Tag Archives: Value

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RESTAURANT REVIEW – M&L/The Imperial/The Good World

This week has been Chinese all the way, kicking off with a trip to M&L, a down-home unpretentious restaurant catering primarily for Dublin’s Chinese inhabitants, who now number close on 60,000. Latterly, the tastiness of the food and the reasonable prices, coupled with portions bordering on the humongous, have attracted an Occidental clientele. A couple of days later my omnivore buddy Foodmad and I embarked on lunchtime road tests of dim sum at two of Dublin’s longer established Chinese restaurants – The Imperial, which seems to have been here forever and the Good World on Georges’ Street, favourite of most of my Chinese friends.

The Gaffer and I rocked up at M&L bang on 8.30 and I was glad I’d taken the trouble to book. Nigh on every seat was taken and the buzz of happy dining conversations downed the Chinese pop music a treat. Initially, they ushered us to a table for two, near the door. The waiter taking our order showed alarm at the number of items we’d selected. “It’s okay, we have big appetites”, I said. As it turned out, this wasn’t the focus of his concern. “Table too small”, he sighed. He indicated that there were two options, either make the most of our cramped surroundings or wait a bit, until a larger table became free. He left us in no doubt that the second option was his preference, so we complied.

Eventually we were re-seated, along with glasses of that Chinese beer I have so much trouble spelling, Txingao, Tsingdao? Also a large pot of jasmine tea. The cooking style at M&L is predominantly Szechuan, a two-pronged sensory attack deploying chillies, generally little vicious beggars that should maybe come with a “handle with care” sticker and the Szechuan peppercorn – actually not a pepper at all. This reddish-brown fruit, a key component of five spice powder, is the berry of the prickly ash. While not as hot as chili pepper, it does have a unique flavour and is famous for its seriously mouth-numbing capability. In comparison to Cantonese, Szechuan comes over as a one-shot culinary style, at least to Western palates but sometimes plain is what you want.

One of the challenges in dining at this sort of establishment is to get behind the Westernized menu. Chinese at adjacent tables always seem to be tucking into some dish that looks twice as exciting as the one in front of you. Moreover, the waiters want to protect you from your own excesses, perhaps believing that if you are on the receiving end of an unaccustomed taste you’ll bad mouth the restaurant to your friends. The Gaffer and I are both adventurous eaters and come with fire-blankets pre-installed so were unlikely to be fazed but your man was not convinced. In our quest to push the frontiers of acceptability we were only partially successful, managing to acquire the soft shell crab but not the razor clams. He did allow us the whelks.

Soon the food started to arrive and it became apparent that, quantity wise, we’d over done it. The whelks were super – I’d wholly commend these ‘sea snails’, similar in texture to squid but with a more pronounced flavour – as were the soft shell crabs, coated in an egg yolk and spice dip and deep fried. We crunched them like crisps, savouring the succulent meat and there was such a mountain of them we didn’t bother with the extremities, leaving them to litter the plate. We ploughed on, working up to the chicken dish you could maybe describe as ‘death by a thousand chillies’ via a plate of steamed bok choi combined with those caramel-flavoured  rubber-textured mushrooms, a Chinese cousin of the shitake. The food was all glorious with one sad exception – a beef hotpot. I’ve eaten this dish from Glasgow to Hong Kong. Usually it comes in a tightly-sealed earthenware pot; delve within  and you pull out big hunks of long-cooked brisket, slices of ginger and whole scallions, all in an involving, rib-sticking gravy, yum double plus! M&L’s version was straight off the babies’ menu as interpreted by the waiter – bland beef the texture of a wet blanket, hammered into submission then, I’d reckon, dipped in cornflour and fried before drowning in a bland broth.

So it goes. You win some you lose some. One poor dish on the debit side, some exciting gastro treats for credit. Authenticity by the bucket load and portions to match; cheap too – it cost under €70 for everything including tea and copious beers.

