Tuesday, April 15, 2014

[Review] China Sichuan, Dublin 18

I've recently been reading a blog series from Sybaritica about Chinese characters and how to understand them in the context of food and dining. I'm only a few characters in, but I'm already starting to go a little cross-eyed as I start to appreciate this complex language. However, I have learned to recognise the three parallel strokes that symbolise one of my favourite Chinese cuisines, namely Sichuan cooking. I  was delighted to be able to pick that character out on the menu cover at China Sichuan. Watch out non-English speaking restaurants, I'm coming!

China Sichuan is surely the sleekest Chinese restaurant in Dublin. Located in a custom-built premises in Sandyford Industrial Estate, it's presided over by the charming, second generation restaurateur Kevin Hui. Upon arriving, our coats were taken with a warm welcome before being led into the dining room, which is all dark woods, slate and subdued lighting. It simply (discretely) shouts style. I already knew that I was going to enjoy China Sichuan. The question was how would this upmarket and polished restuarant compare to some of my Dublin Chinatown favourites?

A little dish of pickled and peeled cucumber strips were crunchy and sweet. They disappeared quickly, leaving us forlornly waiting for the starters.  Cold pork belly slices were delicately wrapped around  beanspouts, perched on top of a slice of pickled cucumber (€6.00). The spicy garlic and soy sauce dressing ensured that each mouthful was intense and savoury. Luóbo gao or Chinese turnip cake pan-fried and tossed with XO sauce (€8), was a wonderful surprise. The cubes of turnip were light, even fluffy and extremely moreish. Our final starter featured fresh, meaty prawns in a foamy and buttery salted duck egg coating (€8.50).
Pickled cucumbers 
Pork belly slices with spicy garlic sauce
Prawns with salted duck egg
Luóbo Gao - Chinese turnip cake
I had chosen my main of Chong Qing chicken from the Chef's Recommendations section, where it was accompanied by a little triangle, indicating moderately spicy (€15.00). The advertised mixture of dried and fresh chilis seasoned with ground Sichuan pepper had drawn me in like a moth to a flame. What arrived at the table was a richly coloured bowl of chicken, cashews and chills  Lots of chills to be honest, all coated with the numbing magic of Sichuan pepper. It's not for the faint of heart, but I loved every minute of it. Himself had stuck with the specials for his main course, opting for Ballinwillin organic venison cooked with chili and Chinese greens (€20.00). I was curious to see how the chefs would tackle venison, which turned out to be tenderly cooked in a slightly peppery sauce. 

At this stage, we can't visit any Chinese restaurant without ordering a portion of fried long green beans. At China Sichuan, the beans are a bit more expensive than usual (€15.00), but come tossed with minced pork and deliciously salty bits. Along with the Chong Qing chicken, it was an umami slap to the tastebuds, leaving them calling out for more. 
Chong Qing chicken with dried and fresh chillis
Green beans fried with minced pork
Ballinwillin venison
Throughout the meal, I stuck with a glass of delicious Gewürztraminer whose floral aromatics contrasted well with the spicy flavours, while it was bottles of Tsing Tao Chinese beer for Himself. The waiting staff were flawlessly perfect throughout, often cracking a joke, but always attentive. 

China Sichuan straddles two worlds effortlessly. On one hand it is sleekly modern, frequently by wealthy South Dubliners, while on the other hand, the food from the kitchen is authentic and true. It's a true marriage of modernity and tradition, showcasing a vibrant and modern Chinese cuisine. After all, it's hard to resist the allure of dishes like tea-smoked duck or pork shreds in the tantalising tasty "fish fragrance" sauce. (By the way, there's no actual fish involved, it just means that the sauce was traditionally suited to fish).

China Sichuan isn't cheap overall, but if you're on a budget there is a two course lunch menu on offer for €15.00, while the Early Bird offers two courses for €20.00. With the Stillorgan Luas stop just literally 2 minutes walk from the restaurant, it's hard not to find a reason to give it a try. If you fancy a Chinese dalliance, then China Sichuan is a good place to go.

