstances there’s a need for real awareness if the restaurant has to keep in touch with diners aloft; this initiative was lacking until we brought the waiter up sharp, after which his head would appear round the doorway at regular intervals. All-in-all it’s certainly a contender for ‘best place to eat north of the Liffey if you can’t get into Chapter One’. The Artisan (full name’s a bit of a mouthful) is a plain, unvarnished bistro, so don’t expect things too fiddly-farty, it’s a ‘what you see is what you get’ sort of gaff. None the worse for that.

Wolfe’s Irish Artisan Bistro, 153 Capel Street, Dublin 1 Tel: (01) 874 9570


Food ****

Wine ***

Service **

Ambience **

Volume 1 bell

Overall ***

Originally published in The Dubliner, FREE with the Evening Herald on Thursdays

So it Goes…. this week's decent drinking

I am indebted to fellow wine writer Paul Kiernan who, via his Twitter monicker @grapesofsloth, gave me the heads up on a letter to Decanter magazine in which a reader asked “What planet are your tasters on when they describe wines as ‘high wired’ and ‘coiled with purpose’?” What indeed. “Uranus, as in ‘talking through…” would have been my response.
Once more the vexed subject of descriptive and pseudo-scientific language in a wine context raises its head. In order to justify our meagre stipend we wine scribes have to do a bit better than “You should buy the Quinta de Pancas Touriga Nacional Reserve 2007, it’s really good” (it is though – try Corkscrew, Chatham St or The Wine Boutique, Ringsend). And, to keep ahead or at least abreast of those who’ve been processed through the WSET exam system we have to come up with something more original than “aromas of bergamot, mandarins, figs and forest floor”.
Following a bit of banter with Paul I decided it was time for action. With the aid of a willing accomplice, a two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and an A4 notepad I devised the initial (analogue) version of WRADEC – Whalley’s Random Adjective and Descriptor Compiler. First I wrote down a list of a wine’s components – nose, palate, body, aftertaste, finish etc. Then I got my acolyte to select a page of the SOED at random. Next I eeny-meeny-miney-moed up and down the page, settling on a descriptor, which I wrote down. After a few passes of this kind , I sorted out the jumble into something approaching a coherent and hopefully, plausible sentence.
The random inclusion of ‘swinging’ in my first effort gained me a clatter of undesirable followers on Twitter. But eventually I had a whole heap of new things to say, I mean, “A shog of a wine, almost fescenine on the nose; brusquely effulgent of palate with a longiloquent finish”, how good is that? I have someone working on the software as I write.
Meanwhile, the stream of bargains coming out of the supermarkets continues. A couple of years ago we couldn’t get anything drinkable for €8. I hope you all took Martin Moran at his word (Evening Herald HQ) and bought shedloads of the gorgeous Jacobs Creek Reserve Riesling while it was €6.50 at Tesco. Staying in the cut-price category the same outlet also has another couple of cracking whites. There’s a glut of NZ sauvignon around at the minute and Fern Bay 2009 is drinking well for the money. And I particularly liked the Macon Villages Blanc 2008, well-structured chardonnay. Marks & Spencer also have a decent Macon Villages of the same vintage, as well as a 2008 single estate Orvieto with a snappy herb-and-spice nose and apple and pear fruit on the palate. Unless you are really into that tropical fruit vibe (and many people are) I’d take either of the Macons before the SQ Classic Collection chardonnay but SQ’s Semillon-sauvignon blanc is simply in a different league. Tipping the scales at a reasonable 12 per cent ABV it would be great for casual drinking in the garden; it’s incredibly food-friendly; and could be regarded as a bit of a keeper if you wish – ‘Mr.Versatility’, for daft money. All these wines retail for less than €8.

Slow Food Event – Spice Mantraa

Hot1 chilliesI’ve got a great afternoon lined up for this Sunday. Come and join me and spice up your life. The Garden Convivium – that’s the South Dublin and Wicklow ‘branch’ of the wonderful Slow Food movement, in conjunction with wine importers Febvre, have organized ‘The Spice Mantraa’, an exciting event that includes a drinks reception; a 5-course feast of Indian food, with matched wines; a talk on Indian culinary history; a cooking demo; an introduction to spices – including their use for medicinal purposes and a whole host of other delights. ‘Goody bags’ to take away, too. The event commences at 1.30, at new Indian restaurant Mantraa, 123 Lower Baggot Street, Dublin 2.

Organiser Hermione Winters tells me there are still some places available – cost €55 or €45 to Slow Food members – you can join on the day and save a tenner. mailto:wicklow@slowfoodireland.com to book.

Here’s the full programme:
“The Spice Mantraa”
1. Drinks Reception with light snacks
2. Introduction to Indian Food – North, East, West and South Indian food habits and traditions
3. Introduction to spices and their various uses – Includes display of spices and demonstration
4. Ayurvedic Importance and medicinal usage of the different spices
5. Food @ Mantraa and how we are unique
6. Introduction to Tandoor
7. Live demo of Chicken Tikka Starters, Chicken Tikka Masala Mains and Naan Bread
8. Briefing on popular dishes – Chicken Tikka Masala, Lamb Rogan Josh and Meen Moilee
9. Question and Answer Session
10. Mantraa Special 5-Course Meal – Amuse Bouche -> Starter -> Soup -> Mains -> Dessert, including matching alcohol with spices
11. Conclusion session
a. Summary of the session in writing
b. Few Sample Recipes
c. Mantraa Gift bags to take-away: Small spice bags/marination kits with recipes included.

