Tag Archives: Value

Restaurant Review: M & L

The burgeoning Chinatown in the hinterland of O’Connell Street has thrown up a good many restaurants, some worthy of a visit, some less so. These places are a world away from the Chinese restaurants we grew up with, a happy land of paper globes, toffee sauces and waitresses clad in whatever the Chinese equivalent of ‘kimono’ is called. The new eating houses exist principally to fuel the Chinese community. The dining rooms are frill-free. There is little English spoken. Many of them seem uncomfortable with the very concept of feeding occidentals, though some have adapted by providing pictorial menus, akin to those in Spanish or Greek seaside resorts. Whenever I go to one of these places there’s always a party of Chinese at the next table. The Chinese love to eat – a Chinese equivalent of “how are you?” is “have you eaten yet?” – and they’re deadly serious about it. The food they are eating looks different to the fodder in front of you. Chopsticks clicking away, they swoop at a bejeweled plateful of something-or-other or dive into an enormous bowl of broth to pluck out a morsel. “My God,” you think. “I’d love to try some of that.” Trouble is, how to acquire it. Well, I’ve tried the Harry-met-Sally gambit and it doesn’t work. To compound the difficulty the waiters frequently go to great lengths to inform you that what you are trying to order either doesn’t exist or, for some reason, is unavailable. I think they want to protect you from yourself. Dining in London’s Lisle Street I tried in vain to procure the honey-roasted sausages I’d heard so much about. “You won’t like them” said the waiter. I riposted “Let me be the judge of that”. He gave me the politest blank look I’ve ever encountered. Somehow my words must have got through, though, for after a brief trip to the kitchen he returned, saying “Chef made some this morning. They not good. He not serve.” The chef came out of the kitchen to support this claim. I gave up. There’s no arguing with a man who wields a big cleaver. The other day a friend told me of this restaurant where they sold ‘egg yolked soft shell crabs’. “I don’t think they really want you to have them though”. That did it. The very next night found Foodmad (who better?) and me trekking past the Bertie pole in the autumnal gloom. M & L, next door to the Pro-Cathedral, is a plain but scrupulously clean and tidy place, right down to the ‘offices’. We were glad we’d booked for, at 7.45, the dining room was packed with Chinese – couples, business quartets and families. The pleasant young waiter brought the menu and a big pot of jasmine-scented tea. “About these crabs…” I said. Initially, he denied its existence. Then he relented, willing-if-not-quite-happy to provide crab with ginger and scallions. Though I consider it one of the world’s great dishes it wasn’t what I wanted. We were after the soft shell variety, the mange tout of crustaceans. The words “egg yolk” seemed to do the trick. Afterwards he was on our side. With the exception of a plateful of Cantonese roast duck of which I am excessively fond we left the rest of the meal to him. He brought us chilli squid, melt-in-the mouth, clad in a whisper-light batter; a spicy beef dish in a broth; chicken for heroes, bite sized pieces, surrounded by peanuts and an arsenal of chillies. We drank Chinese beer, an effective fire extinguisher, along with the tea. It was a monumental meal and the crabs were the crowning glory. Not stewed till squishy as I’d had them before in Hong Kong but coated in an egg-yolk and spice dip and deep fried. You could devour the lot, carapace, legs and all, crunching them like crisps, but there was such a mountain of them we didn’t bother once the novelty of doing so had worn off. The crab meat within was terrific, full of flavour, worth going through the whole rigmarole to acquire. Only disappointment was the duck. The Chinese themselves eat this plain dish “as it comes”, hot, lukewarm or cold. Good hosts, they assume that Europeans like their food hot and their duck crispy and off the bone, so they fillet and re-fry, which robs the flesh of its succulence. It was my fault. Though I did manage to get them to leave the bone in, my appetite for confrontation wilted at this point. I should have persevered. Relaxed, once he had seen we were happy with his choice, our new friend confided “Next time ask for ‘original Chinese menu’”. We certainly will. We’d consumed a mountain of food, having ordered through enthusiasm and natural greed what was probably enough for five people. He produced some plastic boxes and Foodmad happily carted the leftovers home. M & L – never did find out the origin of the name – is undoubtedly the best of the new breed of Chinese restaurants. It probably won’t be well-received by Dame Street devotees although I’m sure sweet-and-sour something lurks somewhere on the menu. But any foodie with a taste for ethnic authenticity and an ability to climb out of the comfort zone should beat a path to the door.