China Sichuan, The Forum, Ballymoss Road, Sandyford Industrial Estate, Dublin 18
Tel: +353 (0)1 293 5100
URL: china-sichuan.ie
Twitter: @ChinaSichuanD18

China Sichuan on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 14, 2014

[Competition] Wine dinner for four at the Kilkenny Cafeé Supper Club

I love competitions and I will enter each and every competition that I come across. What's even better is giving my readers a chance to win some great prizes. I was recently contacted by the Kilkenny Shop on Nassau Street, who are launching their Thursday Night Supper Club at the Kilkenny Café, located upstairs in the shop. The cafe serves up artisan Irish food, made fresh on-site daily for breakfast, lunch and supper. Bonus marks for the fact that most dishes are gluten-free. 

From Thursday, April 17th, the Thursday Night Supper Club will feature a supper main for €12.95 along with wine specials at €3 between 5-7pm each Thursday, along with live music throughout. To celebrate its return, Kilkenny is giving you the chance to win a delicious supper for you and 3 friends! With live music available throughout the evening, it's surely the perfect way to finish your shopping trip or simply unwind after a busy day.

The prize consists of a main course and glass of wine for the winner and three friends. The Supper Club runs on Thursdays only and the prize is valid until the last Thursday in May. To be in with a chance of winning this tasty prize for you and your friends, answer the simple question below. You can either leave a comment on this blog post, or email stitchandbearblog@gmail.com. Please make sure to provide contact details, as anonymous comments can't win.

Q: How much does a main course cost at the Kilkenny Café supper club?

The competition will close at 8pm on Monday, April 21st and the winner will be randomly selected from all correct entries. Good luck!

(Deadline extended for the Easter Bank Holiday weekend).

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

[Review] Salt Lick, Ranelagh, Dublin 6

Back in my student days, I remember a cafe in Cork that used to open as a tapas bar in the evening. Apparently a visiting Spanish chef had struck a deal with the cafe owner to use the kitchen at night, which had the dual purpose of giving me delicious tapas as well as meaning that the venue was busy both day and night. 

From what I recall, the deal didn't last long (there was some gossip), but I thought the idea of a multitasking venue was clever. I can't really remember many examples of this taking place in Dublin, which is surprising considering the high cost of rents. Plus, it's a great opportunity for some young chefs to take charge of a kitchen, trial out dishes and test them on a willing audience. 

Given this, I'm delighted to see that every Friday and Saturday night, new venture Salt Lick will set up shop in Hobart's Cafe in Ranelagh. It is the brainchild of Brian McCarthy and William Toft and comes with a very simple idea. Every month will see a short, themed Table d'Hote menu (it's currently Taco month) with two courses for €20 or three for €25. As Salt Lick doesn't have a drinks license, you can mosy up with a bottle of your favourite wine or beer, with recommendations available from nearby Redmond's of Ranelagh. Alternatively, bring a bottle of your chosen spirit, and the clever Salt Lick people will mix you up a cocktail using their house ingredients. 

The simple menu meant that ordering was a doodle. My starter slate of beetroot, avocado puree, pickled fennel and crumbed feta was very much of the current fashion, but lifted away from the norm by the addition of the fennel. A portion of deep-fried cubed bacon was deliciously fatty and crunchy and each of the three dipping sauces (beetroot syrup, ginger beer glaze and sriracha aioli) was well-chosen to deal with the fattiness. This was the stuff that bacon dreams are made of.

