Friday, October 31, 2014

[Review] Sister Sadie, Harrington Street, Dublin 8

It's always exciting when a new lunch spot opens near the office. But, the initial novelty of something different lasts only so long, and then it's back to the humdrum. However, with the opening of Sister Sadie on Harrington Street (in the site of the former Tiesan cafe), I don't think there's going to be any ennui anytime soon.. 

Sister Sadie comes from the people behind the acclaimed Brother Hubbard (Capel Street), who currently hold the title of Best Sandwich in Dublin, awarded by McKennas' Guides for their pulled pork creation. The cafe is set back a little from the street, with room for outdoor seating in finer weather. On the day of my visit, autumn was definitely in the air, with golden leaves swirling on the ground. Inside, the style is clean and bright with simple square wooden tables and bench tables along the window. 

Sister Sadie serves breakfast until 11.30ish (taken from their menu), after which it switches to lunch service. The team have continued to work with their established Brother Hubbard suppliers for their new menu. Soups, salads, flatbreads and of course sandwiches all feature with a definite Middle Eastern flavour going on. Most dishes come with a side portion of one of their homemade salads, making each plate a substantial affair.

Cannellini beans in a thick, lightly spiced tomato sauce came with pulled pork and a soft fried egg (€9.95). A gentle citrus note added some zing to the sauce, partnered by a little scattering of sumac across the top. The pulled pork was top notch, not too soft or wet and based on this, it's easy to see why the Brother Hubbard sandwich has won the accolades. 
Beans with puled pork and egg
The Brother Hubbard Turkish Eggs Menemen is another favourite transported from Capel Street. Slices of toast were piled high with eggs scrambled with tomato and red peppers, dressed with black olive and feta yogurt (€9.95). A generous garnish of fresh chopped herbs added many different flavours, although I personally could do with the parsley. However, given the prominence of parsley in Middle Eastern cooking, I suspect my hate/hate relationship with this obnoxious green herb will continue. Chunks of pan-fried chorizo (€2.95 extra) added meaty, spiciness richness.
Turkish eggs menemen with chorizo
A wheat-free coconut and lime bun was dense but really moist, and topped with the most delicious, creamy, smooth icing that I can recall. A perfect tea-time treat.
Wheat-free coconut cake
Sister Sadie is open from 7.45am to 5pm Monday to Friday, and there are plans for weekend brunch soon. The new location is sure to be a winner with potential to catch both the office crowd and the local residents. This winning mix of healthy, tasty food, coffee and sweet treats is bound to be as popular on the southside as it has been on the northside. 

Sister Sadie, 46 Harrington Street, Dublin 8
Twitter: @sistersadiecafe

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

[Review] Ashtons, Clonskeagh Rd, Dublin 14

When it comes to eating out, I have a mistrust of certain phrases. Words like "artisan" and "homemade" have long since lost any connotations of honesty or rusticity, while "slathered" brings to mind images of medicinal ointment covering an infected wound. Also, you really don't want to get me started on the not-so-cute words that we have adopted from not-very-literate children ("yummy', "noms" and so on). 

The moniker "gastropub" is one I tend to view with skepticism. Some Irish venues have been quick to adopt the label, but not so fast to up their menu to match. Indeed, the smell of carvery lunch still lingers lovingly in the corners and crannies of some venues. But there are some shining stars in the Irish gastropub category, including Ashton's of Clonskeagh, snugly located on the banks of the River Dodder. During the summer, it's worth sitting outside with a cold drink and enjoy this little enclave on the outskirts of busy Ranelagh.

Inside, the interior is clean and friendly with a mix of traditional bar seating and restaurant tables. The menu at Ashton's is warm and welcoming. In fact, with braised this and slow-cooked that, it's definitely food for cold winter days and trips to the Aviva. Unusually we both ordered the same starter, a delicious Goatsbridge smoked trout and super fresh, sweet crabmeat pot, served with sourdough toast (€8). It was a very generous portion, possibly a light lunch in its own right.
Goatsbridge smoked trout and crab pot
My main of confit pork belly and braised neck, courtesy of Tullamore-based Pigs on the Green, was richly flavoursome, but in the end I had to admit defeat and pass the plate to Himself's brother. The Brother liked it immensely, declaring it to be the best he'd eaten. Across the table, pan-fried Clare Island salmon was perched atop a wonderfully cheesy risotto (made with the legendary Irish Gubbeen cheese). A little handful of toasted hazelnuts finished off this quirky but excellent dish (€18).
Confit pork belly and braised pork neck
Clare Island salmon with Gubbeen cheese and chorizo risotto
We were served dinner at low tables, comfortably seated on deep black leather sofas. After finishing our mains, we inexplicably found it quite hard to get up. Faced with such effort, we took refuge in the dessert menu. A lightly flavoured lime and raspberry pannacotta was decorated with perfect pieces of honeycomb and meringue (€6), while a rich 70% chocolate tart with raspberries suited Mrs. H down to a tee (€7).
Lime and raspberry pannacotta with meringue and honeycomb
Dark chocolate tart with raspberries, espresso and white chocolate cream
Ashton's is a real deal gastropub, with sister locations in Kill (The Dew Drop Inn) and Kildare (Harte's of Kildare). They've fully embraced the craft beer movement with a decent selection on tap and in bottle. plus there's also a gin tasting menu for those who like something stronger.  I might have joked earlier about carveries, but the lunchtime carvery at Ashton's is one of the best I've seen with a tempting selection of roasts, pies and other dishes. It really does set a standard. 