Restaurant Review – Chapter One

“Mister Whalley; how delighted, honoured, gratified, enraptured we are to have you here tonight.”

Why, thank you, Martin. In your inimitable way you’ve just made me and my guests, Sibella and Calluna, our niece, feel like The Most Important People in the Universe. The maestro of maitre d’s, the PT Barnum of meeters’n’greeters, has worked his magic yet again. Once inside Chapter One, the trick is to commandeer a table as far as possible  from the front door, so there’s no possibility of overhearing Martin reprise “Ah, Mister Ryan how delighted…” as the next party arrives. I had booked, unusually, in my own name. They know me here so there’s no point in attempting subterfuge. I thought of donning a wig, dark glasses and acquiring a white stick and a labrador. Rent-a-Dog’s website was down, so I abandoned the plan.

The two tasteful and comfortable dining rooms, plus the cosy bar area where you can doss down on plush stools for a pre-prandial, augment the welcome, as do the staff who spring into action as soon as Martin has let you through the portal. He has cast them in his own image. Not that they go rushing round squealing “how delighted…”; just that they attend to your needs in an attentive yet dignified manner redolent of the good hotels of yesteryear.

I’d be surprised if Chapter One’s ‘pre-theatre’ menu wasn’t the prototype for all the value offerings that have sprung up since we reverted to banana republic status. It’s still the benchmark by which I judge the rest. I’m a massive fan of Ross Lewis’ cooking, combining, as it does, modern and classical elements in the manner of French masters like Robuchon and Guy Savoy, guys who, back in the ’80s, hammered a stake through the heart of nouvelle cusine. Ross’s plates are pretty but not fussy. He has a huge regard for quality ingredients, which he treats in a sympathetic manner. Though there are novelties – the pea and asparagus soup that comes adorned with an egg poached in red wine, for example – they are always sensible, with flavours contrasting but harmonious. There’s a substance and, at the same time, a lightness of touch – here, I’d instance the slow cooked shoulder of  lamb, combined with celeriac purée, and a dusting of fragrant gremolata, enjoyed by both Sibs and Calluna. There’s a deal of Irish about, including the indigenous charcuterie trolley, instituted some years ago. We wondered at the time whether there was enough Irish charcuterie to cover an espresso saucer but Ross, sourcing impeccable, managed to procure enough variety to make up a decorous plateful. Calluna’s starter, the escabeche of red pepper and oven dried plum tomato jelly, smoked Ardsallagh goats cheese, asparagus and basil was all the above, shaped into one stylish presentation.

The three course dinner, available between 6 and 7pm, costs €37.50. Double this up, add a brace of coffees and you’ve spent €78. You could blow more than this on chicken liver paté/rib eye/banoffi pie with paper napkins and crude glassware at a run-of-the mill Dublin steakhouse. This modest pricing leaves you scope to select an amicable bottle of wine from the genuinely exciting list. If you want to keep things frugal the house wine, thanks to Ian Breslin, currently Ireland’s sommelier of the year, is particularly well chosen. Going just a tad upscale I grabbed a single (luckily, Calluna is not yet of drinking age, ha ha) bottle of Pezat, made from grapes grown within welly-chucking distance of some of the finest plots in St.Emilion by a genius called Jonathan Malthus. (I’ll take this opportunity to apologise to readers of our sister publication for boring their butts off about this gem.)

Word had reached Sibella via the feminine bush telegraph that the warm chocolate mousse was the dessert of choice and so it was voted by both her and the fair Calluna. Me, I wimped out and opted for the less calorific lime parfait. It’s good to be able to report that the espresso here has vastly improved since my last visit, too.

Abandoning my usual excessive modesty, I shall reveal that I was hollering for the Michelin men to acknowledge the worth of Chapter One long before most of my southside neighbours had even heard of its existence; a feat akin to picking a Triple Crown winner at a yearling sale. Each time I go back I see no reason to change this opinion. No disrespect to Messrs Guilbaud, Thornton and Dublin’s other great restaurateurs and chefs but I believe it is Chapter One who hold most of the high cards when it omes to providing what I’d call ‘the complete dining-out experience’. I’ll head off any criticism that, being known, I got special treatment. Everyone in the restaurant, without exception, looked as happy as we did. I’ll leave the verdict to our fifteen year-old gourmet, who is as I write, prising the lid off her piggy bank to see if she has enough for a return trip.

Verdict: In Calluna’s words – “Amazing”.

