Tag Archives: seafood

ON TEST: Lidl frozen (cooked) Canadian lobster

THE WORLD’S YOUR 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

1014

At first she was smiling, eyes half closed. Then a discreet smirk of pleasure lit her face like she was indulging in a happy dream. Appreciative noises modulated to a crescendo, “mm mm, mm..” somehow segued into “Yes, yes, yes!”. Screams of ecstasy followed, quintessential passion, all inhibition fled. Oh my God, I thought, she’s having a Meg Ryan moment. But she’s not faking it!

 

Mind you, the crab claws were bloody good. They couldn’t have been fresher if the crustaceans had crawled down the coast road and given themselves up. The Not Quite Blonde was out to relish every last morsel. My ballotine of beef, good as it was, seemed mundane by comparison, close but no G-spot.

 

Restaurant Ten-Fourteen – or is it 1014? – stands on the seafront at Clontarf, near the upmarket Indian restaurant, Kinara. But for the lack of a Gitanes cloud you could be back in a Paris bistro in the heyday of Les Halles. The mosaic floor and the brass lamps with their clustered globes also put me in mind of the temperance bar in Douglas, Isle of Man, where my father and his boozing cronies used to gather on holiday Sunday evenings, forced to drink pints of sarsaparilla and dandelion-and-burdock by the vagaries of the local licensing laws. ‘Retro’ and ‘comfy’ are the best words I can find to describe the ambience.

 

In the open-to-view kitchen a chef of reassuring girth, was sweating away, accompanied by a couple of acolytes. Given that the place was packed it seemed like a hard station. My immediate thought was that these guys were working their tripes off, manpower pruned to a minimum so the business could be kept lean, fit and profitable through these indigent times.

 

The restaurant has an interesting raison d’etre. It’s owned by CASA – the Caring & Sharing Association, a voluntary organisation, established in 1981, whose goal is to develop friendships and social outlets for people with disabilities through a variety of activities comprising regular social events, holidays, respite breaks, and pilgrimages. Originally CASA had intended to run a coffee shop at these premises; after some discussion plans were up-scaled and a bistro, majoring on local and fresh produce, replaced the original concept.

 

While The Not Quite Blonde was endeavouring to extract the last shards of flesh from the crab claws without damaging the heel of her shoe, I studied the wine list. It was of the genus ‘sensible’ – not over-long; sourced from one reliable supplier and capable of providing a kaleidoscope of decent drinking from around the vino-sphere. From it I selected an interesting Semillon/Sauvignon blend from the Bordeaux hinterland, made by two lovely girls and their crabby papa, all of whom I’d met. The wonderful thing about being involved with wine is it allows you to make these connections; drink wisely and there’s a memory in every glass.

 

I had first crack at the mains and plucked the whole lemon sole with lobster off the blackboard ‘specials’. The fish was large and meatier than lemon soles are normally wont to be. It came with three generous chunks of lobster, springy and succulent. The chips, unfortunately, were hiding under the sole, so I couldn’t tell whether they were properly crisp or not, a minor blemish. I surveyed The Not Quite Blonde with interest as her eyes flitted between carte and blackboard. A probationer on my roster of reviewing guests, she surprised me by taking the daube of beef, causing me to mark her up a couple of notches. The daube came, not in the traditional marmite but as a presentation on a plate, along with a chunk of absolutely superb medium-rare fillet steak. Take a bow, mister butcher, whoever you are. The main event was fettled from beef cheek, sixteen hours’ simmering producing ‘died and gone to heaven’ flavours akin to those of the crab claws, putting TNQB on course for a second orgasm.

 

The Not Quite Blonde, herself a chef and I came to the conclusion that 1014 (named for the date of the Battle of Clontarf) is one serious restaurant. Service was swift and friendly without being smarmy, just what I needed being still traumatised after my Moroccan ‘Carry on Up the Casbah’ episode a fortnight ago.

 

I enjoyed my fruit salad, replete with tangy berries and accompanied by as good a home made ice cream – pistachio flavoured – as you’ll get. Meanwhile, my companion was detumescing over the sticky toffee pudding, which didn’t quite meet her stringent expectations. She’s an expert at this dessert apparently and proclaimed that 1014’s was, compared to her own, a mere STP lite. A few dates, apricots or figs in the middle wouldn’t have gone amiss, she opined.

