We’ve all emerged in 2019, hit the ground running and there’s an air of opportunity, freshness and excitement looking towards what 2019 may bring to the restaurant scene across Ireland (aside from a big fat VAT increase, which is going to wreak absolute havoc in small ways later crescendoing by force on hospitality to make big changes to thrive or even just survive). This week in the papers there are three new openings road-tested, all in Dublin city – style without substance in two from high profile restaurant groups respectively, but simple Italian fare wins out in a Stoneybatter upstart (a place only open a month, but we’ve been really keen to try). Elsewhere, a classic in Cork delivers once again, vegan dining is deemed dismal in one spot in London and there’s a peek ahead at the best places to book tables for in 2019 across Ireland. This is the weekend food critics’ reviews, in review. This is Today’s Chip Paper.
Shelbourne Social, Shelbourne Road, Dublin 4
A high profile new opening of late 2018, Gillian Nelis dips into Shelbourne Social, Dylan McGrath’s newest Dublin restaurant and bar, in Donnybrook for this week’s Sunday Business Post review… and it’s a juicy one! The final line is: “never in my wildest dreams did I expect one of the most talented chefs this country has ever produced to be serving food as poor as this” whilst the headline brashly declares “BARRAGE OF BLANDNESS RESULTS IN SOCIAL EMBARRASSMENT”. Wow.
Working backwards, the review opens with a plate reminiscent of placenta which “looks awful and it doesn’t taste any better” so you already get a feel for where this review is going. The dish in question is the thinly-sliced Wagyu on crispy potatoes with sesame, garlic, hot sauce and crème fraîche (priced at €45!!!!) What’s more, the meat is reported as being imported from Scotland and is “bland” whilst the potatoes are “the kind of bog-standard home fries you’d get in any brunch place on a weekend morning”. Other dishes include the hot curd bread starter which “lost points immediately for being, well, cold” but tasted okay if “pretty forgettable”. The triple cooked chicken wings made this critic wonder if they were even chicken – “I don’t think I’ve ever eaten anything quite so bland… I’d wager that if I’d been blindfolded while I was eating this dish, I wouldn’t have even been able to tell you that it contained chicken”.
Nelis explains at this point: “I’ve been a fan of [Dylan McGrath] for years, and have enjoyed some really exciting and innovative dishes devised by him in places like Bonsai Bar and Fade Street Social. But his Ballsbridge outlet, which had millions spent on it and opened in a blaze of publicity, was a disappointment.”
The pork belly bao featured “fat unrendered” which was “unpleasant to eat” and the buns “stodgy rather than fluffy” but desserts offered a semblance of positivity. Nelis writes: “It was the cheapest thing we ate that night that was to give us the most pleasure… a pecan and pumpkin kakigori topped with a rosemary foam, cost a fiver, and was really delicious.” The other dessert tried was the smoked banana ice-cream with caramelised Rice Krispies and miso caramel – which, to us, sounds fantastic – and is reported as being “just as good, with every bit polished off”.
We haven’t been, but we were well aware of the buzz about this place pre-opening, and it’s clear that a LOT has been spent here. McGrath seems to be taking elements from the likes of Jason Atherton in London, because this opening screams London restaurant group. In fact, Patrick worked in restaurant PR in London and the pictures, menu and attitude of this place – from afar – has all the hallmarks of a certain other celebrity chef (him also a MasterChef judge/presenter) with a slew of restaurants in his stable which this spot wouldn’t look out of place in the portfolio. It’s almost as if that’s McGrath’s direct inspiration and end goal. This review though? The phrase ‘social suicide’ comes to mind.
Isabelle’s, South Anne Street, Dublin 2
In the city centre, another disappointing new opening in the form of Isabelle’s (one of the Press Up “entertainment group” stable) which gets half marks in the Irish Times Magazine from critic Catherine Cleary.
Read this – it’s the opening paragraph and the second we laid eyes on it we shared it on our channels, because it’s a powerful and complete sum-up of the scene in its present state. “New is the new black at this time of the year. Maybe it’s the temporary nature of everything that flows through our hands but there’s a feeling that newness is prime meat for Dublin’s restaurant pack. We move through the city in a ravenous swarm descending on each new opening, Instagramming the backside out of it and moving on to the next shiny thing. Welcome to the age of disposable restaurants folks and single-use cafes, victims of our fanatical craving for novelty.”