Sometimes I mention Ashton's as a dining option to friends, and I'm truly surprised by the number that haven't been there. It's been a Dublin landmark for quite a while, and when things are around for a long time, they tend to be overlooked. But the large crowd of Ashton regulars testify to the fine food and drink to be found here (plus there are plenty of TVs for sports). It doesn't really matter if you're a craft beer fan or a die-hard carvery diner. Ashton's does it all superbly. 

Ashtons, 11 Vergemount, Clonskeagh Road, Dublin 14
Tel: +353 (0)1 283 0045
Twitter: @BarAshtons

Sunday, October 12, 2014

[Review] Jojos, Parnell Street, Dublin 1

According to the oracle that is Google, the restaurant at the centre of this week's review doesn't exist. Or at least, I can only find one other blog post which references it. No Facebook page or any anything else. The odds of a location not being found on Google is highly unlikely, so I can only assume that the error lies with me and I am somehow remembering Jojo's incorrectly.

I do know however, that I have eaten twice recently in Jojos, so unless I am transitioning to some parallel dimension when I walk down Parnell Street, it most definitely does exist, and it is most definitely very good. There's clearly been some investment in the interior with black marble topped tables and movable extraction flues to position over the traditional BBQs and hotspots. It's a far call from the first Chinese restaurants which opened on Parnell Street.

Over the course of our two visits, we got to try a good selection of dishes. We haven't yet tried the hotpot or BBQ options, which are very popular with the large groups of Asians I've seen in the restaurant. Leaf buns, filled with fresh shredded green vegetables were steamed and then pan-fried, but could have benefited from a side portion of dipping sauce. There's a wide range of spicy BBQ skewers available including chicken gizzards and hearts, but we stuck with the more familiar options of chicken and lamb, flavoured with chili and cumin seeds.
Leaf buns
Chicken and lamb BBQ skewers
I did ask if the Chongqing chicken could be prepared off the bone, only to be met by a resounding "NO". Much as I love this style of cooking, the thought of biting into a piece of chicken bone unnerves me. I ordered regardless and was rewarded by a dish of intensely deep-fried, crispy chicken pieces with a scattering of fermented beans, chills and other tasty additions. Even with careful inspection for bone pieces, we still cleared the plate. 

Cumin beef was tender with moist chunks of beef mixed through with cumin and coriander stalks. Deep-fried fish were topped with a richly flavoursome sauce of ginger, Chinese pork, fermented beans and dried mushrooms. Once the fish was all gone, I scooped tablespoons of this addictive sauce into my rice bowl to make sure that I got every last bit. 

A dish of pork fat and deep-fried tofu was questioned by our waiter who didn't think it would suit our western tastes. To be fair, he did this in a very nice way, but we were rewarded with a clay bowl of fatty belly pork pieces in a rich red broth with cabbage leaves and bean sprouts. 
Chongqing chicken (on the bone)
Cumin beef
Fried fish with Chinese pork and mushrooms
Fried green beans with minced pork
Pork fat and fried tofu
I sometimes find the Chinatown restaurants to be hit and miss. By this I mean that I will get wonderful, flavoursome authentic dishes on one visit, only to get the "Westernised', gloopy version on the next visit. I don't know why this happens, but it's so far, so very good at Jojos. All dishes that we had were under €10 in price and the portions are more than ample. The heat levels are not very high at Jojos either, which would suit people who would to explore authentic Chinese food.
The bill from our second visit to Jojos
Jojo's, Parnell Street, Dublin 1.
Contact details unknown!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

[Review] Balfes at the Westbury Hotel, Dublin 2

Lately, life has been extremely busy. Work has been demanding (nothing new there), but when combined with a house hunt and move, there just wasn't much time left for anything else. Eventually though, everything in our old apartment was boxed and transferred to our lovely new little house. Thanks to a trip to IKEA, I have a wonderful, brightly coloured, new armchair and a regular routine is starting to emerge again. 

