I underwent a knee operation a fortnight ago. Last week, at a party at The China Sichuan to celebrate the Chinese New Year, I was made to realise just how hard it is to manage two crutches, a glass of wine and a morsel of dim sum. My heart goes out to those for whom this task is a permanent one. The restaurant has instituted a ‘get you home in a taxi on Saturday night for free’ scheme, a praiseworthy effort to ease the financial pain of dining out. Of course this will only apply within a certain radius. They certainly aren’t going to wing you and your mates back to Navan, gratis.
Later that week I ate at Matt the Thrasher, a new fish restaurant in what used to be The Pembroke pub. Presumably it’s an offshoot of the Birdhill, Co Tipperary hostelry that bears the same name. A bit early to report on, they still seem to have teething problems. If I can proffer it a bit of advice it’s get rid of the manky salads in the chiller counter, they detract from the glistening fish alongside; find something other than chilli gloop to slather the tasty mackerel in; and please keep the gurnard for the fish and chips, it was a delightful surprise.
The same week Riva, an Italian restaurant on neon–drenched Hanover Quay closed its doors, another casualty of Ireland’s headlong plunge towards membership of the club for the bootless and unhorsed. Amazingly, another eatery has opened nearby, a tapas bar – albeit a rather grown-up one. Cafébar H is a collaboration between the amiable Rita Crosbie, wife of Harry who, according to Rita “will be doing the washing up” and Johnny Cooke, that outrageously talented chef whose twice-closed eponymous restaurant earned him his reputation as The Bonnie Prince Charlie of restaurant economics. One of the best meals I’ve had in Dublin was in the early days of Cookes MkII, as a guest at a Spanish-themed luncheon when course-after-course of magic morsels kept coming, each more tempting than the one before. Johnny understands tapas like no one else in Ireland.
Johnny is on record as saying “functional eating where people want to get in and out and have a meal, and maybe one or two beers, for €20, are what people are going towards now.” If that’s so he’s not quite managed it at the new H. I think it’s reasonable to assume that a minimal meal might consist of two portions of tapas each plus some shared accompanying potatoes. A rapid calculation told me that in such a case the guy with the twenty euro note would have €1.25 to spend on beer.
The interior decorator has done his/her best to negate the impersonality of the large windows and the surprisingly cosy room is redolent of similar establishments in Jerez, Barcelona or San Sebastian. The young staff welcomed us, divesting us of wet coats and crutches and escorting Petite Chef and myself to a table. Throughout, they proved briskly efficient, being keenly interested in the food and taking pride what the kitchen could achieve. Service would have merited a five star rating but for one lapse – they omitted to advise us of the existence of the Albarinho, which wasn’t on the carte. We settled instead for a bottle of the ever-reliable Laurenz V ‘Singing’ Gruner Veltliner and, as a treat, one of the currently sexy Bodegas Portia reds from Ribera del Duero. The wine list is entirely European, concise and well selected except I’d have liked to have seen more Spanish whites and some half bottles of fino/manzanilla sherry.
Each dish arrived at table as soon as it was cooked. The first was a generous skewering of excellent chargrilled beef, cooked medium rare and set down in a flavoursome sofrito, a thick sauce of tomatoes, onion and garlic cooked in olive oil. Then came the Patatas con Salsa Mojo which, if memory serves me right is a speciality of the Canary Islands, usually far more fiery than this one. Next to table was the soup, our one disappointment. We were salivating as all three of us declared chestnuts and chorizo two of our favourite ingredients. Alas, it tasted of neither, ‘half-decent minestrone’ would have been a more accurate description. Still H was soon back on track with the ‘Bikini’, a warm sandwich in which Johnny had inventively incorporated a smearing of black truffle in addition to the usual ham (in this case the great Serrano) and cheese. The crab cakes, four aesthetically-shaped cylinders accompanied by a Romescu sauce proved another big hit. I wanted the ‘Moorish pigeon’ pastille, with almonds, cinnamon and ‘quinze’ – presumably quince but it was unavailable. Instead I sought the squid and boy, was I glad. A sizable portion of succulent rings with batter light as thistledown arrived, over which we sighed with pleasure.
We were smitten and had common sense not prevailed I’m sure we would have ploughed on till we’d been through the card. We took a reprise of the Pinchitos Morunos, to give the steak its full title and the McH Mini Burger, a cool piece of chef’s whimsy, marrying the workaday patty (a very good one) to exotic foie gras and truffle mayonnaise.
Dessert? Are you kidding? We could possibly have managed something light, say a crema catalana but this, like the pigeon, had flown the coop. Didn’t matter we were all ecstaticto having shared tapas that were not the usual sad-looking ‘snack on a saucer’ but real, serious food, perfectly cooked, from righteous ingredients and bang in the idiom. Johnny, whom I know well, had left with the pigeon and the crema but Rita and the pot lad whom I hardly know were there, snacking at a table near the door. I wanted to go and congratulate them but was put off at the sight of their dining companion, a scary-looking little geezer wearing a trilby and black shades, who looked vaguely familiar.
Note for Johnny: We didn’t get away with a twenty note. In fact we spent about €55 a head. But, my, did we have a blow-out.
Cafébar H, Grand Canal Plaza, Dublin 2 Tel: 01-8992216
Volume 3 bells