THANK. YOU., though you know we’ve been bleating on about this since day dot of our move back to Ireland having suffered years of this nonsense in London. Dublin is scarily evolving into LDN lite, and that’s no compliment – it should be setting off alarm bells which decree “Notions! Notions!” until everyone wakes up out of this bad dream. We all see this happening on our doorstep, this monster that’s just emerged from the swamp. It’s the insatiable Dublin restaurant scene embodied (not the people who work in it, but the clientele who fuel it), where a place is only as good (and forever judged) on its opening week. Everyone loves a good newbie (ourselves included) adding freshness on the scene, but the incessant hype, the manufactured ‘buzz’, the tiring “FIRST IN” boasts, the lack of substance beyond expensive window dressing. When was the last time we all had two courses and a bottle of red in The Green Hen, cocktails and a bite in Pichet or a lingering lunch date at Chez Max? (For the record, 9 months ago, not in some time and around late summer – if you’re asking.)
Back to business, anyway, and Cleary declares this a “big beast of a place, and a beautiful one”. Though immediate eyebrows raised at the €45 pizza, the writer adds: “That’s the headline news… it’s because it’s topped with (deep breath here) lobster thermidor, fillet steak, truffle hollandaise, asparagus and Pont L’Évêque cheese”. It transpires that this is a two-visit review, which we welcome as practice, but it’s revealed “a second chance isn’t a kindness. It’s more of a professional courtesy” as the second visit was to give a chance, or possibly to just downright cancel out, a poor debut run.
Cleary shares: “I’m prepared to be impressed by the food. The Press Up group have yet to dazzle consistently with something other than the decor but that doesn’t mean they haven’t figured it out by now… [on the first visit] it turns out we’re the victim of newness.” The critic “breaks a rule of a lifetime” sending two of three “almost-inedible” dishes back – “Pickled carrots got the salting stage of the pickling and then stalled so they’re just salty; A pumpkin linguine is blander than watered-down baby food and crying out for a pinch, or five, of salt; The shrimp roll and chips are good, and this provides the epiphany I need to figure it out. Passable expensive fast food. That’s the model.”
Readers are assured “lunch take two is better”. There’s a pasta dish (we assume the pumpkin linguine from the first visit, re-tried) which is a slight improvement but overall could be better executed by the writer in her own kitchen. Then, “the falafel are still coated in kataifi filo pastry threads, like Shredded Wheat, which seems an overengineering of this Middle Eastern staple, but there’s less of it so the whole thing isn’t just a hard crackle of stuff to gnaw on like a beaver… each falafel comes in at more than €5 apiece, which is the kind of markup that would make your eyebrows sizzle”.
“I wanted to love Isabelle’s,” Cleary advises, adding “instead of love I found understanding. Theirs is the model that is both cause and effect of a market with fickle crowds, sky-high rents and rock-bottom talent pool. There is nothing new here. It’s an idea that’s beginning to taste depressingly old”.
“Set your expectations to meh,” Cleary concludes.
Various, across Ireland – ones to watch 2019
Instead of a “look back” we’re personally far more excited about peeking into the future, and Katy McGuinness’ Irish Independent Weekend Magazine column is a crystal ball of the places to book in 2019. From the freshly-opened to the eagerly-awaited, joints that are shouted out are the likes of Kwanghi Chan’s Bowls and Heron and Grey’s new identity, Liath; the soon-to-be-born first Dublin restaurant from Niall Davidson (he of Nuala fame in London) and Bunsen going international in Barcelona. It’s less opinion and more a spot-on and succinct overview of the top spots (mostly in Dublin) that will be making up much of the table talk and reservation spaces over the next 12 months, of course allowing for the inevitable couple of places that go under the radar and later emerge in the year, wowing all. We implore everyone to read it – we shared it on our channels, too this past weekend – and make a mental list of whichever particularly piques your own interest.
For us, it’s Lucky Tortoise and Chimac (both) on Aungier Street, One Society on Gardiner Street, Keelan Higgs’ Variety Jones on Thomas Street, Gertrude (from the 3FE folk) on Pearse Street, Grano in Stoneybatter and Bowls in Dublin 1. We’re naturally excited about Aimsir at Cliff at Lyons and Liath (not just because we’re big lovers the Irish language, but that helps with the former translating as ‘weather’ and the latter ‘grey’), though we’re less au fait with fine dining of late. The casual spots, done well, have excited us far more over the past few years, both at home and abroad. The Marlin is a hotel mentioned that we’ve not been aware of, and we await its July opening in the shadow of St. Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre.
The closing para is a warning, though – “With so many new openings there’s a concern that the Dublin restaurant market is saturated, and that there simply aren’t enough people in the city to justify the number of seats looking to be filled. Joe Macken’s restaurants – JoBurger, Crackbird, Hey Donna and Bar Giuseppe – went into liquidation just before Christmas; there are bound to be more casualties as the impact of the VAT and minimum wage increases kicks in. There are tough times ahead.” Proceed with caution, but a little excitement.