The Imperial v Good World face-off was the conclusion of a two-year quest to find Dublin’s best dim sum, those tasty Chinese tapas equivalents. There are few better ways of lunching than to enjoy a selection of these with a pot of Chinese tea. Foodmad is also a fan and together we hatched a plan that would involve trying a similar selection at both restaurants. We decided on prawn cheung fun, a wide rice noodle roll, filled and served with a sweet soy sauce; siu mai, a steamed pork and shrimp dumpling  and the crispy squid. In addition we sampled a further dish at each restaurant  – fried turnip cake at the Imperial and  fun quoi  which, from the look and taste, I’d guess, is minced prawns in a crispy torpedo-shaped pastry.

Food wise, The Good World shaded it, earning plaudits for the succulence of the squid, cased in ethereal  batter and  for the delicacy and the surplus of prawns  in the cheung fun. Pricewise, there was nothing in it – around €24 for the selection, including tea. Service-wise, though, it was a different story. At the Imperial we were grudgingly given a table by one of the two waiters. Both bore the demeanor of pile-crippled undertakers who’d just read that the elixir of life had been discovered and made us feel we were lucky indeed to get any service at all.  Contrast with the Good World where we were civilly ushered to a communal round table which we shared with some jolly Chinese ladies and looked after by caring staff. This is where we’ll be doing our dim sum in future.

M&L, 13 Cathedral Street, Dublin 1, Tel: 01 08748038

Food ***

Wine *

Service ****

Ambience ***

Overall ***

Imperial Chinese Restaurant

12A Wicklow Street Dublin 2 Tel: 01 677 2580

Food ***

Wine **

Service *

Ambience *

Overall **

The Good World

18 South Great Georges Street Dublin 2 Tel: 01 677 5373

Food ****

Wine **

Service ****

Ambience ****

Overall ****

 

READ Ernie’s reviews on Thursdays in The Dubliner, FREE with The Evening Herald

 

 

 

 

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RESTAURANT REVIEW – The Box Tree

 

I got taken to task in strange fashion the other day. I was having a quiet pint in Neary’s when a guy I hadn’t seen for years hailed me. I did the “hello, haven’t seen you for ages, must do lunch” thing and sat down with him and his mate. On learning I was a restaurant critic, the latter’s manner changed from affability to antipathy, going on the offensive with “Why is it you lot never review restaurants beyond the pale?” My flippant retort – “I review many restaurants I’d consider beyond the pale” – only served to provoke his aggression. Soon I was on the back foot, struck dumb, unable to explain that The Dubliner/Evening Herald didn’t have too many readers in Roosky, Cashel or Carrickmacross.

I recalled this conversation last Satuday as Sibella and I were driving out to a restaurant in the boonies. Stepaside is, in all honesty, about as far as I’d drive for a meal out, unless maybe Juan Mari Arzak was cooking in Kildare. I suspect most people feel the same, hence the recent rise-and-rise of locality restaurants. Stepaside’s version, The Box Tree, is one-tine wunderkind Eamon O’Reilly’s latest brainchild. Eamonn’s career started with a stint under the guidance of his father and mentor Patrick O’Reilly chef at a leading Dublin hotel, going on to become the youngest chef ever to complete the London City & Guilds cheffing course. He then worked at a number of leading hotels and restaurants including The Ritz-Carlton Boston, The Sheraton Casablanca, ending up at the Michelin 3 star Restaurant Meurice in Paris. Aged a mere 25, he opened his first restaurant in Dublin, One Pico.

2010 was, for Eamonn, an extraordinary year. One Pico gained numerous awards and Eamonn was lauded for kick-starting what’s been called “the move back to realism” being the first to do a competitively-priced three-course lunch of gastronomic propensity. The year ended with the opening of The Box Tree and its adjacent gastro pub, The Wild Boar. Eamonn is very much a chef’s chef. I first heard of the Box Tree’s existence from a couple of his contemporaries who were singing its praises.

