Sunday, May 17, 2015

[Review] Amuse, Dawson Street, Dublin 2

 I've eaten at Amuse before for the evening tasting menu and was immensely impressed. Unfortunately, the matching tasting wines made an equal impression on me and my photos of that night grew progressively blurrier. But the French-Japanese cooking of chef Conor Dempsey lingered in my memory, calling for a return visit. Then a recent email arrived from Amuse announcing a three course set lunch menu for €35, which includes a glass of wine, a half bottle of water and tea or coffee. 

Located at the St Stephen's Green end of Dawson Street, Amuse is a small, but perfectly presented restaurant. The theme is perfectly executed French style cooking with a strong Asian influence. It's utterly unique by Dublin standards and is surely under scrutiny from the Michelin inspectors. (However, I am skeptical about Michelin in Ireland, given the other great restaurants who are yet to land a star).

To start, we were presented with an amuse of pureed aubergine, topped with black sesame and peanut, which concealed a small piece of anchovy sushi. My starter of goat's cheese curd was elegant simplicity with intense dashi infused grapes and quinoa crisps. Pork belly marinated in hoisin was served with apple, a sweet shrimp tartare and kombucha dressing. 
Amuse of aubergine, sesame, peanut and sushi
Goats cheese curd with dash infused grapes and quinoa crisps
Hoisin marinated pork belly with apple and shrimp tartare
Both main courses were exquisitely presented on pleasing, simple, white plates with a slightly raised rim. His main course of seared Atlantic cod was meaty and beautifully cooked. It was accompanied by sweet potato, mouth puckering intense baked lemon, a wonderful peanut satay and a shire miso dressing. My choice of guinea fowl absolutely blew me away, especially with the sweet and salty crusted neck (?) meat and wonderful dabs of coconut sauce.
Seared cod of fillet with sweet potato and satay 
Guinea fowl with green vegetables
The superb standard of cooking was maintained with the dessert courses. We shared two desserts, one of milk chocolate with blood orange sorbet and dried ginger and a second being a celebration of strawberries with white chocolate. I often find it hard for restaurants to maintain a consistent standard across savoury and sweet courses, but no such issues here. 
Milk chocolate with blood orange sorbet
Strawberry and white chocolate plate
In addition to great food, the wine service at Amuse is also to be commended. With the set course menu, you are limited to a single red or white, but I was impressed by the crisp Côtes de Gascogne Colombard. Later, when it came to desserts, sommelier Léna Duhamel presented us with two superb sweet wine options, one red and one white. I'm just kicking myself that I didn't take a picture of the labels.

The food at Amuse is complex and joyous. It's a complete world apart from the minimal ingredient approach we recently experienced at Relaæ in Copenhagen. On my first visit, I had been impressed. On this second visit, I was blown away by the increase in performance. The dishes feature flavours that are light and ethereal, but balanced against strong and vibrant notes. Presentation is meticulous with a mind-boggling level of detail concealed in the smears and dabs of every plate. 

For me, this is the best fine dining restaurant in Dublin right now. And a €35 lunch is a very affordable way to experience this superb venue. 

Amuse, 22 Dawson Street, Dublin 2
Tel: +353 (0)1 639 4889
Twitter: @Amusedublin

Sunday, May 3, 2015

[Review] Relae, Copenhagen

Sometimes you come across a district that is achingly cool, in a genuine way and not in a "trying too hard" way. This was the feeling we encountered as we got out of our taxi on the quiet street of Jaegersborggade in the Copenhagen district of Nørrebro. 

Relæe comes from two Noma alumni, Christian Puglisi and Kim Rossen. To be honest, having Noma alumni in your kitchen is pretty much de rigeur for any self-respecting Copenhagen restaurant. At the time of writing, the restaurant is ranked No 53 in the World's Best 50 Restaurants. Located on a corner, the interior is deceptively simple with an open kitchen, white walls and plain wooden tables. But as always, the devil is in the details and we find that our cutlery, napkin and menu are located in clever drawers concealed within the table. This is self-service, Scandi-Michelin style.

What makes Relæ even more unique, in a country of unique cooking, is that practically all of the ingredients are organic, while all the wines are natural. The topic of natural wines is causing some strong debate in the wine world right now, so the offering of an all-natural wine menu is a strong statement.
The menu at Relæ
Table drawer with cutlery, menu and napery
The menu offers a 4 course omnivore or herbivore tasting menu for 440 DKK each, rising to 725 DKK for a 7 course tasting menu. All options include filtered water, sourdough bread and olive oil. We choose the 7 course option, but paired with the tasting wines from the 4 course menu (395 DKK). 