Verdict: Clean, friendly, affordable, authentic, grab the crabs

Rating ***1/2

For all the above we spent just over €70 and it would have fed 6!

M & L Szechuan Chinese Restaurant, 13 Cathedral St, Dublin Tel: 01 874 8038

Restaurant Review: Thornton's

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: ****1/2

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

So it Goes… this week's decent drinking

SQ French Wine Sale shows they’re back on track

sq-botts-0909When I saw the press release (it was some time ago) proclaiming that Richard Moriarty was installed as the new wine buyer for Superquinn I was wholly euphoric. “Yes!” I said, “strange appointment, but the man does have his own winery, I suppose that’s the connection.” Imagine my chagrin when I realised that what was Ireland’s most niche supermarket (until the Celtic Tiger ushered in the like of Fallon & Byrne and Donnybrook Fair) had appointed as their new vinous supremo, not the Newport Beach, CA-based bon viveur, the guy responsible for the notorious ‘Pimps, Hookers, Drug Dealers and Lawyers Ball’ and other bacchanalian affairs, not the man who nailed a whole Lamborghini to his living room wall but some other Richard Moriarty. Dammit, I was looking forward to the press gigs!

Superquinn made a bright start with wine back in the late eighties, exhibiting a representative selection from Europe that extended beyond the classic regions – they were probably the first people to tell us that there was a world of Spanish wines beyond Rioja. An initial aversion to centralised buying brought some personality to the wine shelves of individual branches. Their French collection was, for a long time, impeccable.

Then, as happens, they lost their way. Around the turn of the millennium the other supermarkets had caught up good style. Superquinn, always a little tardy in latching on to the excitement coming out of newer regions, seemed to retrench and get stuck in a time-warp. About five years ago you’d find their shelves stuffed to glory with the produce of minor French chateaux, frequently from dodgy vintages. Every day you opened your mail Superquinn were holding a French sale to clear stocks. Untrue, of course, but that’s what it seemed like.

It’s heartening to be able to report that, since the appointment of the other Monsieur Moriarty, a young wine trade professional, the Superquinn star is on the ascent again. Indeed, the impact made by this guy could hardly have been exceeded by his Californian namesake, except maybe the press tastings would have been a tad hairier and maybe more fun.

Last week I received five samples. Four of them spoke of the new SQ. Starting with the cheapest, the Superquinn Cotes du Rhone 2007 is a complete and utter steal for €7, as my good buddy Martin Moran has already mentioned elsewhere. Les Vignerons des Esterzargues are one of the better co-ops and here, to order, they’ve produced a syrah/grenache blend with a vibrancy and a full-on fruit flavour that would skittle an assortment of New Worlders at nearly twice the price. At the same time they are bang in the idiom – this is a Rhone wine.

Even nicer, for another euro, to my mind is the (dreadful pun) ‘Chat en Oeuf’ 2007, €8, zippy and mellifluous at the same time, with a deal of joyous Grenache and a wee top-up of Syrah for backbone. Chateauneuf it’s not – quite. But, like it’s Syrah-based cousin it’s right on the money and a smidge more. I wasn’t surprised to glom the back label and see the steady hand of my old Mancunian mucker Paul Boutinot. We have a mutual friend, Paul Rook, last seen flogging dog food from a market stall, alas. In his wine trade days he had a spectacularly sharp palate and a vinous vocabulary that extended to only four words. Wine, he avowed, was either “crap; sound; or fucking sound” and if Rooky said a wine was “fucking sound” you could order a case in the certainty that it would delight. Well, Chat en Oeuf is fucking sound.

The third and fourth wines were both whites, again French. Ch. Cabannieux 2007 is a Graves, a Semillon/Sauvignon blend, a style currently about as fashionable as a denim boiler suit. God only knows why. This wine has been knocked down to nine euro in Superquinn’s sale and for that price would see off any of the tarnished pennies I tasted at the Chilean extravaganza the week before last. Decent gooseberry and citrus fruit and a total absence of horrid green pepper. Good, easy drinking and greaty value at €9, sale price..