When it comes to dining out, we are looking for a balance of the three significant components: (a) good food (and drink) (b) congenial ambience and (c) decent service. Most people I believe would prioritise by putting ambience first and food second. Deviants like me would have them the other way round. For the evening to work, though, all these components have to meld, fusing into the total experience that can be deemed enjoyable. Let’s examine how The Box Tree matches up.

First off, the room is warm and inviting. There is one duff table, immediately before the front door but more of that anon. The décor is immaculate; tasteful grey pastel shades, offset by burnished lampshades adding a note of warmth. Seating is comfortable. That marvelous buzz of people enjoying themselves over-rides background music, if there was any.

On the night, the food was pristine. Sib’s salad of beetroot and Ardsallagh goat cheese mousse, garnished with candied walnuts and ‘baby leaves’ (unfortunate term but we seem to be stuck with it) was a gem of presentation and tasted as good as it looked. My Castletown Bere crab salad actually tasted of crab, no mean feat these days it seems and came with a lightly-curried crème fraiche and excellent Guinness bread, causing me to feel guilty as I’d already whopped up the best part of the bowl of good assorted breads placed on the table on our arrival. We were dining on the early bird – two courses for €19.95; lured by the magic words ’30-day aged’ I plonked down an extra fiver to secure the rib-eye. This superb piece of steak had been manicured, for presentation purposes into a round and was, again, nicely styled. The accompaniment, a fiery, retro (but none the worse for it) green peppercorn and Armagnac sauce, delighted. It also came with ‘three times cooked fat chips’, Heston Blumenthal’s patent version of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. Twice-cooked thinner ones would have done me. Sibs had the special, ‘confit of salmon’, whatever that means, with a mussel risotto and a lobster bisque, stylistically and taste-wise a “Wow!” We both took a dessert, greedy pigs that we are. I had a generous platter of good ice creams, of which the Bailey’s and brown bread was the standout. Sibs collared the hugely satisfying baked apple and wild blackberry crumble. I applaud the wine list for its quirkyness. I hope people take to the Wirra Wirra ‘Lost Watch’ Riesling, a personal favourite deserving of wider appreciation. From Adelaide Hills, with much less minerality than its Clare of Eden Valley cousins, and a surprisingly substantial mouthfeel, it’s available, like much of the list, by the glass or bottle or by the 50cl carafe.

Service was calm, professional, without being intrusive, invigorating to see young waiting staff up on the balls of their feet, looking out for each other and for the diner. A grease spot on my steak nife was spotted and the tool replaced without me having to raise a finger. A couple fretting at the aforesaid draughty table were moved at the first opportunity and given a complementary amuse bouche for their pain. My late mother, a lifetime in the serving game, would have appreciated this display of competence and care. I can bestow no higher praise.

Value? Oh, yes, we spent £86.30, ex-service for three courses, a carafe plus a glass of good wine and a correct espresso. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, as of today, The Box Tree is the most complete and involving dining experience you can get in Dublin for anything like the money. In fact it might just be the most complete dining experience full stop.

The Box Tree, Stepaside Village, Dublin 18 Tel: 01 205 2025

Food ****

Wine ****

Service *****

Ambience *****

Volume 3 bells

Overall ****

 

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Restaurant Review – McHUGH’S WINE & DINE

On Christmas Eve a US food critic who remained anonymous for 16 years has had her cover blown by a Los Angeles restaurant. Irene Virbila, who works for the Los Angeles Times, had her picture taken at the Red Medicine restaurant in Beverly Hills and was asked to leave. The restaurant then posted the picture on the internet.

Noah Ellis, managing partner at the restaurant, said some of Ms Virbila’s reviews had been “cruel and irrational” and had “caused hard-working people in this industry to lose their jobs”. The aggrieved restaurateur said “I asked her and her party to leave, as we don’t care for her or her reviews.” Ms Verbila riposted “I never expected that a restaurateur would stick a camera in my face.”