 

Two fit and proper espressos later we were rolling home in a taxi. As I dropped The Not Quite Blonde off at her place she enquired not “How was it for you?” but “Well, did I pass the test?” “Darling,” I said, searching for the word, “You were… er… climactic.”

 

Verdict: Fine sensitive cooking, first class ingredients, decent wines, warm welcome

 

Rating ****

 

Restaurant 1014, 324 Clontarf Rd, Dublin 3 Tel: 01 805 4877

 

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.

Ouzos

ouzo Surf’n’turf, like many such vaguely vulgar conceits, originated in the USA. It’s believed that the first sighting was at the restaurant in the Seattle ‘Space Needle’ at the 1962 World’s Fair. American food authors Jane and Michael Stern in their ‘Encyclopaedia of Bad Taste’ decreed that the seafood and steak combo epitomizes culinary kitsch. The Sterns say the whole point of the dish is to allow a diner to maximise hedonistic extravagance by permitting him (and yes it is, restaurateurs tell me, largely ‘a boy thing’) to order the two most expensive items on the menu at one and the same time. The surf’n’turf fanatic, they reckon, is motivated not by any concern for taste or food aesthetics, but by a desire to put on a holy show of wealth.

 

Although I consider myself as big an aesthete as any when it comes to culinary matters I too have my vulgar side. Sometimes I poach scallops, lightly, in champagne just for the hell of it. So I made no apologies last night in Ouzos of Dalkey when I bagged the surf’n’turf before Sibella could put her order in.

 

In fairness, acquiring the surf’n’turf here did not involve massive financial outlay. It was on their menu as part of a €24.95 two-courser, grandiosely entitled ‘The Great Crab and Lobster Feast’, available Monday though Saturday from 4-7pm. As you’d expect at this price the surf content was not lobster, it was crab claws which, at least, were fresh, not frozen. The turf element was a char-grilled 10oz sirloin, to which I’ll return later. Lobster did feature large on the menu though: in the chowder; with flakes of crab in the creamy sauce that cuddled the steamed fresh mussels; in the wowser of a lobster and crab claw salad that Sibs picked for her main; and on its own, awaiting selection from the tank in the front window ready to be boiled or char-grilled. For this there was a supplement of €3 per 100g. Given that your average lobster would weigh in at around 700g this would add €21 to your dinner bill, probably still fair value.

 

If my ‘Shellfish Galore’ (Is there a half-baked gnome somewhere locked up in a garret, doomed to spend his days dreaming up naff titles for dishes?) was hugely satisfying, Sibella’s chowder, replete with lumps of lobster, crab claws and prime fish, was sensational. The liquid in the bowl, creamy and nicely seasoned, was without trace of flour or cornstarch. And, lest we forget, a commendation for the excellent bread, three varieties.

 

Sibs had the draw on me with the main course as well. The lobster chunks and the crab claws, this time pan-fried in a lime butter, made a reappearance, accompanied by respectable mixed salad leaves, avocado, buffalo mozzarella and cherry tomatoes, the whole bathed in a dressing that leaned to the side of olive oil rather than vinegar. It looked good and tasted better.

 

Brought to table, the surf’n’turf seemed promising, a 10oz slab or sirloin with half a dozen of the aforementioned crab claws perched atop and a dessert spoon’s worth of crisp fried onion rings. A little salad for garnish and a side of chips. There was a choice of accompaniments from wild mushroom sauce, peppercorn sauce and garlic butter. Alas the mushroom sauce, by the time it arrived at table, bore an unappetizing emulsified skin. The chips were soggy and sweet. The latter quality may not, it seems, be the fault of the restaurant. My food writing cohort, Ross Golden Bannon, ventured yesterday that sweet spuds are a phenomenon attributable to climate change. I know the return of blight is but I’m not sure I entirely believe him when it comes to sweetness. I’ve cooked, served and eaten chips made from 5 or 6 varieties in recent months, from waxy Pipers to flour ball Wonders and never once felt as much as a twinge of gingivitis.

 But the biggest let-down was the steak. It bore the criss-cross marks of char-grilling (or do they paint the stripes on?). Personally, I like my steak slapped down hard on a red-hot pan. But that wasn’t the source of my quibble. Even cooked precisely as requested – “the rare side of medium rare”, the generous 10oz sirloin was bereft of any flavour. Under-hung? Maybe. Or was it perchance striploin, sirloin’s more pricey but bland, boring cousin? Strange, usually it’s the surfing side of the equation that lets this dish down.