The other white, a Pouilly-Fuissé (ah, there’s the bloody acute key combo!) is, for me, a bit of a star. Just to show you that France isn’t all 80 Gauloises-a-day horny-handed sons of toil, the savvy producers of Domaine du Roure du Paulin have hung a natty label round the bottle’s neck; this tells you the grape is Chardonnay, in fact it says CHARDONNAY – traditionally produced and partially matured in oak barrels’, all the buzzwords. Rounded, surprisingly sophisticated, this sample stayed to dinner. €14 in the Sale, steal!

The last wine, alas, seemed in contrast, a bit of a lemon. I have a soft spot for red Graves, or Pessac-Leognan as you must call it these days. Ch Haut Brion was the first first growth I tasted and I have fond memories of rescuing bottles of Smith Haut-Lafite from the river that was, only the day before, the high street during the East Molesey floods in 1968. So shame that Ch.Haut Lagrange 2004 doesn’t cut the mustard. The essence of this region is that, at best, it produces wines that are extravagantly perfumed, that have the schnozz quivering with anticipation. On the palate, you trade off a little body for a lot of elegance. The aftertaste remains with you, powder dry in the mouth, with a hint of rose petal. That’s what I get, anyhow. The 2004 vintage was uneven in quality and even the best wines I found lean, ‘interesting’ rather than ‘opulent’. This one was thin on fruit, not particularly tannic but… what’s the word? Ah, yes, “boring”? Not quite. ”Joyless, then”. Spot on. If Sibella has to wrestle the sample off me in case I drink the whole bottle it’s good wine. Here I wasn’t even tempted.

Call me a conspiracy theorist but this wine is bog standard yesteryear Superquinn. Do they have a deal of it still to shift? Ah yes, it’s half price in their sale, €25.99 down to €13. I’d warrant the well-made Medoc, Pey du Pont 2006, is nicer for €12.

Still, four out of five ain’t bad. In fact it’s very good. Young Mr.Moriarty’s sophisticated palate and obviously smart buying skills have put SQ back on track. And in their French Wine Sale Catalogue I spied a whole heap of further goodies. A really tasty Cairanne for €9, The SQ Sancerre, €13, if you favour  this style it can’t be beaten for the money. The Alain Grangeon Chateauneuf… now that is a wine.

SQ Autumn French Wine Sale runs from Sep 16th – Oct 13th.

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.

Seapoint

Three years ago Sibella and I were in Italy, dining in a restaurant that purported to have more class than the ones we normally frequent on holiday. We had been lured there by the enticing and affordable table d’hote menu displayed in the window.

Once inside, we were handed the a la carte menu. Our request for the table d’hote was immediately met by a stare halfway between bemused and hostile. We stuck to our guns and were rewarded by the maitre d’ peeling the menu of our hearts’ desire from the glass. Clearly, we were not meant to eat from this carte. He laid down a stringent set of conditions – there was to be no variation, we had to chose three courses from A, B, or C, with no mixing’n’matching. The restaurant’s choice of wine to accompany the dishes was likewise set in stone.

I plumped for menu C, as it contained the magic words ‘sucking pig’.

By the time the dish arrived I was in a high old state of salivation. I stuck the fork in, tasted a morsel and frowned. My tastebuds told me that this was not sucking pig. I hailed the maitre d’ and enquired in friendly fashion “Is this the sucking pig?” He replied in the affirmative. “Are you sure?” I pressed. He turned on his heels and went into the kitchen, returning a moment later to proclaim “Chef says it is a young pig, speciality of the region.”

I recommenced eating. Another mouthful and I was utterly convinced that this was not sucking pig. I summoned the maitre d’ once more. “Any chance we could have a word in private, please?” We stepped outside. “Are you sure this is sucking pig, I asked, firmer this time. “Chef says it is young pig, speciality of the region,” came the pat reply. “Well, Chef is a lying bastard and so are you. This is not sucking pig, is it?” “Chef says….” I cut him short. “This is not sucking pig is it? This is f*cking fish.” “Yes,” he admitted, “It’s fish.” He had the grace to blush.

In my time as a restaurant reviewer and dedicated diner I’ve had some heinous deceptions practised on me. I’ve been palmed off with chicken as guinea fowl; farmed salmon as wild; pork fillet as rose veal. But swordfish masquerading as sucking pig is surely the emperor of all gastro-scams.