(Apologies in advance for the extremely poor photos - it was pretty *romantic* in there).
Deep-fried bacon with dipping sauces
Mains consisted of a plate of three tacos, with 3 different taco flavours on offer. So, rather sensibly, we got one of each variety. The clear winner for both of us was the confit lamb belly with cannelloni bean, parmesan and olive smash with herby feta salad and streaky lamb belly bacon. Delicious flavours and lovely balance. Next was the classic braised pork taco with adobo, salsa, sour cream and tempura pickle. It had all the classic slow cooked pork flavours but with a little touch of freshness. Finally, there was the slow roast shin of beef, miso duxelle, horseradish creme fraiche, capers, rocket and crispy onion. Unfortunately, the capers completely dominated the beef and horseradish, leaving only saltiness. However, we loved the deeply crunchy fries and peppery rocket and parmesan salad served on the side.
Taco selection
We declined dessert (although the fried bread with dips and the three milk coffee & caramel pudding both sounded tempting) but we were delighted to receive some perfect little meringues with our bill for sweet nibbling.
The bill with those perfect little meringues
We didn't have time to organise ourselves with a bottle or naggin of spirits (which might have invoked memories of student days), so we didn't get to try the tasty sounding cocktail options at Salt Lick, and instead we made do with a bottle of prosecco. Next time out, I'm bringing a couple of bottles from the spirits shelf and I fully plan to let Salt Lick do their best. I love a good cocktail and I'm up for the challenge. 

Long and short, it wasn't 100% perfect at Salt Lick. But it's also worth stating that it was their first weekend in business. It was obvious from the (literal) dancing in the aisles that the staff are enthusiastic and enjoying their gig. In the end, there were more than enough high points (that deep-friend bacon, that sriracha aioli and those lovely fries) to make me want to return and sample another of their one-off menus. At €20 a head (for 2 courses), it's a good night out.

Salt Lick (at Hobart's), Ranelagh, Dublin 6
Twitter: @SaltLickDublin

Saturday, March 22, 2014

[Review] Campagne, Gashouse Lane, Kilkenny

Sometimes the lure of one's hometown is too strong and people find themselves drawn to return. Such was the case for Garrett Byrne, formerly of Dublin's Chapter One and his partner Brid Hannon. His decision to set up shop in his hometown has been thoroughly validated by the success of his Campagne restaurant, which recently earned its first Michelin star. However though, this is old hat (or business as usual) for Garrett, who was Head Chef at Chapter One when it won its first star. The only surprising thing is that it took Michelin approximately 5 years to recognise his achievements in Kilkenny. 

We ventured to Kilkenny for a relaxing weekend break, and while the taxi trip through the middle of town was a bit Armageddon-like, tranquility returned as we turned down the small lane towards Campagne. Warm light pooled onto the footpath from the location snugly tucked under disused railway arches. Once indoors, our eyes were immediately drawn to the stunning wall art from Catherine Barron. An elegant colour scheme, along with xlever curved interior walls and banquette seating organically divide the room into sections, allowing for a sense of privacy.
Menu cover detail
I have lately developed a love affair with artichokes and I immediately pointed to the warm Jerusalem artichoke mousse with a soft hazelnut and wild garlic crumb (€10). It was utterly delicious with wonderfully contrasting textures. By the way, if anyone can describe the taste of an artichoke to me, I'll be ever so grateful. I find it the most elusive of vegetables to articulate. At the other side of the table, Himself was intrigued by the scallops option (€14) which were served poached rather than the more conventional pan-fried. Served with fennel, orange and olive oil, the scallops were delicate yet firm, with every mouthful feeling warm and satisfying. 
Warm mousse of Jerusalem artichoke
Poached scallops with fennel, orange and olive oil
A perfectly cooked piece of monkfish with a meaty oxtail croquette and a piquant cabbage and mustard sauce made Himself declare that sublime things were afoot in the kitchen (€29). My Aylesbury duck breast was vibrantly pink-red with winter rich kale and a tangy apple and green peppercorn jus (€28). A side of creamy and luxurious mash was the mash of dreams. I know several people who would travel to a restaurant just for good mash, so it's now my duty to tell them about Campagne.