Rating *****

Chapter One, Basement of Writers Museum, 18/19 Parnell Square, Dublin 1 Tel: 353 1 8732266

3 x 3-course Pre-theatre dinner 112.50

2 x coffee 3.00

1 bottle Pezat red 40.00

TOTAL 155.50

Restaurant Review: M & L

The burgeoning Chinatown in the hinterland of O’Connell Street has thrown up a good many restaurants, some worthy of a visit, some less so. These places are a world away from the Chinese restaurants we grew up with, a happy land of paper globes, toffee sauces and waitresses clad in whatever the Chinese equivalent of ‘kimono’ is called. The new eating houses exist principally to fuel the Chinese community. The dining rooms are frill-free. There is little English spoken. Many of them seem uncomfortable with the very concept of feeding occidentals, though some have adapted by providing pictorial menus, akin to those in Spanish or Greek seaside resorts. Whenever I go to one of these places there’s always a party of Chinese at the next table. The Chinese love to eat – a Chinese equivalent of “how are you?” is “have you eaten yet?” – and they’re deadly serious about it. The food they are eating looks different to the fodder in front of you. Chopsticks clicking away, they swoop at a bejeweled plateful of something-or-other or dive into an enormous bowl of broth to pluck out a morsel. “My God,” you think. “I’d love to try some of that.” Trouble is, how to acquire it. Well, I’ve tried the Harry-met-Sally gambit and it doesn’t work. To compound the difficulty the waiters frequently go to great lengths to inform you that what you are trying to order either doesn’t exist or, for some reason, is unavailable. I think they want to protect you from yourself. Dining in London’s Lisle Street I tried in vain to procure the honey-roasted sausages I’d heard so much about. “You won’t like them” said the waiter. I riposted “Let me be the judge of that”. He gave me the politest blank look I’ve ever encountered. Somehow my words must have got through, though, for after a brief trip to the kitchen he returned, saying “Chef made some this morning. They not good. He not serve.” The chef came out of the kitchen to support this claim. I gave up. There’s no arguing with a man who wields a big cleaver. The other day a friend told me of this restaurant where they sold ‘egg yolked soft shell crabs’. “I don’t think they really want you to have them though”. That did it. The very next night found Foodmad (who better?) and me trekking past the Bertie pole in the autumnal gloom. M & L, next door to the Pro-Cathedral, is a plain but scrupulously clean and tidy place, right down to the ‘offices’. We were glad we’d booked for, at 7.45, the dining room was packed with Chinese – couples, business quartets and families. The pleasant young waiter brought the menu and a big pot of jasmine-scented tea. “About these crabs…” I said. Initially, he denied its existence. Then he relented, willing-if-not-quite-happy to provide crab with ginger and scallions. Though I consider it one of the world’s great dishes it wasn’t what I wanted. We were after the soft shell variety, the mange tout of crustaceans. The words “egg yolk” seemed to do the trick. Afterwards he was on our side. With the exception of a plateful of Cantonese roast duck of which I am excessively fond we left the rest of the meal to him. He brought us chilli squid, melt-in-the mouth, clad in a whisper-light batter; a spicy beef dish in a broth; chicken for heroes, bite sized pieces, surrounded by peanuts and an arsenal of chillies. We drank Chinese beer, an effective fire extinguisher, along with the tea. It was a monumental meal and the crabs were the crowning glory. Not stewed till squishy as I’d had them before in Hong Kong but coated in an egg-yolk and spice dip and deep fried. You could devour the lot, carapace, legs and all, crunching them like crisps, but there was such a mountain of them we didn’t bother once the novelty of doing so had worn off. The crab meat within was terrific, full of flavour, worth going through the whole rigmarole to acquire. Only disappointment was the duck. The Chinese themselves eat this plain dish “as it comes”, hot, lukewarm or cold. Good hosts, they assume that Europeans like their food hot and their duck crispy and off the bone, so they fillet and re-fry, which robs the flesh of its succulence. It was my fault. Though I did manage to get them to leave the bone in, my appetite for confrontation wilted at this point. I should have persevered. Relaxed, once he had seen we were happy with his choice, our new friend confided “Next time ask for ‘original Chinese menu’”. We certainly will. We’d consumed a mountain of food, having ordered through enthusiasm and natural greed what was probably enough for five people. He produced some plastic boxes and Foodmad happily carted the leftovers home. M & L – never did find out the origin of the name – is undoubtedly the best of the new breed of Chinese restaurants. It probably won’t be well-received by Dame Street devotees although I’m sure sweet-and-sour something lurks somewhere on the menu. But any foodie with a taste for ethnic authenticity and an ability to climb out of the comfort zone should beat a path to the door.

Verdict: Clean, friendly, affordable, authentic, grab the crabs

Rating ***1/2

For all the above we spent just over €70 and it would have fed 6!

M & L Szechuan Chinese Restaurant, 13 Cathedral St, Dublin Tel: 01 874 8038

Separated at birth?

More than a few people have commented on what they reckon is an uncanny likeness between superstar San Sebastian chef Juan Mari Arzak and a certain Dublin-based food and drink writer. This photo, taken a couple of years ago after one of the most memorable meals of my life, should help you decide for yourselves.

Hmmm… he does look a bit like me doesn’t he? Maybe a bit older and not quite so ruggedly handsome but it’s deffo a titchy bit doppelgangerish. Funny, I could never have seen  me mum with a Basque… juan-mari-ern