I hadn’t eaten swordfish since; that is, until last Bank Holiday Monday when I had dinner at Seapoint. Monkstown’s Crescent used to be a hotbed of decent dining but latterly it’s been pretty mundane. Still, one lives in hope and I’d heard good things about Seapoint from people whose opinions I’d respect. We arrived at the tail end of early bird time, the place was packed and the kitchen clearly under pressure. There wasn’t much of a meet’n’greet and though we were invited to sit at the bar until the earlier couple had vacated our table, no one asked us would we like a drink. There didn’t seem to be anywhere to put wet coats and, indeed, no one available to take them so we draped them over spare bar stools when we went to table.

A strategic bowl of rather good bread kept us occupied while the kitchen struggled to get back on terms. Then the starters arrived and from there on in it was all smiles. Sibs took the tian of crab tian, with a celeriac remoulade and a tangy pickled cucumber dressing, beautifully fresh and nicely presented. I went for a big bowl of mussels, having spied the one that went to the adjacent table, steamed Thai-style with coconut, chilli and coriander. We both took fish for mains: she, the pan fried honey and mustard monkfish, ingeniously teamed with spicy spaghetti fritters and a lemon and ginger jus; me, the grilled swordfish, quite a substantial chunk, came accompanied by baked fennel and garlic, a spicy tomato salsa and a lemon olive oil dressing. I was somewhat relieved to find the swordfish wasn’t sucking pig! It also came with chips, good ones too.

The wine list, like the cooking, is eclectic. Unlike the cooking, it’s slightly hit-and-miss. €48 for the less than whelming Pierro LTC sauv/sem really is not on. We shared a bottle of Senorio de Cruces, an Albarino, from Rias Baixas, Spain, crisp and decent, with enough weight to counter the glitzed-up fish dishes.

Sibella picked the winning dessert, a truly excellent lime and ginger crème brulee, served with balsamic and strawberry ice-cream. I opted for the selection of organic Tickety-Moo ice-cream of which I’d heard good things. In truth it was a disappointment, seeming a tad deficient in flavour. This was but a small blemish. Overall, we liked Seapoint for the ambience, adventurous cooking and truly excellent service.

The damage: €111.30, ex-service, for 2 x starters/mains/desserts, 1 coffee, bottle of wine

Verdict: Good to find a restaurant that does fish well.

Rating ****

Seapoint Restaurant, 4 The Crescent, Monkstown, Co. Dublin, 01 6638480

The House

Southsiders regard it as a little bit of home that’s been somehow geographically severed from the main. Northsiders claim it to show just how pleasant living on their side of the Liffey can be. The locals, possibly the most inward-looking people this side of Albania, refer to it as ‘The Peninsula’. Yes, this week, I’m in Howth with my mate The Taxman, striding along the promenade past the ice cream parlour yacht club beloved of the late C.J.Haughey, looking for a restaurant called ‘The House’.

I know a good few restaurateurs in Howth, fine people all. They look out for each other, co-operating in an annual taste fest that’s well worth a visit if you haven’t been. At the same time, catch them privately and they are not averse to dealing a slight knock to their neighbours and competitors – “Ah yes, they’ve been doing a fine job for years but lately I feel they’ve got a tad expensive”, or, “Well I’ve heard the food is very good but there are other places I prefer to dine.” As a public front-up, it’s a different story. Every last restaurateur will tell you that The People’s Republic of Howth does a better job of tickling the public’s taste buds than the combined efforts of Dublin 1-6.

The House is up on the hill, beyond the Abbey Tavern, the boozer that gave birth to The Dubliners, rock’n’roll, jazz and salsa, that’s if I believed the local who gave me directions. When we arrived I recognised the place, knew there had been a restaurant there before, as to what it was called I couldn’t for the life of me remember. Inside, I’d hazard a guess to say they’d inherited the furniture and accessories, as well as the neon sign glowing in the window that said ‘open’. The interior was all very reminiscent of restaurants that have existed in genteel seaside resorts since time immemorial. Southwold; Thornton Cleveleys; Abersoch; Bangor, County Down I remember them from my youth, with their chintzy teapots and the sort of home cooked ham that would win my mother’s approval.

With the arrival of the menu and wine list all nostalgia ceased. The cooking here is modern bistro-style, as you’d expect from a chef who’d cooked at The Mermaid Cafe; the wine list was modern too, with some very smart picks at sensible prices. We both took smoked fish for starters. Taxman went for the trout, me for the medley offering trout, salmon, white fish and mussels. Portions were generous, the seafood all beautifully cooked and nicely garnished.

