Fado, fado, there stood, hidden amid the barrows, butchers and barbers of Moore Street, a self-styled Russian ‘delicatessen’. The inverted commas are mine for the shop stocked only three products, at least one inedible. Foodies intent on availing themselves of the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the cuisine of the USSR could purchase tins of borscht, jars of gherkins or both. Alas, there were no queues to enhance the ethnicity of the shopping experience. Still, if your Soviet feast needed cheering up by the addition of some atmospherics, the shop would happily sell you a set of ‘matryoshka’, those nesting wooden dolls. The deli has since vanished, along with the excellent Chinese restaurant next door, the one with three names.
The History Woman is far too young to remember the pre-glasnost years. To her ‘USSR’ is merely a gnomic string of initials in the title of an old Beatles song. Nevertheless, my suggestion that we should dine at a Russian restaurant was not met with unqualified enthusiasm. This surprised me for, a few years ago, we enjoyed a meal at a Polish gaff, the late and, by us, lamented Gospoda Polska in Capel Street where we shared as fine a roast duck as I’ve had anywhere, served by lovely waitresses.
We agreed to meet at a pub in Marborough Street called ‘The Confession Box’ (presumably titled thus for its proximity to the Pro-Cathedral). It used to be called ‘The Maid of Erne’. Anyhow, it’s a pub I’d thoroughly commend; an oasis featuring the twin appeal of a hospitable welcome and a really decent pint of Guinness.
From there we took a short walk up the road to Admiral, according to its own website ‘Dublin’s most popular nautical-themed restaurant, a mixture of sea going adventure and modern elegance’. Yeah, right. I was, at first glance, disappointed. I’d heard from a friend that the waiting staff wore naval uniforms from the ‘Battleship Potemkin’ era and this proved untrue The nautical theme was there, in spades, though. The otherwise unremarkable, pub-like exterior featured, of all things, a small lighthouse. Indoors, the bar was housed in a recess, shrouded by a fibreglass rock face; the dining room festooned with nets, coloured glass globes, ships’ wheels, lifebelts and other sailors’ paraphenalia. A giant TV featured nubile ladies, more navel than naval, was it a wink-and-a-nod that the place might be used, after hours, for pole dancing? This could be a great idea, a sort of ‘Bada Bing-meets-Captain Pugwash’ vibe.
The menu indicated seafood. The chef’s speciality, not very Russian, was listed as ‘Whole lobster, grilled with tiger prawns, juicy pineapple and coconut sauce’. Oligarch food? Well, certainly oligarch prices – €45 for this dish, at a time when lobster has never been cheaper? But, for the oligarchicly-challenged, cheaper and more conventional dishes were there – your steak, salmon and hen-tit, dressed up so as not to offend. But, hang on, the most interesting items on the menu were genuinely Eastern European – Lithuania, Latvia, Russia and Ukraine were name-checked. “Maybe this restaurant isn’t Russian anyway?” said The History Woman. As if to reinforce the thought the waiter came back to our table and handed us a second menu, featuring sushi. By now we were totally confused. “Well, the Russians did fight a war with the Japanese, circa 1904,” I said. “Was it over fish quotas?”
To further shake the ethnic kaleidoscope we ordered a bottle of French wine, a Puisseguin-St.Emilion for what seemed a bargain €28. It turned out to be a 1999, which I would have thought would have given up the ghost but, no, it was delicious. It yelled ‘red meat’ so we dismissed all thoughts of sushi and settled on two bowls of borscht which would have been absolutely delicious had they not been lukewarm. Next up, a couple of starters from the Steppes, a salad of beef tongue with pickled mushrooms and one of rabbit liver, wrapped in bacon, a different take on the ‘devils on horseback’ theme. Both were terrific, the delicacy of the tongue, in particular, contrasting nicely with the tanginess of the pickle and we quickly came to the conclusion that way to go was to stick to the East European idiom. We shared some cepelini, a traditional Latvian dish consisting of minced spiced pork, encased in a large torpedo-shaped potato dumpling and served with a tasty sauce of sour cream, onions and bacon, first rate comfort food.
THW tried to get dessert but was told brusquely (more pre-perestroika authenticity?) “The kitchen is now closed.” Clearly all the sailors don’t love a nice girl. Still, we were impressed with Admiral, at least with the ethnic food end of it. The chef, Pavel Steblovskiy from Latvia, clearly knows his business. It’s sad that he’s forced to compromise and cook naffery like the aforementioned lobster and pineapple or the salmon fillet ‘stuffed with prawns and mozzarella cheese’ to earn a crust. Sad that this sort of stuff probably outsells his dumpling dishes and his fine rabbit stew by a ratio of umpteen to one. Sad that the restaurant’s proprietor feels he has to recreate the set of ‘Pirates of Penzance’ in order to make a statement. In truth it’s as much a reflection on ourselves and our lack of adventure when it comes to culinary exploration that most Dubliners would opt, on a bitter night, for a Mediterranean pizza rather than fuel up on one of Mr.Steblovski’s dumplings.
We’d spent just over €56, half of which was down to wine. Overall, the two of us felt we’d love to eat this man’s food in simpler surroundings. Plain tables, white napkins, decent cutlery and proper wine glasses would suffice. There’s absolutely no need for the any of the ‘Pugwashery’. Underneath all the mixed metaphors (culinary and décor-wise) and muted by all the “Yo, ho, ho” and “Shiver my mainbrace” crap there’s serious food struggling to get its message across.
Admiral, 1 Q-Park Ground Floor, Marlborough Street, Dublin 1 Tel: 01 873 5472