We spent last Saturday in town, something that we haven't had an opportunity to do for quite a while. After getting my hair cut, it was time for lunch. The Westbury Hotel have given their restaurant space a facelift and I wanted to try it out. The newly named Balfes (after the street) is an attractive spot with a lovely outdoor terraced area to the side of the main hotel entrance. The white tiled walls and wicker furniture convey the sense of a French brasserie with a classic, sleek New York twist. 
Sitting outdoors at Balfes
We were handed a brunch menu, which is served 10am - 5pm on Saturdays and Sundays. When you're shopping in town for a day, brunch just doesn't feel right, and I would very much have liked to have some lunch choices available. A lot of brunch menus feel very samey-samey, with crowd-pleasing dishes which cancel out a restaurant's own personality.

My prime beef burger came in a smoothly glazed, sweet brioche bun, with perfect fries and a smokey paprika mayo. At €16, it was definitely on the pricey side for a burger, but the combination of Gruyere cheese and crispy smoked bacon made for a quite decent effort. Himself's open sandwich of tuna with creamy hummus and radishes looked very healthy, especially when rounded out with a portion of rocket and parmesan salad (€9.00 and €4.50 respectively). Again, there was the slight feeling of expensive, but what else would you expect in a luxury, 5 star hotel?
Burger with fries and paprika mayo
Tuna and hummus open sandwich
During our brunch (how I wish it had been lunch), we sipped on tall, icy glasses of the Devilshoof cocktail. The mix of gin, basil leaves, limoncello and lemon bitters (€10.50) sounded refreshing and cool, but by the end, the original fresh crispness had been replaced by the strong, herbal notes of basil. Perhaps we should have drank quicker?
Devilshoof cocktail
Once home, I visited Balfes website to read the regular daytime menus, whereupon I learned that there is a Josper grill in the kitchen (also to be found in the Morrison Hotel). As we paid and left, I just felt that the brunch menu didn't give the kitchen a chance to shine or show its distinctiveness. Both dishes had been quite good, but didn't feel unique to the restaurant. However, the smart chicness of the decor and the promise of the expanded all day menu will surely draw me back at some stage. Balfes already feels like a spot for a reliable lunch.  

Balfes, The Westbury Hotel, Dublin 2
Tel: +353 (0)1 646 3353
Twitter: @BalfesDublin

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

[Review] My Meat Wagon, Smithfield, Dublin 7

One of my first work projects involved spending a lot of time around Smithfield and the Four Courts area. I was reasonably new to Dublin and to be quite honest, some of things I witnessed in that area did little to enamour the area to me. In fact, if I was in charge of public health, I might have erected a biohazard zone in some places. Smithfield Square had been built, but even with the large Fresh supermarket, it felt like a big, grey, desolate space. The Celtic Tiger Thomas Read's pub failed, just like our economy, and a horde of marauding zombies probably wouldn't have felt out of place. In fact, they'd have brightened the place up a bit.

I wasn't the only person disappointed by the regeneration project at Smithfield, but slowly, inch by painful inch, the area is coming to life. The old Park Inn hotel is now the Generator Hostel, complete with Jameson whiskey bottle chandelier and a buzzing atmosphere. The Lighthouse Cinema has survived bad times and is now a well-established alternative cinema. But any self-respecting area cannot consider itself as truly regenerated until the hipsters arrive. If only hipsters could exist without jam-jar glasses, if only.
Standing outside My Meat Wagon
And if my visit to the recent Big Grill festival taught me anything, it was that hipsters like BBQ. It's like catnip to them. BBQ, craft beers and RayBans seem to complete the hipster trinity. Therefore, the opening of My Meat Wagon, an American BBQ restaurant, in the corner between the Lighthouse and Oscars is part of the Smithfield barometer. 

First things first, I really liked the decor at My Meat Wagon. There are jute sacks, rough wooden planking, galvanised zinc sheets and suspended pallets. We have many storage sheds with all these ingredients on our family farm, except that no West Cork farmer ever thought of setting up a BBQ in their shed. Despite all these design clichés, the overall effect here simply works, with low, warm lighting and original bluegrass music.
The simple menu at My Meat Wagon
Beef good (tofu bad) - seating at My Meat Wagon
We both ordered the Meat on a Board with a mix of Cow, Pig and Bird. To be honest, I was a little perplexed why beef and pork get named, but the source of "Bird" remained a mystery. Each board has a main meat, accompanied by a selection of other cuts and two sides. BBQ chicken has often been a disappointment to me, left dry and dusty by the BBQ process, but here there was a darkly golden laminated skin with juicy meat underneath. 