The Taxman took the rump of lamb. I scammed some and it was very tasty indeed, obviously a well-sourced joint of meat. Fine mash, too. I contemplated the rib eye before opting for the burger, seduced by thoughts of a Mount Callan topping. For those who haven’t tasted it, Mount Callan is the Irish cheddar that comes closest in taste and texture to the great English farmhouse artisan cheddars like Montgomery, Keens and Quickes. I’d recommend it highly.

Of course these days you never get asked “How would you like your burger?” as the food police have decided anything less than mince cooked till grey is bad for us. The House burger arrived as what you might call ‘barely legal’ and a whopper it was, with bun top and bottom and a generous amount of cheddar on top and oozing down the sides. The onion rings in their tempura batter were absolutely spot on and the chips also excellent. To accompany this meatfest we chose a big, bouncing Barossa shiraz, Mitolo’s ‘The Jester’ 2006 and it did the job perfectly. A tad more than I normally stump up, I warrant, but when you are out to dinner with a tax consultant you might as well go for broke and hope he’ll find a way of keeping you solvent.

Desserts didn’t wink at me. I’d have loved the gooey-looking carrot cake but The Taxman got there first. I picked the Eton Mess, fast becoming a staple for restaurants that don’t really do desserts. There’s not much can go wrong with strawberries, meringue and whipping cream unless you OD with extra sugar, which is what I suspect they’d done here. It was rather too sweet and cloying for my taste, a bit too much of a kiddies’ treat. Coffee (Illy?) was of the “4/10, could try harder” kind. More training needed.

We both greatly liked The House. Smart confident cooking, generous portions and friendly service made it a place I want to return to. Subsequently, we found it very hard to leave ‘The Peninsula’. The last DART departed at 11.15 and we were on the minute. What’s more, it only went as far as Connolly, causing me to ask my guest “Can I claim back the cost of a taxi?” “Who was it said ‘there’s no such thing as a free dinner?’” he riposted. Bastard!

The damage: €114.25, ex-service for 2 x starters, mains, desserts, coffees and a very good bottle of wine.

Rating: ***1/2

Verdict: Another great addition to the Dublin bistro scene. Emphasis on local sourcing and a casual, relaxed atmosphere.

The House, 4 Main Street, Howth, Co Dublin Tel: 01 839 6388

Seagrass

RESTAURANT REVIEW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: ***1/2

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

Victoria

Gentle reader, indulge me. I’d like to dedicate this review to one Graham Proctor, my oldest and best mate, now deservedly putting his feet up after a lifetime spent in teaching and politics, including a stint as Lord Mayor of Chester.

During a period when my life was about as stable as a butterfly on speed, Graham and his wife Sue used to put me up and feed me at their house in Chester every Monday. This went on for a year or so, a navigational fix at a time when my personal compass was in a state of constant gyration. Towards the end I took the two of them out for a slap-up meal as a “Thank you” for their hospitality. Graham proposed we went to this new restaurant that had instituted an ‘eat as much as you like, for a fixed fee’ menu.

With the devil-may-care enthusiasm of the young we climbed in, devouring ham, beef, pork, salmon, cheese… oh, and roll-mop herrings. I love roll-mops, I must have wellied down nigh on a dozen of the rascals. Afterwards we went to a country pub where some friends were running a folk night. The Main Man spotted me in the audience and asked me to sing, my bag in those days. I borrowed a guitar and climbed onto the stage. As I warmed up with a few sotto voce tra-la-las, the roll-mop balanced atop the stack inside my stomach jumped up and tickled the back of my throat, causing me to feel felt decidedly queasy. “Give us ‘Shoals of Herring’!” shouted Graham, from the audience. And by God, I nearly did.

There’s a lesson to be learned from this anecdote. It’s ‘Eat as much as you like’ is only okay if you don’t. And, as a rider, I’ll add that ‘Eat as much as you like’ is only okay if the food is any good’. Never forget – ten kg of crap is still crap. Nowadays there are quite a few restaurants in Dublin now operating this policy and many of the offerings are abjectly substandard.