 The not overly lengthy wine list appears to be from a single source but in all honesty they’ve chosen well. We picked out a Viognier from Southern France, fair value at €24 and the apricot and walnut vibe, nicely restrained, supported all the fishy elements a treat.

 Portions are generous, making it hard to face dessert. In the end we opted for some “Home-made, but not on the premises” ice cream. Flavours were vibrant, especially the strawberry, but the ice cream was not particularly well textured. Abundant ice-crystals are usually a mark of insufficient churning.

 There’s plenty to like about Ouzos. It’s an honest sort of place where they work hard to give value and keep customers happy. Service was friendly and efficient; a tad over-effusive, for a crabby critic who’d had a hard day, but perhaps easy familiarity is what a neighbourhood restaurant is all about.

 The damage: €82.90 ex-service for 2 starters, 2 mains, 3 scoops ice cream, 1 coffee, bottle of wine.

 Verdict: Bright, clean, cheerful restaurant offering good fresh fish and shellfish at reasonable prices. Only order the steak if your tastebuds have gone walkabout. If there has to be background music it’s good to get ‘Astral Weeks’.

 

Rating ***1/2

 

Ouzos, 22 Castle St., Dalkey, Co Dublin Te:01 285 1980

 

 

Hunter Valley and Barossa with Orlando

ern_0070 I’m not into crosswords, or what’s it called, suduko? Nevertheless, I do recognise the importance of keeping one’s brain exercised so I occasionally invent some form of mental gymnastics for that very purpose. A few weeks ago I decided I would write down, in ten minutes flat, all the aromas and flavours I had ever found in a glass of wine. For the record the total was 158 and included such exotica as arbutus berries, oatmeal, mown grass, green sap, chicory, tobacco, eucalyptus, balsam, beeswax, quinine, soy sauce, molasses, sawdust, burnt toast, mildew, gun smoke, diesel, wet dog, soap, fish, steel, sauerkraut, marigold, geranium, liquorice, ginger, bacon, offal, leather and, yes, shit, in addition to the usual suspects.

There comes a time in our life with wine when we cross that great divide between drinking and tasting. Most of those who reach the promised land say “I get more enjoyment from wine now”. Some, and I’m inclined to that view, think education (in any sphere) just makes you unhappy because it enables you to glimpse a potential you’ll never realise. I really don’t think life has improved since I fell out of love with bruising Bulgarian red but I’m here now and can’t go back.

ern_0207Wine tasting is an old and honourable occupation. One of the earliest references comes from 3rd century Egypt – “The wine taster has declared the Euobean wine to be unsuitable”. Unfortunately he didn’t opine as to whether the wine in question was gut-rot, corked or simply the product of a crappy vintage. Not that I’ll ever get the chance to taste the AD320. Shame!

The last two weeks have been ‘back to school’ for me. A lightning Australian trip coupled a visit to Wyndham Estates’ Black Cluster Shiraz plot in the Hunter Valley with with a tour of Jacob’s Creek’s extensive vineyards in the Barossa.

We went up to the Hunter via an amazing helicopter flight over the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House and on up the ern_00643New South Wales coast. When we cut inland we flew over an ugly scar on the landscape that proved to be an open-cast coal mine.

I was reminded of my grandfather’s lot – dust and grit, strikes and poverty, explosions and emphysema – and made a mental note to kick my own arse whenever I complain that an excess of tasting has given me a mouth like the floor of a budgie’s cage. Dammit, who has the better deal, him or me?

Trekking round the vines in company with winemakers like Wyndham’s Ben Bryant and JC’s Bernard Hickin told me once more that the best wines are the ones made in the vineyard. Nowadays, there is a temptation to think of wine as a branch of chemistry. To a degree it is; but when push comes to shove the quality of the wine is determined almost exclusively by the quality of the grapes, called ‘fruit’ by those who grow them. Grapes like cabernet sauvignon and shiraz make excellent eating, that is if you discount the thick skins and enormous pips relative to the size of the grape and filter the juice through your teeth. By selective munching I learned to tell the difference between fruit, good fruit, prime fruit and the sort of fruit that makes winemakers punch the air and shout “Yes!”