The courses started to arrive: fried salsify with a mushroom juice for dipping, an intense aromatic broth with bright green drops of pine oil, dense and chewy sourdough with a vibrant olive oil. So far, so good. This was followed by a stellar combination of bergamot ice, lumpfish roe over which was poured a green ransom broth. 
Salsify with mushroom broth
Broth with pine oil
Sourdough bread with olive oil
Bergamot ice, lumpfish roe and ramson broth
Next up was a simple plate of shredded sunchoke, mushroom and walnut. This looked somewhat like a hedgehog on the plate, but in the mouth, I found flavours emerging and blending together in a way I could not have predicted.  Baked, pureed potato was served with brown butter and citrus, yet another combination that surprised and amazed me. 
Sunchoke, mushroom and walnut
Baked pureed potato with brown butter and citrus
All was going very well so far, but then we were served two dishes which drastically changed my perception of Relæ. First up was a dish of celeriac with local havgus cheese and coffee. My first impression was of whiteness, and this didn't really improve upon tasting. Eating the bland ribbons of celeriac was simply tedious. However, the dish of slow-cooked Sødam chicken which followed has taken the crown of worst dish I've ever tasted. After just one forkful, I found myself pushing the plate away. For me, there is nothing attractive about boiled chicken, especially when it has been deliberately cooked in such a way as to retain the textures of raw chicken. The colour is wrong, the texture is wrong and when combined with insipid parsnip, it was all just too much of the wrong stuff. 
Celeriac with havgus cheese and coffee
Sødam chicken with parsnip and sesame
Goats cheese and wine
Our waiter warned us that our first dessert of frozen yogurt contained a hidden surprise. Underneath the grated egg yolk, we found an incredible salted egg yolk. In contrast to the nadir of the slow-cooked chicken dish, this was the zenith of desserts. This was followed by another excellent little stone bowl of almonds and marscapone, enhanced by black olive bits. 
Frozen yogurt dessert with salted egg yolk
Almond, marscapone and olives
In my mind, Relæ has the distinction of serving one of the singularly most unpalatable dishes I've ever tasted. But the meal also showcased simple ingredients with a laser-like intensity. The memory of the lumpfish roe and potato dishes will linger with me for a long while, not to mention the egg yolk dessert. 

It was also quite fun to enjoy a natural wine tasting alongside our meal. I must admit that I didn't particularly take to most of the wines served. There were some good glasses that I would happily drink again, but unfortunately, I didn't get to write down their  details. For the most part though, I'll stick with wines produced through modern techniques. I think I'm just not quite ready for the musty, even manure-like aromas of natural wines just yet. 

Sometimes you need to be reminded that Michelin dining is not always about enjoyable fine food. Sometimes it should make you think, it should make you react (good or bad), it should educate you and it should make you form an opinion.  Relæ gave me a good shaking, challenging me with regard to what I liked. It is creative, it is modern and it is well worth a visit. 

Restaurant Relae, Jægersborggade 41, 2200 Copenhagen N, Denmark
Tel: + 45 3696 6609

Monday, April 27, 2015

[Review] Samphire at the Garryvoe Hotel, Garryvoe, Co Cork

Over the last couple of years, we have developed a habit of booking ourselves into a hotel for Good Friday. It's usually a day off from work, so we can usually head to the hotel early and relax for day. Staying as a hotel resident means that we can bypass all the Good Friday palaver that grips the country and finally, it's a chance to relax before spending some quality time with the family. In fairness, it's an all round, win-win situation. 

This year, we were in Cork for a family wedding, so we chose Garryvoe Hotel as our destination. We made sure to book a front-facing sea view room, which turned out to be a good idea in the fresh and bright Spring weather. What wasn't such a good idea was leaving a bag of ice in the car boot for a few hours, but there was still enough left to chill our pre-dinner cocktail. (Yes, I am one of those people who is so particular about their alcohol that I bring my own).