I've recently been learning more about wine, leading me to select a bottle of Catherine Breton La Dilettante vouvray (€42) to accompany our dinner. A biodynamic wine, it had loads of fruit, with little acidity and a silky feel.
Aylesbury duck breast with kale and parsnip
Monkfish with oxtail croquette and jerusalem artichoke
At this stage, we were reaching maximum capacity. Campagne does serve very fine cooking, but it also serves decent portions (catering for local clientele possibly). Looking around the dining room, we could see that it was full of local diners and turning over tables at a good rate. Of course, this gave us opportunity to indulge in one of our favourite pastimes, people watching. We did manage to put our speculation aside long enough to order a single dessert to be shared between us. Then back to the serious business of imaging each table's back story.

Rhubarb jelly and marscapone cheesecake came with rhubarb ice-cream, sugary doughnut bites and perfect pieces of poached rhubarb (€9). (It's not often that I get to use the word rhubarb three times in a single sentence!) If this was a dessert for one, then it's a miracle that the regular diners at Campagne aren't rolling out the door. The intrinsically astringent nature of the rhubarb was balanced by the creaminess of the ice-cream and marscapone and the sweetness of the doughnuts, all washed down by a honey smooth Chateau la Caussade dessert wine (€6.50 per glass).
Rhubarb jelly with marscapone cheesecake

Service was impeccable, with just the right level of attentiveness. We dislike venues where waiters are constantly topping up wine glasses or water glasses. Here the wine was perfectly offered and poured and then we were left to our own devices. I like this form of service as it gives you time to sit back and indulge in a real conversation with your dining parter. After all, eating at a good restaurant is as much about spending time together as it is about the food.

Campagne is not a standard fine dining restaurant.  The food is French in style, executed with irish ingredients and expertly prepared. The linen is indeed crisp, the silverware and crystal spotless and  polished. However, if you revel in tasting menus and amuse bouches, then you'll be waiting a while as Campagne only offers Early Bird and a la carte menus. Instead it is contemporary and catering for the way that Kilkenny diners want to eat. The end result is very pleasurable indeed.

Campagne, 5 The Arches, Gas Works Lane, Kilkenny, Co Kilkenny
Tel: +353 (0)56 777 2858
URL: www.campagne.ie
Twitter: @campagnekilkenn

Campagne on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

[Recipe] Folláin's No need to knead brown bread

I'm very proud of the far that I grew up in Cork's Muskerry Gaeltacht, or Gaeltacht Mhúscraí. This meant that I completed all my education through to secondary level "as Gaelige". I sat my Leaving Certificate in Irish, even going so far as to have Irish language textbooks for subjects such as Mathematics and Applied Mathematics. It all seems so distant now in this modern world where I travel the world and work with many cultures, but it has had a deep influence on my life.

But being from the Gaeltacht is about much more than just speaking our native language. What I took for granted as a child and teenager has been revealed by adult life to be a cultural treasure-trove. These days, there is a new form of culture developing at home in Cork. Well-established food companies such as Coolea Cheese, Folláin Jams and Preserves and Macroom Oatmeal (located just a tad outside the Gaeltacht) have been joined by newcomers including McCarthy's Natural Dairy, 9 White Deer (beautifully named after the legends of Naomh Gobnait), the hirsute Mountain Man Brewing and Toonsbridge Dairy. I'd love to know what they're putting in the water down there!

Out of all these great companies, I have a certain grá for Folláin Jams. As a child, I would head into the fields with my mother or cousins to pick blackberries or other summer fruits for their jams. I can't remember what we got paid per pound, but I probably ate my way through a lot of potential earnings.  Whenever I hear the word "halcyon", these are the memories that are conjured. Sunshine, scratches on my arms from briars and fingertips stained with blackberry juice. Back at the farmhouse, I would slather slices of my grandmother's brown and white soda breads with thick layers of butter and jam.

