For years now, newspapers, magazines and TV programmes have been telling us that the national dish of England, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, has been usurped by that culinary blow-in, chicken tikka masala. Here in Ireland, our traditional stew has had things pretty much its own way and some reckon it has even increased in popularity thanks to a reawakened focus on quality indigenous foodstuff in recent years. However, if you eat out as much as I do you become aware that there’s a serious new contender on the horizon. Move aside, lamb, spuds and onions and make way for… (flourish of trumpets) ..baby back ribs.
Baby back ribs, sometimes called loin ribs, are taken from the top of the rib cage between the spine and the spare ribs, below the loin muscle. The designation “baby” indicates the cuts are from market-weight pigs (average approx. 110 kg) rather than adult hogs which could weigh up to two-and-a half times as much. The ribs have meat between and on top of the bones, and the rack is shorter at one end, due to the natural tapering of a pig’s rib cage. A full rack of back ribs should contain a minimum of eight ribs; a dozen is not uncommon.
Currently these piggy bones are everywhere. In the past month I have been offered them in four different Dublin restaurants. The treatment in each case has been broadly similar. The ribs lie, not quite smothered, in a viscous puddle of sauce, the whole reminding me of an alligator I once saw in a Louisiana bayou; motionless, in attempt to convince passing potential food items that it was a half tide rock. There is something decidedly sinister about a portion of baby back ribs. The sauce too, bears the mark of evil. Sweet, adhesive and with a couple of secret ingredients in its composition. One is a natural (we hope) equivalent of Periactin, an appetite stimulant. It is not unknown for folk feasting on baby back ribs to clamour for a second portion on finishing the first. The other is a pernicious colourant that has ruined many a ‘best shirt’. If this dish’s popularity continues to climb expect to see the likes of “Our baby back ribs are sponsored by TK Maxx” on restaurant menus.
Latest purveyor of baby back ribs to Dublin’s dinerati is a new pub-cum-restaurant on Bath Avenue, D4, hard by the rugger-buggers’ Mecca and paradoxically called ‘The Old Spot’ (actually, it’s named for a rare breed of pig). The place is tricked out in the assortment of fixtures, furnishings and geegaws that seem to be uppermost in pub architects’ minds at the minute. Here, polished wood; there, ceramic tiles; here and there, a splash of tartan fabric; somewhere, a discreet stained glass panel; everywhere, an assortment of new old prints. I am certain a cavernous warehouse exists, probably somewhere off the Naas Road, from which these things may be called off at will. An attempt to deconstruct the environment would be futile; “pub-like” is close as I can get to a description. By which I mean “it looks like a lot of other revamped pubs”.
The maître’d advised me that The Old Spot is in the same ownership as The Bath just up the road, although the restaurant operation is run by the guys who have nearby Juniors and Paulie’s Pizza. The chef has a track record that includes a stint at The Butcher Grill in Ranelagh. Before Miss D3X and I partook of the main event we ordered a brace of starters. I gave the lady, whose birthday it was, first pick. She opted for a starter involving pumpkin and goat cheese, it looked very pretty on the plate. I had the crab cakes and, having had one or two duff ones recently, was pleased to find that they seemed to be composed principally of crab. The pleasant, attentive waitress convinced us that we should be drinking riesling (which was okay by me, I’m a fan) and recommended one called ‘Guerrila’ . I was actually familiar with this white, which hails from the juncture of La Rioja and Navarra in Spain. It’s a wine that didn’t impress at a tasting but such was the waitresses’ enthusiasm I was prepared to give it another go. it proved better than I remembered but still showed those confectionary flavours – boiled fruit sweets to be precise – that caused me to mark it down on the previous occasion. There must be smarter rieslings around that could be brought to table for this sort of ask, €32
For my main I took the pork belly, which came with mashed vegetables, good roast potatoes and a liquid element closer to a decent gravy than the usual skimpy jus. The crispy-topped belly was cut into triangles, a less forbidding presentation that the habitual paving slab favoured by many restaurants. Birthday Girl, as I’d hoped she would, took the aforesaid ribs which came encumbered with a quantity of chicharrones, steroidal versions of pork scratchings, plus a pile of slaw. I was allowed to partake of some of the ribs adding my ‘thumbs-up’ to that of Miss D3X. Food writers of the future, re-constructing this “bound to be” Irish classic, will not be disappointed with The Old Spot’s version. One of the de rigueur accessories of the baby back rib is a side of fries, sometimes offered in a range of sizes from ‘anorexic’ to ‘positively priapic’. The Old Spot’s were somewhere in the middle and I have to say that they disappointed. The starters plus the meat mountain comprised about as much food as we could manage. We did pick, in desultory fashion, at a lemon posset, a pity because it was nicely tangy. We stayed on afterwards and were joined by a mutual friend for a post-dinner drink. All in all we spent €112, ex-service.
Dwelling on the night since, I have come to the conclusion that I would be more likely to employ The Old Spot as a one-plate location, sort of “gobble up the back ribs and go”. I don’t see it as a venue for leisured three course dining. There isn’t enough food interest for me, nothing comes leaping off the menu as a ‘must have’. The tables are very close together, too and, on the night, the muzak was too insistent, zapping conversation. That said, I am well aware that the place has hit the zeitgeist running and many people will be taken with it. Maybe a tinge of sadness is getting in the way. The Old Spot used to be The Lansdowne pub, The Bath was Murrays and, across the road, what was The Shelbourne House is now The Chop House. Yes, I hear all the arguments about pubs being their own worst enemies, dirty, smelly, with lacklustre food and stale coffee, coupled with a wilful resistance to change but at the same time such places played a role, particularly in un-gentrified residential areas. Still, in the end, the pragmatist in me says that if the baby back rib is to claim its rightful place in our culinary pantheon we have to have gastro-pubs. Of which The Old Spot is a fairly decent example.
The Old Spot, 14 Bath Avenue, Dublin 4 Tel: 01 660 5599