Geronimo and Crazy Horse were meeting for the last time before they were confined to the reservation. They reminisced about the good old days before the “long knife soldiers” and the carpet baggers arrived to rob them of their riches, the plains, the buffalo, the freedom to roam, hunt and shoot.
Tuesday night was a bit like that. Two battle-scarred veterans sat chewing the fat about the halcyon times before the ad agencies and the PR practitioners combined to shackle journalism. It’s good to have nights like that and no better place, especially when it’s blowing hooligan winds and raining stair rods outside, than in Talavera, the warm, comfortable cavern in the otherwise stygian basement of the Radisson St.Helens Hotel.
But why Talavera? Why name an Italian restaurant after a battle staged in Spain during the Napoleonic War? Or a town that’s the Mexican equivalent of Stoke-on-Trent? Very curious. Anyhow, no matter for we were happy to take Talavera at face value, one hundred per cent authentic Italian restaurant (and God knows, there aren’t many of those around). The place had changed since my last meal there. An ante room had been opened up to accomodate non-smoking customers and the main area shrunk – to accommodate a serious refrigerated cabinet allowing sous chef Giancarlo Anselmi to exercise his imagination and his kitchen to create the most varied selection of antipasti this side of The Dolomites.
Arancini, carciofi, anchovies, pickled tongue, Parma ham, Parmesan were all there winking at us and, like braves spotting an unarmed wagon train, we swooped. Everything was delicious, although Crazy Horse, who, like myself, comes from a tribe of tongue eaters, opined that his mother’s version was superior. Whatever; at 10.50 a throw Talavara’s antipasti platter has got to be the best value starter in Dublin.
The wine list was commendably ethnic, nothing on it to tempt you from the indigenous wines. We picked a bottle of Masi’s Soave to accompany the starter and allowed a bottle of Sicilian Nero d’Avola/Merlot to warm up, flexing its considerable muscle at a safe distance from the roaring artificial ‘real’ fire.
The menu, I think, could be described as ‘succinct’; like many regional restaurants in Italy choice was sensibly limited to allow the kitchen to do a few dishes well rather than a lot indifferently. Crazy Horse had the filet of beef, Geronimo the veal. The one came with fresh figs and a Marsala sauce generously bestowed; the other with a sauce described as ‘rich, wild mushroom’. One taste told me that these funghi were certainly not tame and penniless. The main courses came accompanied by rather good small boiled potatoes of the slightly waxy variety and a plate of stewed peppers, aubergines and zucchini, not so much as a sprig of microwaved broccoli in sight. The beef was a goodly portion, about the thickness of a sapling trunk and cooked medium rare as requested, with considerable precision. The veal was likewise thick and plentiful, nicely seasoned, flavoured with a herb (rosemary?), fettled to perfection. As a pice of meat it was beautifully balanced, being neither embryonic calf or truculent young bull.
The red worked a treat. Nero d’Avola, the Sicilian grape lent a morello cherry flavour with a dark hint of mystery and intrigue appropriate to the island of Corleone while the Merlot wrapped the tannins in a soft and approachable package. Classic food wine. At this stage I was prepared to assert that Talavera was, in my opinion, the best Italian restaurant in Dublin and Giancarlo the best Italian chef since Wexford’s Roberto Pons.
But things took a slight dip as we stormed the sweet table. No panna cotta? You’ve got to be kidding.
“Well”, said Giancarlo who had by this time emerged from the kitchen, “We are in a state of transaction.” Better than a state of chassis, I suppose, but the only transaction I wanted to make was to bargain for some fresh fruit to support the panna cotta. As I’ve probably stated before in these pages, I am a panna cotta tifoso. Years ago I lost my heart to a pristine example of this creamy confection, one dashed with vanilla seeds, blended with a hint of rum and festooned with tiny wild strawberries. My devotion has been unswerving ever since. I settled for a baked cheescake, albeit a good one, and a sulk.
Crazy Horse took the passion fruit mousse.
Giancarlo’s “state of transaction”, it seemed, alluded to the fact that the hotel has closed Le Panto (surely Lepanto, another battle?) the classical restaurant upstairs, temporarily or permanently, no one seems to know. A new executive chef is expected and there’s worrying talk of larger-scale buying – currently the meat is sourced from a repuatble local butcher so we hope not. We finished with an excellent ristretto and a brace of grappa, putting a patina on the evening and stopping the sulk. At this juncture I must make mention of the first-rate Bulgarian waitress, Radostina and Annett, the supervisor, both of whom made us feel like we belonged in attending to our needs. Sometimes I divide the world into people who should be working in a service industry and those who shouldn’t. These two are prime candidates for the first category.
To sum up, panna cotta famine apart, Talavera is a really good restaurant with a capable chef making exemplary use of well-sourced ingredients. We’d spent e170, gratuities discretionary, but that included the grappas and the second bottle and we both felt we’d had excellent value for money.