A few days later, I got a call from a radio station in LA, asking for my views. For what it’s worth, I said there are more important issues than anonymity – like honesty and integrity; like the ability to entertain one’s readers; most of all, like the experience and cop-on to see things for what they are – a good critic should be able to tell the difference between a crap restaurant and a good restaurant that’s having one hell of a catastrophic night.

The subject was also aired on my website forum, where I invited contributors to air their views on what makes a restaurant critic. One of them (presumably another miffed restaurateur) wrote “the ability to travel more than 15 minutes from their home”. I don’t know if it was aimed at me – during the recent spell of inclement weather I certainly didn’t stray from Dublin 2/4. Shamed, if not named, I used all my powers of persuasion to get Sibella to spirit me to one of the “here be dragons” enclaves of Dublin for the purpose of this week’s review.

I’ve nothing against Raheny. Well, yes, I have actually – because 66.33% of the people who have done me a bad turn in my 24 years in Dublin hailed from there. Still, all in the past, I mused, as we queued to cross the river. The journey from Sandymount took us the guts of an hour. We found out later that we could actually have got there in half the time on the Dart as our destination was only 800 yards from the station.

Situated in an improbable location, in a small parade of shops in a quiet residential street, McHugh’s Wine & Dine was buzzing. The room is warm and inviting, with slightly larger than average tables and very comfortable chairs. We arrived on the cusp of the early bird and the regular dinner menu and it therefore seemed appropriate to try one of each. It was a night for comfort food and I immediately plumped for the bowl of spicy free range chicken wings. There were a full dozen of them, enough for me to trade with Sibs for some of her inviting looking slow-roasted butternut squash salad, a mélange of squash, crispy pancetta, sage and crunch hazelnuts over crisp green leaves. The wings themselves were delightful, piquantly spiced, with enough flavour in the meat to stand up and be counted, with a clean-textured glaze, light years from the habitual ketchup-and-sump oil treatment this dish usually receives. These were among the best I’ve ever eaten. Apparently they are popular with young people in the locality of who order an even bigger bowl as a main course. I can see why. We took two glasses of Zenato’s admirable Lugana, likewise crisp and spicy and a perfect match for the food. The wine list as befits a restaurant related to the local wine merchant was concise, sensible with a few intriguing items and a couple of stunning bargains. The Oriel ‘Lo Zoccolaio’ Barolo, for example, at €40, is a steal.

Continuing the winter warming theme, I took the ‘special’, the daube de boeuf. This comprised a mound of slow cooked beef cheek, meltingly tasty, accompanied by what appeared at first to be a sausage roll, some excellent truffle mash and rivulets of a pale purée, maybe parsnip. The ‘sausage roll’ turned out to be filled with succulent oxtail, a super idea. Herself, after a flirtation with haddock and chips, settled on the burger and we were both glad she did. It was generously topped with melted cheddar and supplied with a crisp salad and some good relish; neither of us could think when we last had a burger as good. It came garnished with those big square chips seen everywhere these days, of which I’m not a huge fan. These, though, were well fettled, perfectly cooked and didn’t have me yearning for the thin crispy variety. I was so stuffed I couldn’t manage dessert. Well, except for a smidge of Sibs’ choice, a sort of pear and ginger sponge served with vanilla ice cream. Coffee, espresso, was on the decent side of acceptable.

Oops, nearly forgot. Commendably, Mc Hugh’s sports a small range of interesting beers including Budjevicky, Leffe, Chimay, Sam Adams, Fuller’s London Pride and the rich, coriander and apricot-flavoured Bishop’s Finger (the name refers to the signposts which pointed the pilgrims towards Canterbury) that proved the perfect accompaniment for the lavish flavours of the daube and oxtail. Overall, we spent just over €74 to which we were happy to add a tenner tip for the efficient and friendly service from two local girls.

Good neighbourhood restaurants are one of the oft overlooked blessings of Dublin dining, frequently unconsidered as, lemming-like, we rush uptown. Browne’s in Sandymount, Alexis in Dun Laoghaire, Bistro One in Foxrock and many others are doing a smashing job in allowing locals to dine out well but without formality for reasonable cost. They are also well worth travelling to get to. On this evidence, McHugh’s Wine & Dine is up there with the best of them and I’m already looking forward to my next visit.