Wulf & Lamb, London SW1
You could see it a mile off. When controversial former editor and sometimes-critic-on-MasterChef William Sitwell found himself in hot water over vegan-gate, and later was announced as a new food columnist in The Telegraph, it was inevitable that the vegan kerfuffle would fuel his first piece. Indeed there he is, splayed across the cover of the Telegraph Magazine (and a splash on the front mast of the entire publication) with a sly grin and the peace sign with the headline ‘V for Vegan’ underneath. The art of subtlety not lost here, peeps. Sitwell kicks off his Telegraph tenure with another dig at veganism in general, visiting the confusingly named Wulf & Lamb in London’s Chelsea and awarding it a faiiirly obvious one star out of five.
Cleverly, though, he ropes in the very freelancer (Selene Nelson) who named and shamed his choice words for vegans last year. After the media furore, the pair are now on friendly terms and he enlists Nelson to suggest a couple of vegan spots in London to visit, and invites her to accompany. He arrives early (or she’s late, who knows) and the first element of the review is recounting the bizarre policy policed on the critic – “I ask for a table. ‘You need to order food before you get a table,’ I am told strictly. I am peeling off my wet cycling clothes and feel flummoxed…. The staff relent and I’m allowed to sit upstairs. But someone up there isn’t on message and I’m told off for my crazy sitting-down-at-a-table-in-a-restaurant-before-I’ve-ordered behaviour”.
To the food, and you wonder if when eating with the person who cost Sitwell his job (in ways) in a restaurant he seemingly wouldn’t ordinarily choose in order to regain some form of halo by the public, Sitwell might find favour in this place – we suggest pessimistically and hypothetically as a tactic. But no – this place just doesn’t satisfy with service nor with food it seems, whilst Nelson tries to offer that it’s usually better than what they find on the day in question. Sitwell orders the burger and begins: “The [Wulf] ‘burger’ is a reheated (yes, I promise) concoction of dried nothingness – seitan, which is gluten extracted from wheat and first appeared in the sixth century. I wish it hadn’t. It comes with roast ‘wedges’, except they aren’t; just reheated, flabby sweet potato. The broccoli, overcooked and limp, is covered with some nutty dust. And, oh my, [the mac and ‘cheese’ (which is apparently made from coconut?!] didn’t strike me as freshly cooked – just old and tired, not deep and warming”.
Sitwell continues, “I’m not brave enough to try the ‘tiramisu’ made with cream from almonds, or the vanilla ‘ice cream’ made from cashews”. The last two paras caught our attention because we found ourselves nodding along, having endured almost a week of #VEGANUARY on all social media platforms already, where every third update is a suggestion of a usually naff and uninspiring plant-based recipe or holier-than-thou smug update from someone or another. It goes like this: “Take a glimpse at the vegan world and you may feel like manning the barricades while there’s still time. No deeply rich chocolate ice cream/mousse/cake, no hard, mature cheddar for your crackers, or soft and stinking Époisse, no sweet, fat-dripping burgers from the BBQ, no cream for your apple crumble, nor rich milk for your cereal, no bacon sarnies either, no prawn vindaloo, no boiled egg and hot buttered soldiers, and careful with that wine, beer or cider, as most of it uses animal products in its processing.”[Side note: this also perfectly partners another opinion we saw this weekend, in the tweet below from sometimes-controversial but often sense-talking journalist Joanna Blythman. Veganism and food culture are at odds with one another…]
No coq au vin, beef rendang, stifado, huevos rancheros, bollito misto, shabu-shabu, kaymak, shepherds pie, fabada, curry goat, feijoada, or below, @GillMeller eggs with bacon and cream. #Vegans reject centuries of diverse world gastronomy. I can’t. Food culture matters pic.twitter.com/5mhFjTxO2z
— Joanna Blythman (@JoannaBlythman) January 6, 2019
The previous paragraph in Sitwell’s piece – which we actually enjoyed reading, and look forward to the next ones, for the record – was pre-empted by Nelson’s argument at the table they shared that “people do not need to eat meat, it’s only eaten for pleasure” to which the critic retorted “ONLY? For some people pleasure is all they have! The steak after a hard week on a Friday night, the pork chipolata for breakfast at the weekend,” Sitwell concludes, envisioning a world in the not too distant future where Wulf & Lamb has a branch on every high street. Imagine it. A bleak view to begin 2019 with, if you ask us…
Jacque’s, Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork City
These lines are why we love reading Joe McNamee’s words for The Examiner: “I have already put in a full shift, including a protracted journey back from Dublin, on a wild, wet Wednesday in foulest winter, so I’m feeling mighty sorry for myself as I kiss the stove goodbye and head out again for the night.. On foot of that little rant [detailing the “cushty” role of being a 21st century food critic in Ireland] it tells all you need to know about the ambience in Jacque’s Restaurant that, the moment I walk through the door, it feels as if I have found the blessed sanctuary of an alternative stove”. Jacque’s, a Cork institution, is the subject of the Examiner food review this week.