One cheering exception is Victoria, a pan-Asian restaurant in Monkstown where, the other night, Ruby, Pearl and myself marvelled at a gargantuan buffet set out on a ‘Lazy Susan’ for us to rotate and enjoy. Egged on by the need to get my €25 a head’s worth, I undoubtedly ordered more food than was necessary, or, indeed, sane. I had to have the hot/sour soup (it’s a family tradition thing) and managed to consume a big bowl of it while R & P were loading their second crispy duck pancake. I joined in the ritual. Besides this we had a bejewelled plateful that included spring rolls, crispy wan tons, barbecued pork ribs and skewered chicken, all of which came accompanied by bowls of sweet-and-sour and satay sauces. If I have a criticism it’s that the satay tasted a mite thin and bland. The charming young maitre d’ arrived at table to offer us more duck, which we declined.

From the surprisingly good wine list – Cusumano’s fine Sicilian Insolia at €24 is a real bargain – we selected an Aussie Riesling, St.Hallet 2006 (€27) which was crisp, faithful to type and very good value for money. Lovely wine, with a weighty mouthfeel coupled with typical Eden Valley bracing minerality.

For my main I took an Indonesian fillet of beef Rendang, a dish often wrongly categorised as a curry. In the traditional version, the beef is long-simmered in coconut milk and spices, deriving a background spike of heat from ginger, galangal and chillies. Pearl took the sweet and sour prawns and Ruby, chicken with a sweet sticky coating, speckled with sesame seeds. We accompanied the feast with egg fried rice and a dish of pak choi, which Pearl, never one for Chinese cabbage when I cook it, pronounced as delicious.

We couldn’t manage dessert but they sent over a huge plate of assorted fresh fruits, which we demolished. The bill came for 3 came, as promised, to €75 plus the drinks. Victoria, in the same building on The Crescent that used to house Wong’s, is as very smart restaurant, with a tasteful black wood interior set off by smart white linen and sparkling glassware. The food is as good as, if not better than 95 per cent of the Chinese restaurants in Ireland. The dishes we chose were from the a la carte menu and only very expensive items like lobster and black sole are excluded from the set price buffet. Alas, I didn’t notice the scallops with scallion and ginger until we were full to bursting. If you had totalled up our meal using the menu to price each dish the food would have cost easily 50 per cent more. A special mention for the staff who were courteous and efficient throughout.

Verdict: Not to eat at Victoria would be a no-brainer.

The damage: £107.50 ex-service for all we had, including a bottle of decent wine and a Bacardi & Coke.

Rating: ****

Victoria, Asian Restaurant, The Crescent, Monkstown, Co Dublin Tel: 01 230 1212

New Wines from M&S

Attended the Marks & Spencer tasting of their latest offerings, here are my notes.

The tasting took place in the cellar of WHPR/Ogilvy & Mather building in Ely Place.

Some of the whites were too chilled, some of the reds a tad soupy but otherwise the event was really well organised – spittoons, clipboards with a catalogue, logical order (mostly), loads of space and a fair bit of cunus (certainly for the early arrivals) – other organisers please take note. Kudos to Claire Guiney from WHPR who organised matters and got Ireland’s top brass tasters there without needing to promise a gourmet lunch. I could get fond of the M&S crisps, though.

At the outset I got genuinely excited over the sparklers when I thought I’d unearthed a quite decent Champagne for €17.49. Alas, the price was a misprint, but **Louis Chaury‘s blend of 40% PN/30 Chard/30PM was still great value for the, corrected, €21.50 – this has got to be one of the better budget Champagnes around.

***St.Gall Vintage Grand Cru 2002 did cost €44 but it’s stunning and worth every penny for its bravura flavours.

On to the whites and an interesting dry *2008 Pedro Ximenez from class act Alvaro Espinoza in Chile’s Elqui Valley. Unoaked, clean party wine, different and distinctive.

A couple of Chardonnays from Argentina demonstrated differing characteristics. The €6.99 Vinalta 2008 was drinkable, commendably bereft of tinned fruit and good value. The Fragoso 2006, €9.99 had some weird dark notes that spoilt the enjoyment a bit, at least for this critic. Both were preferable to the oaked Altos del Condor 2008 (winemaker with the discouraging name of Daniel Pi); described on the back label as as ‘expertly blended by Marks & Spencer’, it wasn’t that expert.

Perhaps the nicest of the budget whites was a **Gavi, Quatro Sei 2008 (€9.99). Clean, smart, modern winemaking of the highest order, I’d definitely buy this for summer drinking.