Rating

Food ****

Wine ****

Service ****

Ambience ****

Overall ****

Mc Hugh’s Wine & Dine, 59 St.Assams Park, Dublin 5 Tel: 832 7435

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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

WINE – Brands. What do they do for us?

What’s the world’s oldest brand still around today? Hoover? Ford? Oxo? Coca-Cola? These were the names that sprang to mind when I asked the question of some colleagues. Sorry, but these household names are mere striplings when it comes to marketing history.

Unless you see ‘Christianity’ as a brand it’s hard to look farther than the Premier Cru red wine from Bordeaux, Chateau Haut-Brion, a wine continuously marketed and promoted under its own name since the mid-seventeenth century. Haut-Brion appears in the diaries of Samuel Pepys as a highly desirable tipple. Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to a friend, also commended Haut Brion (though he failed to spell it correctly).

What do brands do for us? Initially they provide an introduction to wine’s delights. Very few people come to wine by picking up a bottle bearing an obscure label from the Costieres de Nimes, saying “Must try this, I’ll take it home tonight.”  What brands do is give us confidence. The wine market is the most fragmented in the world, with the possible exception of womens’ clothing. Even in a small wine merchant’s the choice is daunting; you’ll be faced with at least 400 bottles. Brand psychology is an open book; the sub-text reads “choose a branded wine and you are far less likely to make a cock-up.”  Brands also provide a step ladder. If you could afford to work your way through, say, Penfold’s range of red wines from Koonunga Hill (around €14) to Grange (around €200) you’d have a pretty good palate by the time you reached the end of the line. You’d also have a handle on the quantum leap in enjoyment you can get by paying a tad more each step of the way. The existence of a ‘reserve’, ‘riserva’ or ‘reserva’ on the stepladder is no accident. It is there to prevent newbie drinkers from jumping ship when their palates crave a more sophisticated offering.

At the same time there are things that branded wines can’t do for you. They can’t give you that singular high that goes with linking a wine to an individual character or a small plot. Even when they highlight the connection between one of their wines and its ‘terroir’ it’s difficult to see the revelation as anything other than a marketing ploy. Worse, brand drinkers are denied the unbounded joy of boring the arse off their friends with the one about the little Chateau that they “discovered” whilst driving through France where they had “the most divine wine that ever existed”.

This time of year is ‘catwalk time’ for wine writers, when the supermarkets roll out their winter collections. Dunnes Stores were the first to switch on the spotlights and it was evident that their wine buying team are doing a decent job, particularly in bringing budget drinking to the ‘church mouse generation’. Hitherto, my normal advice would be to shun anything under €10 unless you want something to pep up a casserole but here, amazingly, was a very drinkable 2008 chardonnay/viognier, Tilia from Argentina, a gift at €6.99. A savvy blend, this; the viognier (around 25%) gave the wine a lovely floral lift. Also from the same stable came a clean, modern Malbec, Alamos, very nicely made red, well worth the €8 ask. California is not a region that springs to mind when you are looking for low cost decent drinking but I liked the Marmesa Brook Ranch syrah (€9.99), very balanced with good chunky fruit – ‘steak wine’. The wines of Laurent Miquel have been one one of the stars in Dunne’s firmament for some years. They had another highly quaffable chardonnay/viognier, Nord Sud 2009 at €8 and the 100% viognier, 30% of which was matured in French barriques, at €8.95 was better still. Wine of the show, for me, was the striking, dark-toned Sancerre, Domaine des Grosses Pierres, bang on the money at €12.99.