Eschewing the á la carte-serving restaurant out back, McNamee instead thinks “on a night such as this, it is hard to top the cosy intimacy of the casual dining ‘bar’: exposed warm brickwork, natural wood, twinkling, low lights” and so a selection of the smaller plates are chosen to sate, following a couple of cocktails. “Specially-sourced blue corn tostadas sport smashing and generous fillings: West Cork crab, with chipotle mayo, Mexican slaw (red and white cabbage, celeriac, apple) is sweet, savoury, full of textural crunch; I’m also partial to spicy beef adobe with an intriguing cashew nut salsa”. Then, the vegetarian tasting board (a nifty €12)”allows us to roam further across the menu: “succulent portobello mushrooms, stuffed with spiced granola, yoghurt and smoked paprika oil; crisp pastry tart with lovely eggy spinach and leek; hummus and romesco (Catalonian dip of red pepper and walnut), Ardsallagh goat’s cheese and stuffed red piquillo peppers”.
“Though close to our limit, patatas bravas, with tomato, chorizo and aioli are ordered because they are on the menu,” McNamee expresses. “No one in their right mind refuses patatas bravas.” The wine list is remarked as being “a fine assembly, including a decent spread of natural wines” whilst a “lovely” chocolate and salted caramel tart “close[s] the door behind us” – the writer adds.
“Off the top of my head, [with a mere 38 years in business] that makes [Jacque’s] the oldest restaurant in the city, a genuinely treasured institution,” McNamee surmises, adding “yet Jacques comports itself with a sprightly elan belying its years, as vibrant as a youngun. The food offering knows its place in this sublimely delivered hospitality experience: it is not attention-seeking fare, no screeching emissary for a chef’s ego; rather, it is well-sourced local, seasonal produce treated with integrity and respect.”
Grano, Stoneybatter, Dublin 7
Back in the capital and hot off the mark, Tom Doorley declares “Dublin 7 has won again” in his opening for the review of new-on-the-scene Grano in Stoneybatter in this week’s Irish Daily Mail review – decreeing its “outstanding pasta, glorious Italian authenticity and lovely wines”.
Only open one month this week, Doorley gives back story to owner Roberto, who grew up in Campania and lived for years in Bologna, writing “these two regions, along with Piemonte, are my idea of gastronomic heaven”. The critic even meets Roberto’s mother, who is making pasta on the day he dines, and adds “[as well as] the fact that so many of the raw materials are directly imported and you can understand how, as soon as you open the door of Grano you know – in fact, you can smell – immediately that this is not a trattoria.”
“So simple, so good” was the zuppa di orza with “nicely chewy pearl barley, but with the addition of very finely chopped and still al dente vegetables” whilst the orecchiette grano arso, with its “nuttiness, the chew of the pasta, the tartness of tomato, the earthiness of the long-cooked sauce and the creaminess of the burrata” all combined to create a sensational dish by all accounts.
“I should stress that at lunchtime, portions are modest,” Doorley advises, adding “some, of course, may carp [at this]. They will be people who confuse quantity with quality”. For the next pasta dish, tagliatelle with Bolognese, the writer explains “the kitchen at Grano uses several cuts of beef and pork and cooks the whole thing for eight hours” and remarks on the “depth that can come from long cooking and a certain something that comes from the addition of a little milk”. Doorley is persuaded by owner Roberto to have Testun al Barolo cheese with walnut-stuffed dried figs and a little nip of I Capitelli dessert wine in lieu of a sweet, and calls the whole thing “heavenly as in celestial”. Great coffee and great wines are the gold star atop a flying colours exam.
Back to the location for a second, Doorley wonders: “If this continues, the Phibsborough/Stoneybatter area will be one of the most desirable Dublin addresses. Can it be that the Luas has done all this?” Good point – and imagine if there was (whispers) an underground in the city?! The mind boggles at the untapped potential… maybe in 20 years’ time when we’re all living in a shoe beyond the confines of the M50.