Our overnight package included a 3 course dinner in Samphire restaurant, under the command of Chef Kevin O'Sullivan. A wild mushroom chowder with tarragon cream was deceptively simple but revealed some rich and meaty flavours. Pan seared Castletownbere scallops were served with corals still attached (I'm sure I've said before how much I love the coral of a scallop) along with sweet potato puree and samphire.
Castletownbere scallops with sweet potato and samphire
Wild mushroom chowder
The main courses continued to deliver more of the same big, strong flavours. Seared monkfish on the bone came with a generous portion of shellfish flavoured risotto, with fennel, orange and rocket salad. A tender piece of slow cooked beef short rib was accompanied by a riot of parmesan potato puree, asparagus, cherry tomatoes, wild mushroom fricassee and a Madeira reduction. But somehow it all worked.
Monkfish on the bone with shellfish risotto
Short-rib of beef with wild mushroom fricassee and asparagus
A selection of Irish cheese was just perfect, accompanied by a pressed fig and almond slice, while the house variation on the classic Tiramisu involved a mini shot of Irish coffee. Thankfully, a brisk walk outside in the cold night air under the bright moon helped kickstart our digestion before an early bedtime. 
Selection of Irish cheeses
Tiramisu with Irish coffee shot
Service throughout our dinner, and indeed the entire stay, was welcoming and refreshingly honest and local. Because it was the Easter weekend, the hotel was literally full of families taking advantage of the Easter break offers. A screening of a children's film in the evening kept the kids occupied, but in the morning, the dining room was packed with families having the usual breakfast breakdowns. But even in the face of all this bedlam, the servers kept their cool and dealt with it all with grace. They were a real credit to the hotel.

Garryvoe Hotel, Garryvoe, Co Cork
Tel: + 353 (0)21 464 6718
Twitter: @Garryvoehotel

Monday, April 20, 2015

[Review] Taco Taco, Dame Court, Dublin 2

Bank holiday weekends are great in Dublin. A lot of people have left the city which means that it's easier to get tables in restaurants and easier to find taxis. Even Dublin's hottest, newest pop-up restaurant Taco Taco was largely empty on Easter Sunday, which is always good in a restaurant that doesn't take reservations. 

Taco Taco comes from the team behind San Lorenzo's, namely chef Temple Gardner and promoter Anthony Remedy. The incredible success of the San Lorenzo's #brunchofchampions convinced them that there was a need for a pop-up restaurant for the brunch crowd and hence Taco Taco was born. It's located on the ground and basement floors of the Odessa building on Dame Court. The ground floor isn't large, and the tables are relatively small. But that doesn't matter somehow. This is a restaurant for the younger people, who want an easy, casual meal, preferably accompanied by some killer cocktails and tunes. 

Maryland crab cakes (€11.95) were chunky patties of fresh crab meat, served simply with a rocket salad and sweet chili sauce. A retro-inspired pint of prawns was a real treat, inviting us to peel the shells away from the sweet, plump prawns (€11.95), while a little pot of sriracha mayo provided a touch of heat. A simple but great start to the meal.
Maryland crab cakes
Pint of prawns with sriracha mayo
All our group ended up ordering from the taco section of the menu, but there are plenty of options to be found such as super nachos or the epic sounding Kansas City truck stop burger. The taco selection ranges from €14 for a halloumi vegetarian option all the way to €23 for tuna sashimi tacos. I initially thought that the prices seemed a little steep, but decided to reserve judgement until later. Our small table rapidly piled up with plates as orders arrived from the kitchen, including five spice Chinese duck tacos (€16.95), shrimp popcorn tacos (€18.95) and Jamaican jerk chicken (€14.95).

Everything was pretty tasty, but for me, the portions were far too large. By the time I had eaten one jerked chicken taco, I simply had had enough. I'd personally rather pay per individual taco and create a selection based on what I fancy. 

Side portions of poutine fries (a Quebecois favourite of french fries topped with gravy and cheese curds) were simply stellar. In the Taco Taco world, the poutine fries are crunchy pieces of scalloped potato topped with smokey bacon, black pepper sauce and mozzarella (€3.50). Top notch indulgence food. 
Jamaican jerk chicken taco
Five spice Chinese duck taco
Popcorn shrimp taco
Pineapple and chili salsa 
Poutine fries
The famous San Lorenzo's Nutella cheesecake is available on the Taco Taco menu (€7.95) for the die-hard fans. However, my eyes were firmly on the salt caramel popcorn option (€6.00). Now, I don't know which genius came up with the idea for this dish, but awards have been given for less. A combination of popcorn, lashings of salted caramel sauce and scoops of peanut butter ice-cream results in a dessert that is definitely not for children. Like the poutine fries, I found myself thinking of this dish long after leaving. 
San Lorenzo's Nutella chocolate cheesecake
Salt caramel popcorn with peanut butter icecream
Multiple rounds of margarita later (one of which managed to end up in my handbag!), we staggered out of Taco Taco. We were full and we were happy. Bizarrely, the tacos were not the star of the show for me, although I did particularly enjoy the popcorn shrimp variation. They were just too big and "too much of one thing". But I definitely will return for another look at the non-taco section of the menu, and most definitely for the poutine and popcorn dessert.