Restaurant Review – Taste of Emilia/Alexis Pizza & Deli

One of the biggest culinary myths is that there’s such a thing as Italian food. There’s not. To comprehend this you have to realise that Italy, as we know it today, is a relatively modern creation, cobbled together out of a number of smaller states , each with its own heritage, culture and, indeed, cuisine. In these matters, Lombardy, in the north, has about as much in common with Puglia, in the extreme south-west as Tullamore, Co Offaly has with Tirana, Albania.

Still, there is some commonality. First and foremost is the love of food. All over Italy you find cooking is regarded as a pleasure, sometimes even a privilege, and not a chore. Secondly, there’s the generosity of the host. Get invited to an Italian home and, rich or poor, they’ll roll out the red carpet for you. Thirdly, whatever goes into the pot or onto the plate, the freshness of the ingredients is a given.

The mutilation of Italian food abroad that has resulted in much dire dining – the blood red synthetic sauces, the cardboard pizzas – is not the fault of the Italians themselves. It’s down to the timidity of Anglo and Celtic palates. The Italians who emigrated initially cooked the food of their home region. Alas, brought up on our sad, grey diets, we picked and chose only those things we could easily stomach and rejected the rest. Small wonder that Italian restaurateurs, in the main, gave up trying and just gave us the bits we craved.

Fifteen years ago, when I was cooking for a living, I decided to extend our café/restaurant’s vegetarian choice by including a dish I had found on a visit to Italy. It was simple enough, grilled aubergines and fresh sage, covered in a bechamel spiced with nutmeg and dusted generously with aged pecorino cheese. The first day I put the dish on I had two complaints. From a banker who told me I’d left the tomatoes out of the sauce in error and from a ‘head’ who moaned “De black tings have made me burd sick”. It didn’t last long on the menu.

There’s plenty of average-to-crap Italian food in Dublin. Going to som lengths to avoid meeting it I always end up in an outpost of the Dunne and Crescenzi empire, the exquisite little Pinocchio in Ranelagh or, occasionally in Mick Wallace’s Enoteca in the daftly-named Quartier Bloom. If I want to go slightly, though not extravagantly, upscale then Nonna Valentina or Il Primo have always proved authentic and reliable. Il Manifesto, in Rathmines can accommodate me at either end of the price scale.

Last week, I found two others to add to my list. The History Woman, a regular dining companion with the appetite and exuberance of me at a similarly youthful age, dragged me to Taste of Emilia in Liffey Street and boy, am I glad she did. The place is tiny, twenty seats tops, the menu plain, unvarnished. You can have plates, or rather, boards, small or large, of prosciutto and salami, cheeses or a blend of both plus tuly wonderful bruschetta and a few other delights like good olives and especially fine artichokes. A couple of Italian ladies run the place, bestowing civility and smiles in equal parts, the whole vibe is like dining in the kitchen of someone you’ve just met but liked instantly. The provenance and condition of all the ingredients is first rate. Wines are Italian, with a reliable Prosecco, a Valpolicella ripasso of no great distinction and a Brunello di Montalcino which, as ever, didn’t justify the asking price. There are no desserts but a ‘chocolate grappa’ – I forget the full title – will keep your sweet tooth hopping happily.

Later in the week, Sibella was dining with her golfing chums and I needed something more substantial than the left-overs in the fridge. Fate caused me to happen across Alexis Pizza and Deli in Deansgrange which must surely be one of County Dublin’s as yet undiscovered gems. It’s a sister ship to the excellent Alexis bistro in Dun Laoghaire. In a spotless café, nicely appointed, I partook of a substantial roasted vegetable antipasto, a plateful of aubergines, courgettes, tomatoes and peppers, nicely garnished and some good bread to mop up the residue of the fine olive oil in which the ingredients had been marinated. Afterwards, I designed my own pizza with tomato, aged parma ham, buffalo mozzarella, anchovies, mushrooms and a scattering of sprightly rucola over the top. The crust was thin, crisp and as far removed from your average take-away as it’s possible to get and the toppings generous. It cost €11.50. The wine list is a small jewel. I took three glasses, the first a white Custoza from the Veneto house of Zenato, a quantum leap from ubiquitous, bland, boring Pinot Grigio. The second, again from Zenato (whose wines currently feature ‘on special’ at many Dublin wine merchants in honour of the winery’s 50th birthday) was a Ripassa della Valpolicella, one of the best around. It’s a huge wine though and somewhat overwhelmed the pizza’s delicate flavours so I backtracked and took a glass of Rosso Piceno Superiore from Brecciaolo, a maker I particularly admire. This proved the perfect complement. The trio, by the way, set me back €16.40, which I consider extremely reasonable.