If you want to try a little taste of Ireland on St Patrick's Day, or indeed any time of year, read on for Folláin Jams' "No need to knead brown bread"
  • Pre-heat your oven to 190C / 170C fan / Gas Mark 5
  • Combine 225g Macroom coarse brown flour with 1 teaspoon of bread soda, a teaspoon of salt and 225g of sieved white flour
  • Add a teaspoon of dark brown sugar and mix well
  • Mix 2 teaspoons of sunflower oil with 235ml of buttermilk, add to the flour mixture, mixing lightly with your hands until the mixture is sticky
  • Transfer the mixture into a greased loaf tin, score it and bake for 45 minutes until the bread is golden
  • Allow the bread to cool in the tin for 10 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool before slicing
  • Slather a fresh slice with Irish dairy butter and a selection from the Folláin Extra Fruit or No Added Sugar ranges. If you want something savoury, try one of their delicious relishes
  • Serve with a piping hot cup of tea!

If you need a little extra assistance, a video of this quick and easy recipe is available here

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

[Review] Super Miss Sue, Drury Street, Dublin 2

The last time I was in Super Miss Sue was on their soft opening night, when the tables were turned over to press members and other people of food noteworthiness. It was a cold night in early January and the tall windows that are such a feature of this new restaurant were not much use. Glasses of fizzy prosecco and exquisitely fresh oysters with a wonderful ponzu dressing all went down with ease. It was all very good, but how would Super Miss Sue hold up when dining as a paying visitor?

We returned recently for a weekday lunch date. The tall windows along Lower Stephen Street that had looked out onto dreary darkness before were now filled with spring sunshine, lifting the entire room. The decor of ceiling fans, wood and brass fittings and backlit Campari bottles reminded me somehow of Spain and the finest tapas bars, altogether fitting for a seafood restaurant. The other end of the venue holds a posh fish'n'chips takeaway, which I've been informed is very good indeed. That, dear reader, will have to be tested another day.
Dining at Super Miss Sue
Classic interior of Super Miss Sue
There's an extensive menu with a two course lunch option for €25. Interestingly, the set menu is made up of the more higher priced items and I am nearly swayed by the sirloin flap steak with chimichurri and papas fritas. But we stick to our seafood guns. The Bloody Mary seafood cocktail is packed with mussels, clams, prawns and avocado and garnished with a rim of celery salt (regular menu price €14).  I can't abide celery, so I leave this dish to Himsef who polishes it off with delight. After all, it's rare that he gets a dish entirely to himself. Instead I dive into pan-seared scallops with sesame and honey truffle ponzu (€13). A little pile of seaweed salad and chargrilled lettuce are wonderful touches to the sweetly seared scallops. It's really really good.
Bloody Mary seafood cocktail
Both of us choose grilled fish for mains, although the swordfish burger made a good showing. Himself chose mackerel "straight from the sea" simply grilled with olive oil, lemon and garlic (€12). In a miracle of fish preparation, there wasn't a single bone to be found. My choice of a whole grilled sea seabream was stuffed with lemon and herbs, and topped with crunchy samphire, garlic and capers (€18). After I deftly performed some surgery to remove the spine and head, I dove into the lemony, garlicky oil, crisp skin and soft flesh. It bought memories of grilled fish on the beach in Portugal whooshing through my head.
Grilled mackerel
Grilled whole sea bream
On our first visit, we had definitely enjoyed the hospitality offered by Super Miss Sue. Given that it's the latest venture from experienced Dublin restauranteur, John Farrell, it's no surprise that the whole thing has been well thought through. If you don't know who John Farrell is, he's the man behind Dillingers, 777 and the Butcher Grill. So therefore you can reasonably expect that Super Miss Sue will be cool, staffed with stylish people and doesn't take bookings for smaller groups. The current seafood venue is the first phase of the planned development with an upstairs restaurant and gin bar promised. 

The imagery of Super Miss Sue (featuring a sizzling Rozanna Purcell) is alluring. Miss Sue jumps off the page as a vivacious character in the mode of a bikini-wearing 1950's beach babe. According to her Twitter profile, she has a penchant for deep-sea divers and prosecco. All I'll say is that if a seafood and prosecco diet will garner me that voluptuous figure, then you can count me right in.

