Tuesday, August 11, 2015

[Review] The Brown Bear, Two Mile House, Co Kildare

Don't you just love when you find a treasure? Over the course of my years spent blogging, I've stayed in many locations and found many culinary treasures dotted around the countryside. The latest revelation has been the wonderfully named The Brown Bear, which is located in Two Mile House, just a little bit outside Naas.

It's a little weird from the outside, sitting in a newish building in a tiny village. The building has a bang of Celtic Tiger construction from the outside, but inside, it's wide open, with stairs winding upwards and elegant decor. The Brown Bear takes its name from an Eighteenth century coach house, and indeed a shaggy brown bear motif is gilded onto the door windows. Things are looking good. 

We are seated at a booth for four, giving us plenty of room to relax. As we've arrived early, the restaurant is largely empty to start, but as the clock passes 1 o'clock, diners start to arrive in happy groups. Following our orders, we start with the most glorious of bread baskets, accompanied by olive oil, vinegar and butter pats. My personal favourite was the yeasty roll-up, filled with olive tapenade, but each and every piece was perfectly crusty and perfectly baked. 
Delectable bread basket with butter pats
My starter featured soft and crumbling boudin noir (the French version of black pudding), along with coco beans and a single, mellow yellow egg yolk. Not being very familiar with the coco bean, a little bit of Googling reveals that it's a form of haricot bean. Either way, the beans, along with the buttery sauce and silken egg yolk are an absolute delight. A salad of grilled peaches, mozzarella and Iberico ham is simple in construct but deceptive in flavour. The sweet hit of the soft peach flesh gives way to creamy cheese and salty ham. 
Boudin noir, coca beans and egg yolk
Grilled peaches, mozzarella and Iberico ham
Given that this was Sunday lunch, it's important that main courses feature enough meat. His course of lamb shoulder was beautifully cooked, and served with an elegant, fresh scattering of peas, broad beans and fennel. A piece of home smoked pork is superb, with a caramelised outside that sticks to the fork. Pumpkin, turnip and sprouting broccoli round off the plate. Baby buttered new potatoes are served as standard with the main courses, but we add a portion of oozy, cheesy cauliflower gratin. It's all hearty fare, but with a elegant, deft touch. 
Lamb with peas and broad beans
Home smoked pork loin with pumpkin and broccoli
Sides of baby new potatoes and cauliflower gratin
The Sunday lunch menu offers two courses for €23 or three for €29. We decline dessert, even though we really want to, as there simply isn't anywhere to put it. Lunch has been a wonderful mix of light dishes, combined with heartier meaty dishes, guaranteed to please everyone. If you're passing by Naas, it's worth making a detour. Myself, I'm planning to return for an overnight stay nearby and a return visit for an evening meal.

The Brown Bear, Two Mile House, Naas, Co Kildare
Tel: +353 (0)45 883 561
URL: www.thebrownbear.ie
Twitter: @BrownBearRest

Sunday, August 2, 2015

[Review] Wowburger, Wellington Quay, Dublin 2

If you've been a regular reader of my blog for any period of time, you should know by now that I like a good burger. If you're a new reader to my blog, let's get the awkward introductions over, and let me tell you one interesting fact about myself. I like burgers. 

I especially like American style or dirty-style burgers. For me, this means burgers with soft, thin, juicy patties, fluffy buns (I'm flexible on bun style, as long as they're not overly crusty), lots of melty cheese, probably crisp bacon and then other optional stuff. I dislike thick, dry, mealy burgers, or hockey-puck burgers, as I like to call them. 

Right then, I think you've got a good understanding of my burger philosophy. So therefore, I am pleased to introduce you to Dublin's latest burger joint, Wowburger. In a move that relegates genius to the dumbass zone, Wowburger has been installed in the top floor, outdoor area at the superb Workman's Club. If you're not familiar with the Workman's Club, this means that Wowburger is located in a cool outdoor smoking area, in one of Dublin's best pubs, that also happens to be one of Dublin's best music venues. 
Yellow and red at Wowburger
Collect here at Wowburger
The colour scheme at Wowburger is bright yellow and candy apple red in thick diagonal stripes. I did wonder if these colours were selected based on their association with a famous burger chain and their clown mascot. Either way, it's fun and bright and the inner child within starts clapping their hands in anticipation.

The menu is simple and I choose a Wow Bacon Cheeseburger (€6.95) with regular fries (€2.95) and a thick vanilla milkshake (€3.95). Himself also chooses the bacon cheeseburger, albeit with different toppings, plus the wonderful sounding garlic butter fries (€2.95). After payment, we sit down at one of the eclectic mix of tables and wait for our order to be called. 

The burgers are served in de rigeur style, on an aluminum tray lined with greaseproof paper and wrapped in foil paper. Upon opening, the burger is revealed in all its juicy glory. It looks great, with two patties, oozing cheese and a super soft, slightly squished burger bun. As I bite in, the crisp, smoky bacon kicks into effect, along with my chosen grilled onion and Wowburger sauce toppings. The soft bun holds up very admirably to the challenge without disintegration. In short, it's a great burger. 

