Flashback to twenty five years ago. I’m sat in a pub in Rathdrum, County Wicklow with cartoonist the late Terry Willers with whom I’m collaborating on a writing project when in walks a guy I know from the wine business. He is accompanied by his wife and daughter, the latter porting a long cardboard tube. From his briefcase the man takes a ring binder filled with notes, observations and naive sketches. He takes the tube from the daughter and extracts a set of plans, which he spreads out on the pub table.
Pat Keown, the incomer, now proceeds to unravel his dream, his vision for a new restaurant. It is a strange concept, involving medieval monks and a good deal of religious imagery from churchy oak furniture to gregorian chant piped to the toilets, sorry, ‘convent’ and ‘cloisters’. Wife and daughter do not seem entirely convinced the project is a goer, judging by the sly way they look at each other before simultaneously raising their eyes to heaven as your man speaks. Terry is initially diffident until his cartoonist’s imagination takes over, whereupon he waxes enthusiastic and commences to visualise glasses place mats, menus and framed cartoons to reinforce the theme. A deal is struck.Later, Bill, the colleague who has driven me down, and I laugh all the way back to Dublin. “I’ll give it six months” he ventured.
Well, Bill old son, no second career as a prophet for you. Last week I dined in that very restaurant. Pat Keown’s off-the-wall vision is still extant, full of monky business. Pat himself is still around. His son Julian runs the bistro that the original restaurant has spawned. Here we dined and observed it full-to-bursting. The restaurant’s masthead, ‘The Hungry Monk’, set in a mock medieval typeface that would seem ludicrous and vulgar in any other context, has been a fixture in Church Road, Greystones these past twenty-five years.
We had not bothered to book, not thinking it necessary of a Monday and were gobsmacked to find the dining room near-full. However, the pleasant waitress found us a table without any delay. We leaned back into our upholstered, somewhat less than penitential monks’ benches. I suggested to my companions that saying grace might be seemly.
A peek at the menu told us that the food offering, too, falls short of being penitential. We could see from the plates going to adjacent tables that portions were ‘humonkous’ (might as well get in on the act). The grub is unashamedly retro-mainstream, reading like a history of home cooking between 1960 and 1990, with a few nods to modernity here and there. There’s a fair bit of ‘monk-style’ this-and-that, as in the chips, the spicy chicken wings, etc. Clonakilty black pudding features, a yesteryear Irish success d’estime, considered abroad an epicurean treat. Did nobody tell them that this pud is largely passé, that 2013‘s chef favours a softer, oozier style of black pudding? Would they care?
My starter, the lamb’s kidneys Dijonaise, was a throwback to the days of Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson. I don’t know how many Wicklow lambs had donated their organs to this hunger-salving dish which comprised a substantial plateful of properly pinked tender slices, smothered in a rich fudge of cream, brandy, Dijon mustard and more cream. “Aren’t you afraid for your arteries?,” enquired Fenella, a local who had led us there in the first place. “Yes, but what the hell, I’m back on the rabbit food and green tea tomorrow.” Sibella and Fenella were sharing the nearest The Hungry Monk gets to a ‘healthy option’, the goat cheese salad and the tautological ‘deep-fried Dublin Bay prawn scampi’. “Go easy on the homemade tartar sauce, dears,” I advised, mockingly.
The menu lists suppliers, denotes vegetarian dishes with a ‘V’. There is also a ‘C’ but I am unsure what this is for – mayhap the dreaded traces of nuts? The wine list, as one might expect, benefits from proprietorial input. The bistro offers ‘A selection of beauties from our list upstairs’, around 35 bottles, plus another 20 or so listed ‘house wines’ and a few half bottles. I know, from my omnipresence as a food and wine award judge, that the full Hungry Monk carte makes many a short list for ‘Wine Experience of the Year’. I was surprised, though, that vintages were not detailed. The thought of, say, an oaked white Rioja more than a couple of years old fills me with dread. I had the gut feeling that mark-ups were slightly high, but not enough to get antsy about. With two of us destined to drive we took it easy, ordering a bottle of the ever so reliable Joseph Drouhin St.Veran, priced, at €30.
While Fenella was negotiating for a seafood risotto containing zero molluscs, Sibs and I bickered over which one of us was to eat the retro classic duck with orange sauce. Oh, joy, no mere quintet of fey fanned-out slices of breast here, imagine a big bold chunk, half a duck, honey-roasted until the skin gets crispy-crunchy then laid on a bed of good scallion mash, surely a feast fit for Friar Tuck. In the event, we both ordered it and were pleased to find that the sauce, unlike the cornflour-driven swamp of memory, was light, sweet and piquant, the orange’s appeal augmented by sensitive use of Cointreau and star anise. If I am to be picky Sibella’s was perfectly cooked, mine a tad overdone, to the extent where the leg meat had become slightly stringy. Again, a minor gripe, for roasting till crisp is, by its nature, an imprecise process. Fenella’s risotto, of which I scammed a spoonful, was excellent.
The Hungry Monk, I saw from the menu, has a dedicated pastry chef, one David Gonzalez. Sibella and I benefited from this by way of an enchanting mille feuille, while Fenella’s request for a small cheese plate was readily accommodated. Interestingly, it contained three cheeses which different from those listed on the standard platter. I finished with an unremarkable) espresso. All we ate and drank came to €134, including a 10% service charge which I only noticed in hindsight. All three of us gave the Bistro a thumbs-up. Behind the playful gimmickry there’s a serious intent. I’m already planning to go back for a venial glutton-fest on the dry aged beef and pale ale pie.
The Hungry Monk Bistro, Church Road, Greystones, Co Wicklow Tel: 287 5759