The Ole Hickory Texas smoker shipped over to sit at the heart of My Meat Wagon had been equally good to the soft, deliciously fatty beef rib, chorizo sausage and excellent pulled pork. Beef brisket, normally my go-to BBQ meat, was a little dry but tasted well. Sides were equally well executed with mash, fresh slaw and fries (served in a mini shopping trolley, perhaps a tribute to the River Liffey?). 
Meat board with pig, bird and cow
There is much to like about My Meat Wagon and it seems like Dublin is not done with BBQ food yet Two huge meat boards, a beer and a glass of white wine came to under €50 with friendly and efficient service. What started out as a small gourmet burger van has matured into a slick, fine BBQ, which would not be out of place in the US. In fact, I'd definitely rate it above quite a few US joints that I've visited. By the time we finished eating, my initial skepticism over the design had been utterly defeated by the fine meat treatment. Put the diet to one side and order the beef rib with sausage. Trust me...

My Meat Wagon, Smithfield Market Square, Dublin 7
Tel: +353 (0)1 874 8172
Twitter: @myMEATwagon

My Meat Wagon on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

[Review] Coqbull, French Church Street, Cork

We all have little things that make us happy. For me, one such thing is the view of Cork and the River Lee that opens up before you as you drive into the city from the Lower Glanmire Road. Sometimes, the rowing club will be out on the river, or perhaps the sun will be setting, casting a golden glow onto the serene waters of the river. Where ever I may go in this world, I know that Cork will always welcome me home. 

In recent years, I've felt that the food gap between Dublin and Cork has widened hugely. Cork has a real heavyweight in the form of the English Market, but the restaurant scene in Dublin has simply exploded. There are definitely some great eating spots in Cork, but it just doesn't have the buzz of Dublin. So when I heard about Coqbull, a burger and chicken restaurant, I wondered if a little bit of buzz had come to Cork.

New venue Coqbull straddles the gap between French Church Street and Academy Street, in the space vacated by the closure of Café Bar Deli. Apparently the design was done by a leading London agency and it certainly ticks all the cool boxes - pressed tin ceiling, parquet flooring and fancy lightbulbs. I had to smile when I realised that the enclosure for the now-mandatory hip lightbulbs were actually milking machine glass jars. I don't know how many farmers will pass the threshold of Coqbull, but those that do will surely enjoy that particular touch. 
Raspberry mojito
Coqbull details
I had rang earlier to reserve a table as my sisters were joining us, but was informed that reservations were not taken. Despite being reassured that there would be no trouble getting a table, it turned out to be reasonably busy when we did arrive. We settled in at the outside tables on Academy Street with a raspberry mojito (€9.50) and a Tiger beer (€5.50), but it wasn't too long before we were called inside  to our booth table.The restaurant was buzzing inside, as you'd expect to see on a Saturday night. It was that time of evening where soon-to-go-home shoppers were mingling with the early waves of the night out crowd. It definitely seemed that the industrial-milking parlour fusion design blend was working well in Cork. 

A shared portion of Coq wings served with a dish of blue cheese sauce (€12) turned out just fine. They had been coated with something along the lines of Frank's Hot Sauce, but the spice level was definitely (and disappointingly) on the safe side.
Coq wings for two with blue cheese sauce
A half rotisserie chicken looked substantial along with home cut fries (€13). Some internet reading informs me that the chicken is marinated for 24 hours in a sweet tea mixture (using Barry's Tea of course). The end result is good, a decent chicken dinner that will appeal to many. Some of the burger combinations sounded magnificent and I ordered the Supreme Bull burger with Cashel Blue cheese, bone marrow and crispy onion. (€14.50). The toppings were indeed delicious, but the patty was dense and dry, sucking the enjoyment out of the burger. Sweet potato fries were soft, not crispy, lying clumped together on the plate. 
Half rotisserie chicken with fries
Supreme Bull burger with sweet potato fries
There is a decent selection of craft beers and a self-described list of "tantalising coqtails". My raspberry mojito was good, but I struggled to pick a second cocktail from the limited list. The daiquiri was a contender until I realised that they served it frozen (or adult slushie-style) which isn't mentioned on the menu. 