They gave us a couple of leisure days, packing us off to Kangaroo Island, scene of Australia’s first settlement where we walked among seals, swam with a shoal of dolphins and had one of the most memorable meals of my life. A table on a secluded beach, beautifully laid with good linen, cutlery and glassware. ern_0174

Nearby, self-taught local chef, Tony Nolan was treating freshly-caught South Australian rock lobster with the love and care it deserved. We gave it due reverence, properly “oohing and aaghing” and saluting its rampant flavours with Riesling, including some aged vintages. It struck me once more that the Jacob’s Creek Reserve Riesling, like its Shiraz equivalent, over-delivers considerably for the money asked.

We discovered, during the trip, that Jacob’s Creek the creek actually does exist, it’s not just a madey-uppey name. I spent the morning in Jacob’s Creek’s sensory appreciation facility under the direction of Kate Laitey. ‘Scary Kate’, as we christened her, is a winsome and good-humoured Kiwi lass among Aussies, with a string of impressive qualifications, who recruits and directs a consumer tasting panel and analyses the results, object being not only to ensure quality and consistency (important for branded wines) but to isolate those elements in wine that consumers perceive as either desirable or off-putting. As I said, scary. A far cry from the old “I make what I make” approach but, nevertheless, all in pursuit of better wine.

Then came another highlight – standing on the heights of the Steingarten vineyard, with the sun going down, the beautiful Barossa spread out below. Scuffling some of the stony soil with the toes of my boot I thought “What crackpot would plant vines up here!” Later, tasting the wine, I understood Mr.Gramp’s reasons.

As always when I visit Australia, I made lots of new friends and received hospitality galore.

ern_0180

As if all this ‘edification’ wasn’t enough, on my return to Ireland I was pitched, jet lag and all, into a condensed version of the Australian Wine Research Institute’s wine judging course. Of which, more anon.

Two Fish recipes from Sicily

Two interesting recipes courtesy of Salvatore Barbara, chef of the fab Dubbesi restaurant at the Kempinski Hotel Giardino di Costanza, in Mazara del Vallo, Sicily. A large part of the menu is devoted to fish dishes including local specialities such as fish couscous, slightly seared fresh tuna, swordfish
Messina-style, mixed grill of fish with rosemary and also dishes in which
Sicily becomes an international crossroads, such as the trilogy of tuna
consisting of three tuna tartares, in Sicilian, French and Japanese styles, all
in a single dish.

Fillet of sea bass with aubergine caviar and thick fish stock with field balm

Ingredients and method:
Aubergine caviar: Cut three large
aubergines in half, prick them with a fork and bake them in the oven until soft.
Remove the peel, drain off the excess liquid and add extra virgin olive oil, a
little sweet paprika, a very small amount of crushed garlic, a teaspoonful of fresh lemon juice, and a leaf of fresh mint. Chop finely with a knife or mash
with a fork.

Thick fish stock with field balm and cinnamon
Lightly fry half an onion, a clove of garlic, and a bay leaf together, then add the carefully washed sea bass carcases, and cover with white wine. Allow the wine to evaporate, add a stick of cinnamon cut in half, two mint leaves, very lightly dusted with flour, a stick of celery and half a carrot. Cover with water and reduce by 50%. Season to taste and strain.

Sea bass fillets
Place the fillets in a pan with a clove
of garlic, still in its skin, and a sprig of thyme. Fry lightly on both sides,
then remove from the heat, spread with a little of the aubergine caviar and
finish off the cooking in the oven.
Arrange on the dish, accompanied by the cinnamon sauce that has been heated up in the pan the fish was cooked in and blended with a little olive oil; arrange two potatoes “ad oliva” (olive-style) and decorate with fried mint leaves and a stick of cinnamon.

Three-sesame-seed tuna with baby spinach and brunoise of crunchy vegetables with 25-year-aged balsamic vinegar

Ingredients and method
Take 200 g. of tuna; 100 g. brunoise made from a mixture of carrots, celery, courgettes and peppers; a suitable quantity of baby spinach and the zest of a Sicilian lemon; black, golden and white sesame seeds to coat the fish; and traditional Modena 25-year-aged balsamic vinegar.

Coat the fish with the three sesame seeds and sear it lightly in a grill pan.
Boil the diced crunchy vegetables in water with bay leaves for about two
minutes, and dress with extra virgin oil flavoured with red garlic. Wash the baby spinach well, squeeze dry, and add a little oil and some strips of lemon zest. Arrange the dish on a plate and finish with a trail of 25-year-aged balsamic vinegar and a few flakes of coarse sea salt.