Abruzzo deserves our support at the minute but that’s far from the only reason to pick this €15.99 white. Rocco Pasettti of Contesa’s **Pecorino 2007 was, despite the name, in no way cheesy. Lemon and apple fruit in abundance, smoothed out by a touch of malo, an immensely interesting change from the usual suspects.

I wouldn’t have guessed the origin of the unoaked **2008 Macon Village from George Brisson in a blind tasting, it seemed more laid back and ‘northerly’. I actually preferred it to its neighbour, a €15.99 Chablis.

A couple of quite savvy and very different NZSBs. *Seifreid 2008 €12.49 could have been re-christened ‘Siegfried’ with its savage attack, my sort of Sauvignon Blanc, racy and mineral. *Flaxbourne 2008 €13.49 gave you some elegance and restraint for your extra euro, in the end it all comes down to what you prefer.

On to Oz, where we kicked off with M&S’s own Chardy 2008, nabbed from Brian Walsh of Yalumba where they know about these things. A quaffer, buckets of tinned fruit, but what could you demand for €6.49? The **Hunter Valley Chardonnay 2008, very traditional, up to 4 months on less then six in real French barrels produced a relaxed yet flavoursome, lean, clean €12.49’s worth. Might buy Her Indoors some of this, it’s right up her street.

The Las Falleras Rosé 2008 €6.49 was well bubblegumesque. *Le Froglet (is this ‘Franglais or what?) at €7.99 was rather better, fresh, bright and clean.

The VDP Ardeche Gamay 2008 cried out for food; the South African Maara Shiraz 2008 was slabby and slightly mucky; I don’t do Pinotage – all I can say is that the Houdamond, at €13.99 won’t attract many admirers, other than those who like the smell of burning rubber I can’t help attributing to this grape. Okay, Houdamond is well made and it’s bush vines and oak barrels (American) but, in the end, it’s still a bit Formula One.

Fellow taster Martin (Moran) asked me “Why does this cost €35?”. All I could say was “That’s what a single-estate Rioja Reserva from a reputed producer in a good vintage fetches”. That said, personally, I’d give the Contino 2004 a miss there’s better stuff around for less money. And avoid the 2003 if you see it.

The Paradiso Carmenere 2008 is ‘vibrant’ all right. Trouble is the tannins are green as your favourite rugby shirt. The new *Vinalta Malbec 2008 is a nicer drink for €3 less, a genuine bargain at €6.99.

Nicest red in the tasting for me was the ***Nebbiolo 2007 €16.49) from Renato Ratti (available from ‘major stores’ so you probably won’t see it everywhere.) Understated, a class act and full of character. You could safely squirrel this away too.

Of the two Pinot Noirs on show, I preferred the **Tasmanian 2007, a typically relaxed and mellow production by Andrew Pirie of Tamar Ridge. Worth every penny and then some of €12.49. The *Clocktower 2007 (€16.49) was a typically exuberant production from Ben Glover and the guys at Wither Hills in the “Hey, let’s set out our stall and see how much fruit, how many nuances we can squeeze out” manner. All a bit OTT really, still a tad one-dimensional like many New Zealand Pinot Noirs away from the top echelon and, to my mind, this uncompromising treatment does take a little of the unbridled fun out of Pinot in an “I Can’t Believe it’s not Shiraz” manner. Bit of an exaggeration, maybe, but I’m sure you’ll get what I mean.

To conclude, a fine and extremely good value Eiswein, big mouthful and that’s not only the name – **Darting Estate Weissburgunder Eiswein, €17.99

Not a bad stab at budget fino with a €7.99 Fino Dry Sherry plucked from Williams & Humbert – interesting pistache and smokey bacon nose; chill the hell out of it and consume at a sitting with whitebait, tapas or somesuch. The Extra Dry White Port (from Guimarens, a good house) was by no means extra dry within the context we’d understand. Tasty though. The Pink Port from the same stable won’t I fear, win many friends. Except maybe as a cocktail mixer, it takes some comprehending. What’s the point of bubblegum that you can’t blow bubbles with?

My recommendations  indicated with an *, rated * to ***

Gruel

Swanky Dublin restaurant La Gondola is offering 3 courses, Monday to Friday, for €16.9pict001015 including a half bottle of wine, a taxi home and the opportunity to snog the waitperson of your choice.