Alexis Pizza and Deli, 31, Deansgrange Road, Deansgrange, Co Dublin  Tel (01) 289 7503

Rating

Food ***

Wine ****

Service ***

Ambience **

Overall ***1/2

First published in The Dubliner Magazine, free with The Evening Herald on Thurdsdays

So it Goes…. this week's decent drinking

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

The Silk Road Cafe

Sibella’s on the golf course. Foodmad’s in Kerry. Bangles is God knows where, The Litry Chick is writing 1,000 words against the clock and I don’t think The Silk Road Cafe, this week’s target, is quite the Knocklyon Princess’s bag. Ten to eleven and still no lunch date. What the hell to do?

After due consideration I decided the only thing was to get a taxi uptown and find someone who was hungry – a skint student, a pensioner, anyone would do as long as they owned two hands and a gob. Well, one hand, even.

With a bit of luck, I reasoned, I might even bump into some old buddy with time on his hands. I didn’t. Still, fate and good fortune intervened. I’m outside the Chester Beatty Library, playing sad Billy No Mates, when I spotted her.

Tall, leggy, a beret askew on her head, an artist’s portfolio trapped under her arm while she counted the coins in her purse. I knew intuitively she was wondering what she could afford to eat and drink.

She has to be foreign, I mused, with that sallow skin and glossy black hair. The grounds of Dublin castle this day held enough freckly blondes to fill a skip. I stepped up, with thirty seconds to convince her I was not a lascivious old perv. Hoping she wouldn’t holler copper I did “Bonjour, ola, ciaio”. I must have sounded like Dell Boy.

Nicole (let’s call her) was French but she had fair English. Like a nervous gambler I laid my three cards down: “Free”, “Food”, “No strings”. Unbelievably, I won the hand. We went inside and queued up with the civil servants.

Other critics have waxed lyrical about The Silk Road. I can see why. For a start there’s a good story. Abraham Phelan, the chef/proprietor is a Palestinian who took his wife’s surname because his own was too difficult for the Irish to pronounce. Abraham’s food is fresh, tasty, inexpensive and very different from that of the many humdrum cafes that infest central Dublin. The salads look a picture, there’s a varied choice of mains and the coffee is pristine.

There are some flaws in the operation, though. Table service is not an option. While the regulars were greeted like long lost friends my own polite attempt to ascertain just what the various bains maries contained was met with something approaching mute hostility, an implied “You’re holding everyone up. You should have done your homework before you joined the queue”.

Nicole is studying art in Montpelier. As my own art education stopped with the post-Impressionists many of her favourites were lost on me. She loves food, in fact her dad was a chef – “though not at anywhere fameux”. She points out that her chicken curry was well over-seasoned. At her invitation, I took a mouthful and got that swimming-in-the Med-with-your-mouth-open sensation instantly. The curry was not actually much cop; I’ve had spicier gravies and there wasn’t even much taste to the chicken. The red rice was very good though, every grain a roller.

My lamb moussaka was very civilised, with pronounced flavour, a remarkably wallpaper paste-free bechamel and a proper ‘separate but cohesive’ quality to the spicing. I prefer aubergine to spuds in my moussaka but, as an example of the latter, this one was well conceived. Of the salads, a special mention goes to the couscous which had none of that boil-in-a-bag quality you find in other places.