The island of Sicily is intimately bound up with the world of fishing, an activity that has, over the centuries, become a culture and tradition, extending its influence to poetry, sculpture, painting and literature. Good cooking, too, is fundamentally linked to the world of fishing, and conceals a poetic and mysterious quality: every dish has its own history and tradition and derives from the centuries of dominations and influences that the island has been subjected to, from the Arabs to the Normans, and from the Byzantines to the Aragonese.
The Kempinski Hotel Giardino di Costanza is in the province of Trapani, a short distance from Mazara del Vallo, easily reached from Palermo airport in less than an hour by motorway.

NOT SURE ABOUT ‘field balm’ IN THE FIRST RECIPE SO I’VE ASKED FOR CLARIFICATION

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Caviston

Caviston’s, that Sandycove institution, has now expanded its sphere of influence to Monkstown. To be pinpoint precise, to a location on the venerable dining strip alongside the funeral parlour. Maybe this influenced the new restaurant’s architect to shroud the interior in unremitting black, relieved only by large silver fish emblems hanging trophy-like on the walls . Modern, stark and somewhat sombre or retro in the style of a 60’s Soho whiff-of-brimstone coffee house, I couldn’t quite decide. Tables are packed quite tightly together and the high buzz of conversation renders the background music unnecessary. Our waitress, or at least our first waitress for we were served by no less than three during dinner, had only joined the staff that day and it was from her that we learned of the demise of Vico at Dalkey, her previous place of work. Sad.
As might be expected, Caviston, as the new restaurant is named, plays to its strength by majoring on fish; varying the menu on a day-to-day basis to serve only what’s available and fresh, a noble aim. Confidence in the product on your plate is a great thing and I didn’t feel a qualm about ordering the chilli and thyme-dressed grilled squid knowing, as I did, that it would not be a breadcrumbed inner tube. Lady Cassils chose a Caesar salad, which surprised me no end. It proved substantial and was properly prepared with tasty London (cos or romaine or what you will) lettuce, not cosmetic iceberg. So far so good.
From a compact wine list I chose a bottle of Albarino, not the ubiquitous Martin Codax but a ????
which came with an endorsment from Robert Parker. At the first mouthful I could see why, it big, upfront and vibrant with a rounded and weighty mouthfeel, four-square in the Parker tradition. A bit brash maybe but a good foil for the squid and lobster, my main course choice, and better than drinking good Chablis too young, the list’s other main temptation, one to which I often succumb.
Before I chose the (half) lobster I asked about it’s antecedents. It came from Drogheda, came the message from the chef. Good. Recently in a Cape Town restaurant I swore, for the umpteenth time, never again to eat lobster, crayfish or prawns trawled up in tepid waters. Down The Cape they make great play of their crustaceans – “Caught in Mozambique and blast frozen immediately” the waiter boasts. Amazing for these shellfish have neither charm nor grace, taste nor texture. Unlike cold water crustaceans, which develop muscle tone by keeping moving in order to keep warm these denizens of the soft South laze around in the shallows reading pulp novels, all Ray Bans, factor 40 and flab. Caviston’s lobster, simply baked in garlic butter, was a worthy son of the Boyne, meaty, muscular and tasty. Only trouble was it was a wee lobster from The Wee County and I could have wolfed down two of them. Milady’s John Dory, offered up in sympatico fashion with ailoli and roasted garlic, was likewise a bit of a pygmy, though again, sweet and flavoursome. We gazed longingly, in unison, at a monster of a black sole on an adjoining table.
At some point I dropped a knife and it might have lain there for ever. Tired of waiting for a replacement I robbed one from the next table. The main courses came with boiled baby potatoes, probably Charlotte, generously anointed with butter and the only beg on offer, a green salad which herself found hard to swallow in the wake of the ginormous Caesar. I was tempted to say “Ate two?” but refrained. Anyhow, a little more effort needed here, we felt.
Desserts proved something of a yawn, a playsafe collection of everyone’s favourites – here a pot au chocolat, there a creme brulee. We ordered one of these, it was fine, plus an almond frangipane tart, another cliche. How this was garnished depended on which waitress you got. Ours had grapefruit but no cream, the pie not the waitress.
Towards the end of the meal live music kicked in – a gypsy jazz duo with a fiddler that managed to remind me of the worst aspects of Stephane Grappeli’s playing – aimless noodling around taking the place of improvisation on a theme. These were followed by a quartet of young folk-ish maidens, a sort of Irish Petra, Paula and Mary. Almost the best entertainment of the night was to be had from taking a trip to the bogs. The architect had cleverly managed to locate two urinals within a tight space. The guy in station two drew the short straw, any movement serving to switch on the more than averagely powerful hand-drier, very disconcerting this. He also had to wait until his partner in station one had finished before he could exit and even this involved a certain amount of intricate sideways shuffling. If a third guy had walked in we’d all still be in there!
The espresso was decent enough. All-in-all the meal as described cost e115, fair value. The quality of the fish was indisputable, which is why most people will go there. The service was friendly, if a little erratic. The decor was certainly arresting – her ladyship loved it. The atmosphere was pretty electric and many will enjoy the music, performed apparently on Fridays and Saturdays. Delft was good and modern, but the cutlery, a little rickety,did not add to the occasion. Minor quibbles apart, Caviston’s is unpretentious, honest and enjoyable, serves good fresh fish and it would not take much to lift it into the next echelon A sensible choice of vegetables and a little more imagination with the desserts would do the trick. Good start, Stephen and Mary, keep it up.
Caviston Restaurant Monkstown, 17 Monkstown Crescent, Monkstown, Co Dublin Tel: (01) 284 6012