Super Miss Sue, Units 2-3 Drury Street Car Park, Dublin 2
Tel: +353 (0)1 679 9009
URL: www.supermisssue.com
Twitter: @SuperMissSue

Super Miss Sue on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 9, 2014

[Review] The Taphouse, Ranelagh, Dublin 6

I'm firmly of the opinion that the Celtic Tiger years ruined the Irish pub. Too many good traditional pubs were gutted and turned into identikit late-night bars with crap music and ride-you-sideways pricing. To be fair, there were many awful pubs out there too, some of which had toilets that were barely above the outside shed standard. But overall, somewhere along the way, we forgot about the pub experience.

Personally, I'm still coming to terms with the mauling handed out to the Oval in Cork, which was gentrified and velvet-curtained into the style preferred by Benny McCabe. The old Oval had a ceiling patinaed from years of tobacco smoke, a minidisc player with eclectic music, tables made from Singer sewing machines and you occasionally had to use a hard-rimmed keg as a seat when the pub was busy. Most importantly, it had character. (To be clear though, I like what McCabe has done in Cork, where he has nurtured much vibrancy in the city's night life. I just terribly miss the old Oval).

In the last few years, I've also become convinced that the Americans have nailed the art of the modern pub. While travelling around the US, both for work and personal reasons, I have drank and eaten in many venues that had a good selection of local beers, easy to eat but high quality bar food and a general all-round good atmosphere. So it's no surprise then to me that Irish-born, US businessman David Kelly is keen to bring that recipe for success back to Ireland.
Whiskey sour
Kelly is a partner in the US-based Rí Rá pub group and together with his partners, he has purchased and renovated the former Russell's of Ranelagh. Given how Ranelagh has boomed, even during the downturn, something must have been very wrong for Russell's to close. The interior, which always seemed cold and sterile to me before, now feels more like a gentleman's club with reclaimed parquet flooring, leather seating, dark wood and bookshelf-lined walls. It's dark but warmly lit, and immediately feels comfortable. The bar is fitted out with multiple TVs and screens for the sports fans, but the screen placement is quite clever as the end result feels more like a sitting room than a sports bar.

More importantly, the Taphouse has an inviting menu. It's the kind of food that suits drinking with a focus on smaller dishes which are high in flavour. On our second visit, Himself went for the fish tacos (€12) having tried the assorted sliders (€4 each or 3 for €10) on our first visit. Three tacos packed with chunks of seared fish and fresh vegetables came in a little holder,  while my ribs (€9) were accompanied with a fresh red cabbage slaw. Two large buckets of regular fries and sweet potato fries (€3 each) came with a malt vinegar mayo. The soft ribs were coated in that kind of generic barbecue sauce which is tasty enough not to offend anyone, while the slaw provided savoury crunch. 
Fish tacos
Regular and sweet potato fries
Ribs with slaw
American influences are also present in the service, which is efficient throughout. Many of the floor staff sport earpieces or walkie-talkies, allowing them to stay in communication even when the noise is at a peak. And boy, ever since the January paychecks came out, it has been busy. 

The Taphouse is most definitely a modern pub. It dares to sell beer in non-traditional sizes (i.e. not a pint!) and has a good selection of Irish craft beers, all displayed on chalkboards behind the bar. Infused spirits are used in house special cocktails, with a decent selection of simpler classic cocktails also on offer. It's all designed so that the well-trained staff can run the bar without needing to be experts. Take out 'growlers', which are very common in the US, allow beer fans to take their favourite drink home in a reusable container.

The Taphouse has hit a sweet spot. It understands what the market wants and it delivers it. More publicans could take note of this.

The Taphouse, Ranelagh, Dublin 6
Tel: +353 (0)1 491 3436
URL: htwww.facebook.com/taphousedublin
Twitter: @TapHouseDublin

Taphouse bar & Kitchen on Urbanspoon