UPDATE: I've been informed by Anthony Remedy that the kitchen at Taco Taco is quite small, and they just can't handle the individual taco idea. So if you want to experience many different tacos, get in there as part of a group and order loads!

Taco Taco, 14 Dame Court, Dublin 2
Tel: +353 (0)83 449 9584
Twitter: @TacoTacoDublin

Taco Taco on Urbanspoon

Saturday, April 18, 2015

[Listing] Dublin Wine Fest 2015

On Wednesday night, I attended the launch of the Dublin Wine Fest in Ely IFSC. Organisers Oisín Davis and Aoife Carrigy both spoke passionately about their vision for this week long festival of wine and food, and left me feeling quite excited about the events and deals on offer. 

The concept is pretty simple. Dublin Wine Fest have teamed up with over 30 Dublin venues far and wide, to create special offers for attendees, running from April 20th to 25th. In addition to some great wine deals, each venue is also offering a "Dublin Wine Experience" to complement the wines on offer. It's different in each event location, but you can expect tapas, cheese, wine-based cocktails and many many more creative options. This addition of food and extra experiences really elevates this festival with good value and enticing offers. 
Stanley's of Andrew Street
In a clever move, which I'm sure will lead to several wine-crawls, the venues have been grouped into 4 neighbourhood hubs allowing attendees to easily move from one venue to another. 

To take part in the Dublin Wine Fest you will need to buy a €5 wristband, available from participating venues or, which is valid for the entire week. You then simply visit your chosen venue(s) and avail of the special offers. As an added incentive, if you vote online for the Best Dublin Wine Experience, there is a cash prize for the winning venue and a range of lovely prizes for the voters. So make sure to show your appreciation for your favourite venues. 

I've been looking through the list of offers available, and I must admit that I'm pretty impressed by the selection available. Ely Wine Bars will be using their new Coravin system to offer wines by the glass from some pretty expensive bottles. I've got my eye on a 2007 Chablis Grand Cru (€13.25/glass) along with some others.  There's a tasting flight of three wine-based cocktails at Candlelight Cocktail bar in Dublin for €10 or a glass of Godello with salmon tartare tapas for just €4(!!) at Eastside Tavern. And that's just the tip of the  iceberg.

Further details are available at or Alternatively follow @IrishBeverages on Twitter and use hashtag #DublinWineFest to stay in touch with festival news and updates. 

Who knows, perhaps I might bump into some of you on the Wine Fest Trail!

[Deal] Côte du bœuf with wine at Marcel's

I recently came across a special offer from Marcel's of Ballsbridge that I just have to share. Marcel's is a much-liked restaurant for me, and thankfully, it's not appeared on too many of the "Hot places you have to eat in before you're 50 and die in a bungee jumping while eating a Cornetto accident" type lists that seem to be the standard these days. 

So what's the deal? For the month of April, Marcel's are offering a côte du bœuf for two people with sides, sauces and a bottle of Masi Malbec for an astounding €50. When you consider that many restaurants charge in excess of €50 for a côte du bœuf on its own, the addition of a bottle of red wine makes this truly great value. 

We visited recently to try this for ourselves as (a) we love a good deal and (b) we like steak. Honestly, it was a no-brainer. We ordered two starters while waiting for our beef; a pressed pork belly and grilled mackerel with egg yolk. Both were light, delicate and beautifully presented. But then the beef arrived… perfectly medium rare as requested and served sliced along with the bone.
The côte du bœuf
This was accompanied by a selection of little pots with sauces (a truffled béarnaise and an exceptional red wine jus) and sides (super crispy chunky chips, kale and creamy mashed potatoes).
And the sides
The wine, a Masi Malbec Paso Doble, which normally retails around the €15 mark in shops, was a nice pairing to the beef, with dark cherries, good tannins and nice spice present. This deal isn't listed on the menus or website, but check with the server or host.