Coqbull would appear to be a name chosen to deliberately raise some eyebrows. But it is a reflection of the restaurant's core offering of rotisserie chicken and burgers, all 100% Irish and locally sourced. The chicken comes from the famous English Market tenant, the Chicken Inn  while the burgers are made to a house recipe by Crowes on the Kinsale Road. 

Ultimately, Coqbull didn't excite me or linger in my memory for a return trip to Cork. While its arrival is a good thing for the Cork dining scene, it's hard not to compare it to Dublin where, simply put, there are places doing this kind of food better. For now, I'll be sticking the to its bigger brother, the Cornstore.

Coqbull, 5 French Church Street, Cork
Tel: + 353 (0)21 427 8444
Twitter: @Coqbull_Cork

Coqbull on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 25, 2014

[Review] L'EGGS, Passeig de Gracia, Barcelona

For me, planning restaurant and bar visits is one of the best parts of holiday preparation. With a short weekend in Barcelona booked, I wanted to pack in the very best I could find. Now, Barcelona is a a city where you'd can't throw a pepper mill or potato ricer without hitting a Michelin-starred chef. Reading the latest articles on the hottest new dining spots, it became clear that every chef who is a Michelin-someone has branched out into casual dining. The legendary Ferran Adria has Tickets while Carles Abellan has Tapas 24 (one of my firm favourites). But when we discovered that Paco Perez (holder of 4 stars) had opened a restaurant devoted to the staple egg, it was game over.

L'EGGS is located on the sophisticated Passeig de Gracia and is a clever blend of trendy and classic styles. A neon window sign of a cracked egg signals that things are a little different within, a feeling which is reinforced by the straw-lined walls, farmyard fittings and now-mandatory cool lightbulbs. However, the leather toolbelts worn by the waiters in lieu of the classic bistro apron should not distract from the precise, classic elements of the restaurant, including perfect crystal and linen napery. It's very, very cool. It may feel like a chicken coop, but it's a very upmarket chicken coop.
Place setting at L'EGGS
The menu is available in Spanish, Catalan and English with a plethora of egg-based dishes to choose from. The dishes are categorised into simple sounding categories such as fried eggs, omelettes and classic eggs. But obviously this is no simple restaurant… Our amuse bouche of a cream cheese, topped with diced green olives was deceptively simple and clean. But internally, I was beginning to get excited about the dishes to come.
Amuse bouche
Both of our starters came from the "Eggs Up" portion of the menu, described as "as a section in which the egg is not the protagonist". A bacon and cheese soufflé came to the table, puffed delicately above the edges of the little cast iron pot. We gave it a few minutes before judging it safe to dive in, as a burnt tongue is never the ideal start to a meal. The browned, softly crusty top gave way to what only can be described as a lusciously light cheese soup, which I simply didn't want to end. A salad of forgotten and kept tomatoes with chills and capers was visually beautiful and featured a selection of heirloom tomatoes atop a rich tomato tartare. 
Cheese and bacon souffle
Salad of forgotten and kept tomatoes
Our main courses came courtesy of the "Fried Eggs" section. His dish of arrabbiata spaghetti with lobster was topped with what appeared to be a deep-fried, poached egg. The crispy outer layer of the egg opened to let the velvety yolk ooze out over the pasta and meaty chunks of lobster claw meat. My choice of quail eggs were delivered to the table, atop a section of bone, split lengthways, grilled and mounted on rock salt. Just like their larger companion, the tiny quail eggs were cooked to yolky perfection, mingling with the rich fatty primevalness of the bone marrow. 
Quail eggs on bone marrow with tender onions
Arribbiata spaghetti with lobster and fried egg
Dessert only served to underline and emphasise the skill, palette and creativity of the kitchen. One dish caught our attention, mainly because we couldn't figure out what it could be. The "cocoegg" turned out to be a ethereal creation of light coconut mousse inside a delicate white chocolate shell, complete with soft mango spheres as yolks and some fluffy "bread" to act a a soldier. In a wonderful balance of flavours, the white chocolate sat quietly in the background, letting the light coconut rule the show. 
Cocoegg with mango and chocolate
L'EGGS is the kind of restaurant name that invites one to "crack" a few puns, or to say that how "eggs-cellent" it is. In our case, a whole bottle of excellent Rimarts Brut Reserva cava, three delicious courses, plus sparkling water cost just €75, making it rather "in-hen-expensive" for the quality food, surrounding and service. That's all yolks! (OK, I'll stop now, but seriously, if you're in Barcelona, visit L'EGGS).

L'EGGS, Passeig de Gracia 116 (Jardinets de Gracia), Barcelona, Spain
Tel: + 93 330 0303
Twitter: @LEGGSBCN