The Mermaid Café

“We’ll go down to the Mermaid Café and I will buy you a bottle of wine. And we’ll laugh and toast to nothing and smash our empty glasses down.” I sang over the phone.
“That’s great. Did you write that?” said Lefty, my fellow guitar-playing conspirator.
“No, Joni Mitchell did, but I was probably her inspiration.” (I met her once, in 1968).
I go down to the Mermaid Café quite a lot. I’d love to smash their empty coarse- rimmed glasses down. And not being overly padded in the old gluteus maximus and having a slightly dodgy back, I’d like to smash the ‘Shaker-meets -repentance stool’ chairs too. Also maybe chuck out a few tables and push the rest father apart. Where’s the joy in dining out if you can’t impart scurrilous rumour to your best mate without the world sharing the secret? Why should you have to save the scandal for the taxi ride home?
This said, the Mermaid Café is without doubt Dublin’s most enjoyable dining experience. No, it’s not a Thorntons or Guilbaud’s, nor yet a Chapter One or L’Ecrivain. ‘Fine dining’ is not where it’s at. But I love the hi-decibel conversation generated by the ponytail-to-pinstripe clientele. And while, to a pro’s eye the place seems understaffed, service never gets ragged – a little frayed around the edges maybe; still, they always find time to debate key topics like whether you’ll get more pleasure from the loin of lamb than the confit pork. House wines are well chosen and fairly priced – we liked the e20 Penedes Reserva. If you want to go upmarket, there are some nifty New World beauties you won’t find elsewhere. The food is modern in concept but tilted towards satisfying keen appetites rather than gaining the chef membership of the Royal Hibernian Academy. No pointillist paintings with jus or coulis, no LeCorbusier towers, no spun sugar abstracts.
The art on the other walls is modern, too, and maritime-flavoured. Picture windows on two sides lend, Lefty observed, an air of dining on a ship while gazing out at those on deck. I imagined Captain Ahab as a man with a beard and a peaked cap hove into view, though he was probably only parking cars. After a glass of Italian Chardonnay, which was, I’m pleased to say, light on boring old melons and peaches, our starters arrived. My confit of duck salad was succulent and stylish, but not a patch on Lefty’s New England crab cakes which, untypically, contained more crab than crumb. If these are what they eat in New England I now know why people try and row the Atlantic east to west.
When it came to the main course I had my revenge. He got a fillet steak, of good size and excellent quality. I got a whole aquarium! The giant fish casserole came piled high above a soup bowl. So high I had visions of the contents unbalancing and shoaling into my lap. The crown of this king size treat consisted of seven or eight fat-bellied langoustines. I devoured these, then attacked the stack of mussels. In the basement was an assortment of fish: hake, cod, salmon, ray and more, all enveloped in a delicious Thai-flavoured soup that I slurped up with a spoon before ignorantly and joyfully mopping the bowl with the Mermaid’s good bread. Which is why I could only manage half a dessert. Pity, their pecan pie, a benchmark by which to judge its kind. “I can feel my arteries shrinking,” said Lefty, climbing in regardless. We finished with good espressi then went out on deck looking for the great white whale. We didn’t find him – maybe he was in the casserole!

The Mermaid Café 69-70 Dame Street, Dublin 2 Tel: (01) 670 8205