So, if you haven't made plans for the weekend, why not think of Marcel's? It's a thoroughly classy joint and in addition to this great deal, they also have excellent value Early Bird and Sunday lunch dinners, as well a private dining room upstairs. 

Marcel's, Mary's Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4
Tel: +353 (0)1 678 9529
Twitter: @MarcelsDublin

Saturday, April 11, 2015

[Review] Huguenot, Carey's Lane, Cork

Family. Where would you be without them? Love them, hate them, or merely be indifferent to them, you're stuck with them. I recently returned home to Cork for the wedding of my first cousin and his beautiful new bride. It was a small but close affair, attended by family and friends. The younger adults at the wedding continued the celebrations into the small hours, and I found myself heavily paying the price on the following day. I might still be young in spirit, but the body is definitely beginning to creak a little. Irrespective, I want to wish Richard and Majo every happiness as they embark on their journey together. 

The next night, my siblings and I headed to a new(ish) French restaurant which I had been eager to visit. Huguenot's is all about French cuisine and is aptly located on Carey's Lane, in the middle of Cork's historic Huguenot quarter, just a few short steps off St Patrick's Street. I don't remember what business occupied the premise immediately prior to Huguenot, but I do remember that this lovely multi-storey space was home to Esau's many years ago. Now the ground floor is a cosy wine bar with a French tapas menu while the first floor and above host the bistro restaurant. Huguenot is the second venture from the partnership of chef Brendan Cashman and entrepreneur Richard O'Brien. (Their first venture is the lovely Italian restaurant Gallo & Galletti in Wilton). 

Our table split equally in half when selecting starters. I chose the classic dish of moules mariniere, or mussels cooked in a white wine sauce with shallots and herbs. Irish mussels are a superior specimen (especially when compared to the North Sea version) and these beauties were plump and meaty, nestled in their strong, dark shells (€10.95). The white wine sauce was intensely flavoured and every last drop was spooned from the bowl. A carapaccio of spiced beef from the legendary English Market butcher Tom Durcan, was topped with salad, cranberries and deliciously crispy pieces of sautéed potato. The spiced beef and potatoes were delicious, but the entire affair was just a bit too busy.
Carpaccio of Tom Durcan spiced beef with potato
Moules mariniere
My sisters' main courses of slow-cooked beef cheeks in a rich jus and beautiful pan-fried hake in a light cream sauce with peas and lardons were extremely well-received (both €18.95). My rib-eye steak come more medium to well done, rather than my requested medium rare, but it was a good piece of meat, well-seasoned and topped with a generous piece of intense garlic butter (€24.50). I was disappointed with the thick, chunky chips, much preferring instead to have skinny fries, in the vein of the classic "steak frites". I must admit that thick or chunky chips are a personal dislike of mine. Skinnier chips deliver a much satiating experience. Even though the portions were more than generous, we had ordered a side portion of puree potato deliciously flavoured with roast garlic and Compté cheese (€4.50). 

An easy-drinking bottle of Des Chezelles Sauvignon Blanc from Touraine (€29.00) and a 500ml carafe of pinot noir (€20.00) accompanied our meal. 
Slow cooked beef cheeks
Pan-fried hake with peas and lardons
Ribeye with garlic butter and chips

Family nights out always mean going the full hog, so we ordered two desserts to share. Both were French classics, a perfect creme brûlée, bizarrely served on top of a piece of wood for no discernible reason, and a richly sweet tarte tatin (both €7.00). We had considered ordering some glasses of sweet wine, but a full half-bottle of Sauternes (€39.50) proved to be better value.
Creme brûlée
Tarte tatin with ice-cream
Overall, Huguenot's a real addition to the Cork restaurant scene, which I feel is coming back to life.  Despite a few off notes, we overall thoroughly enjoyed our meal. The menu is packed full of French classics and French-inspired dishes, which make great use of local Irish ingredients (easy when you're located on the doorstep of the English Market). The atmosphere is casual, the menu is accessible and the prices are quite reasonable. Even better, there's a three course Early Bird menu available for the great price of €25. 

Merci beaucoup Huguenot.

Huguenot, 8 Carey's Lane, Cork
Tel: +353 (0)21 239 3505
Twitter: @HuguenotCork

Huguenot on Urbanspoon