We toasted our entente cordiale in quarter bottles of Faustino VII Rioja, anyodyne but not entirely disgusting. For dessert we shared an assortment of dried fruit, dates and lokum – Turkish delight – and partook of an espresso and a cappuccino, both of excellent quality before we said our adieus.

Later I decided that this is about as democratic a review as could be got. Maybe, instead of inviting the likes of Tom’s pals, Paolo’s socialites and my own motley crew of hand-picked guinea pig gastronomes, we grub hacks should be inveigling people encountered in the streets to dine with us, maybe on a horses-for-courses basis, viz: geezer in a three piece suit – L’Ecrivain; dolly bird – Marco PW’s; busker – Shebeen Chic. It won’t be easy. A couple of years ago I undertook a commission from this newspaper to give away crisp tenners on Grafton Street to celebrate some sort of ‘Love thy neighbour Day’. Most refused to accept the bounty. One or two held the notes up to the light to see if they were kosher. Did somebody tell them there’s no such thing as a free forgery?

Anyhow, comparing notes Nicole and ‘Papa’ found we had the same enthusiasms and the same reservations. We hailed the  menu with its wide choice of options; we hated the surly service. We were prepared to dismiss the excess of salt in the curry as a one-off but not the insipid spicing. More care from the cook, more smiles from the servers and Silk Road would be every bit as good as other critics say it is.

Verdict: Interesting middle-eastern food. Good value. Service a tad glum.

Rating: ***

Silk Road Cafe, Chester Beatty Library, Dublin Castle, Dublin 2 Tel: 01 4070770

So it Goes… this week's decent drinking

Went to an office party in a fridge the other night. The top floor of Krystle – my nomination for the world’s daftest named nightclub – is badged as ‘The Penthouse’  leading to thoughts of sybaritic luxury, comfy button-backs and naked models reclining on tigerskin rugs. Alas it’s nothing like. Maybe the name’s not so daft after all as the sides are open to the atmosphere and the crystals were quickly forming – on nose, face, hands on on the outside of an already turbo-chilled pint of Guinness. As soon as I got the glass unstuck from my paws I switched to an old favourite, Black Bush, neat. Some compensation for the chill blast and the fact that those oh-so-ecological gas patio heaters had only been switched on minutes before our arrival. My gut feeling is that Black Bush has been tricked up over the years to make it sweeter – it’s still very palatable stuff though.

Couldn’t believe the prices that The Marine Hotel in Sutton charge for their wines at a function. €28 for Santa Rita 120 Sauv B. That’s 3 x retail and latterly I’ve seen it on special for €6.95.

Tesco have a rather fine albarino at the minute –   Pazo Serantellos 2008 (€9.45) .  Lovely stone fruit on the nose, following through to mid palate, leavened with citrus and crisp apple, with a spiky, energising lime lift at the back end. I’m also scouring branches of Superquinn for the remants of Paul Boutinot’s rather fine ‘Chat en Oeuf’ (groan!), a grenache/syrah blend that kicks ass for the modest price of €9.

Came across a great idea for a last minute Chrissie prezzie – Mc Hugh’s Off-Licenses have slashed the prices of two of the world’s most lauded dessert wines. Between now and Christmas and, of course, while stocks last, South Africa’s Klein Contantia 2004 Vin de Constance 500ml bottles and Canada’s Inniskillin 2006 Riesling Ice Wine 375ml bottles will be at a special price of €25 per bottle. These normally retail for €70 and €60 respectively. Both come in attractive gift boxes. They are an ideal gift for wine enthusiasts, especially oneself! I’m not a big fan of the Klein Constantia – though I know many who love its upfront unctuous richness – the Inniskillin is in a different league, spicy and subtle and I’m going to grab some of this if you guys don’t get there before me.

25e Malahide Road, Artane, Dublin 5. Tel: 8311867.
57 Kilbarrack Road, Dublin 5. Tel: 8394692.

Restaurant Review – Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating *****

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

3 x 3-course Pre-theatre dinner 112.50

2 x coffee 3.00

1 bottle Pezat red 40.00

TOTAL 155.50