Well it would, if it existed.

It seems that fellow Herald contributor Michael O’Doherty’s observation that restaurants never seem to have January sales struck a chord with some of our significant nosheries. All of a sudden restaurants are falling over backwards to institute “value” lunches and other promos. What’s more it looks like some of these bargain basement efforts are to be continued well into February.

You can see the logic of it. It’s all about cash flow and keeping things ticking over in perilous times. It would be good if these offerings caused people who didn’t normally dine in posh restaurants to get out there and sample the creativity of our best chefs but I’m not sure that this has been the case. I’ve eaten in three of the participating restaurants while these promotions have been going on and in each one of the clientèle comprised the usual suspects, all familiar and comfortable with the high end restaurant milieu.

What are you getting for the money? Well, clearly not the likes of truffles and foie gras. Cheap cuts of meat, slow cooked, particularly the ubiquitous pork belly and commonplace fish are the stock items on the bill of fare and why not, nothing wrong in that. Soups or simple starters and homely puds top-and-tail the menu. To reassure you that you are dining out in some style, everything is given the cheffy treatment and artfully presented. Some throw in a free glass of wine but it will it would be self delusional to expect anything more than a base Chilean or South African sauvignon blanc or cabernet for the money involved.

I ate rather well for under €20 last week but it wasn’t what you’d call fine dining. The venue was a place rather lugubriously called Gruel. It’s on Dame Street near the Olympia. Gruel is owned by the same people who have next door Mermaid Cafe, restaurant that pioneered the Cal-Med vibe back in the 90s. The interior of Gruel is, to put it mildly, “a bit of a kip”. Designer chic it ain’t; eating in Gruel is rather like having an informal lunch in the kitchen of a suburban house that friends are in the throes of rebuilding. Except that you know in your heart of hearts that a rebuild or even a tarting-up of Gruel is not on the owner’s agenda.

Tables and chairs look like they’ve been looted from a skip. Glassware and plates are a mix of school canteen and holiday souvenirs. The other accoutrements are entirely functional, like fridge, espresso machine and till. I know I’m making Gruel sound depressing but, in all honesty, it’s not. The food is heroic. The staff are lovely; they’ll go through endless lengths to explain the food to you and they can stand a bit of banter. They do however like you to come to the counter to put in your order, so if you’re there for three courses and coffee this involves a certain amount of bobbing up and down. Actually it’s not a bad idea, given the gargantuan portions.

I was dining there with my friend The Dublin Geordie, whose favoured football team is currently mimicking the economy in its downward spiral. pict0009I had invited him to lunch in the hope that comfort eating might distract his thoughts from the sale of Shay Given. Gruel’s culinary style is home cooking allied to a smidgen of invention. Lovely pizzas wink at you the minute you walk through the door. Soups are tasty and nourishing. Geordie had the fish stew, a veritable aquarium in a big, big bowl; I took the beef with black bean and ginger, best broth I’ve had out in ages and perfect for the chilly January day that was in it, especially as it came served with really good brown bread.

At Gruel they have a different roast every day. Normally, I try and confine my visits to Friday when they have the salt beef. However it was Wednesday, ham day. The principal offering is always the “roast on a roll” but I had already overdosed on the brown bread. We both took what was described as a “blue plate” a generous thick cut slice of roast ham accompanied by an assortment of imaginative salads, classily anointed with a dressing that, for a change, wasn’t overly biased towards vinaigrette. Jumping out of my seat once more, I sought of the house wine and was somewhat relieved when I couldn’t see it. The plonk I had drunk on previous visits to Gruel was overly biased towards vinaigrette. I didn’t enquire too closely, my logic based on that of old-time mariners who didn’t stick knives in masts for fear of raising an unfavourable wind. Instead, we took two bottles of a particularly good golden coloured weiss beer for which, wonder of wonders, they found matching glasses.

Phew, we were stuffed. There was a sumptuous selection of cakes and flans screaming “eat me!” but we couldn’t answer the call. We did manage an espresso which surprised with its quality.

68a Dame Street, Dublin 2 Tel: 01 670 7119

The damage: 58.80, ex-service, for two soups, 2 mains, 2 coffees, 4 beers

Verdict: Honest and unpretentious, a decent contender for your recessionary readies. A refreshing alternative to the ‘Corrigan Lite’ approach to discount dining. Facilities basic but clean.