The fries are good, and a special mention must be made for the garlic butter fries, which are exactly as described on the tin. 
Burger and regular fries at Wowburger
Bacon cheese wowburger
I wish that someone had created Wowburger when I was a student. But then, I often wish that Sir Henry's in Cork was still with us and hadn't been demolished to make way for a carpark. I especially wish that Wowburger had been created in Sir Henry's. That would have been epic. But there's little point in wishing for things in the past, but there's much to admire about wishing for better things in the future. 

My single grouse is that the outdoor area is also the smoking area for the Workman's. Sorry, but I'm never going to be a fan of smoking when eating. It's just not nice. Putting that aside, Wowburger nails the dirty burger perfectly. Simple burgers, cooked exceptionally well, and served in a relaxed and cool location. Only thing to watch is that Wowburger stops serving at 9.30pm in the evening. That's probably a good thing!

Wowburger, (Upstairs at the Workman's Club), 11 Wellington Quay, Dublin 2
Tel: +353 (0)86 056 3144
URL: www.wowburger.ie
Twitter: @wowburgerdublin
Instagram: @wowburgerdublin

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Monday, July 27, 2015

[Review] Hanoi Hanoi, Capel Street, Dublin 1

Sometimes you walk into a restaurant and you're practically blown away. Such was the case for me when I walked into Hanoi Hanoi for a post-cinema Sunday lunch. Hanoi Hanoi is the newest Vietnamese restaurant to open in Dublin and I'd been gradually hearing more and more about it on the grapevine. Therefore, it was decreed that Sunday cinema would be followed by Sunday lunch at Hanoi Hanoi. 

Located at the north end of Capel Street, the interior is a truly glorious mix of exposed brickwork and wooden floors. The seating is mainly individual tables with caramel brown leather seats, while there is also a larger booth for families or parties. It's most definitely not the look of your usual ethnic eatery. Even the bathrooms are fantastic.

The menu is split into different sections, covering a range of Vietnamese food options. You can choose pho (rice noodle soup), banh mi (baguette sandwiches with a range of fillings), hotpots, Vietnamese spring rolls and many other options. The next thing that grabs my attention are the prices, which are extremely attractive to say the least.

We start with a mixture of small dishes. Banh bao is a large steamed bun made from rice flour, filled with a mix of vermicelli, minced pork, mushrooms and an egg (€4.50). It's served with a simple dab of chili sauce, and to be honest we find it filling but a bit bland. A salad of papaya, peanuts, mint and dried beef, dressed with a sweet vinaigrette is wonderfully refreshing (€5.80). I could eat bowls of this every day. Cured fermented pork rolls sounded intriguing on the menu (I was imagining some variation of spring rolls), but it turns out to be a solid pate-type substance, served with another dab of the chili sauce (€6.50).  According to the menu, this is one of Vietnam's most popular snacks for parties. In my opinion, they can keep it, but instead hand over more of that salad.
Steamed rice bun with pork, mushrooms and egg
Papaya, beef and peanut salad
Cured fermented pork rolls
A dish of turmeric fish fillet is cooked table side, on a cute little burner. First into the wok are the marinated fish pieces, followed by veg and then rice noodles and peanuts (€11.90). It's all over in the space of a few minutes and with a final flourish of dill and lemon, the dish is served up. It was nice to find that mackerel was the fish of choice, and it stood up well to the fragrant flavours. My dish of braised pork belly comes slightly  caramelised in a little clay pot with some braising juices. At €7.50 it's great value for money, with plenty of meat, sticky rice, topped with crispy onion pieces and little shavings of shredded meat or fish. 
Vegetables going into the wok-fried fish dish
Turmeric fish fillet getting its final toss
Braised pork belly with sticky rice and onions
Overall, most of the food at Hanoi Hanoi was nicely middle of the road flavourwise. But this is something that I've found to be generally true about Vietnamese food. The flavours are more subtle than other Asian cuisines, thanks probably to the French influence on Vietnam (most evident in the famous banh mi baguette sandwich). Vietnamese food focuses on fresh ingredients, with lots of herbs and vegetables with sparing use of oil. 

History is a weird beast and I only recently learned that 400 "boat people" escaped communist Vietnam to settle in Ireland in the 1970s. In order to prevent them from becoming an enclosed community, the Vietnamese families were dispersed to the four corners of Ireland, where they settled and started a new life. Eventually though, many of the families made it back to Dublin, bringing their traditional cuisine with them.

It's taken the Vietnamese significantly longer to make an impact on the Dublin dining scene when compared to Chinese and Japanese restaurants. But with venues like Hanoi Hanoi, they're making quite the impact. Absolutely recommended for novice Vietnamese diners. 

Hanoi Hanoi, 100-102 Capel Street, Dublin 1
Tel: +353 (0)1 878 8798
URL: www.facebook.com/Hanoidublin

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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

[Review] Brick Lane, South Main Street, Cork

I've groused about the current brunch trend in previous blog posts, as I'm feeling completely overrun by the brunch-mania that's sweeping over the capital. But like all good things, you don't really realise how good you have it until you no longer have it. And while brunch may be two-a-penny in Dublin city, it's still got some way to go in Cork City.

For many years now, my weekends at home in Cork have been slightly diminished by the lack of options for a good Sunday breakfast or brunch. But the situation is much changed down Leeside, and slowly but surely, Sunday options are improving. (By the way, for a list of all breakfast options in Cork, check out this blog post from 40 Shades of Life). 

Brick Lane sits at that very mysterious point where North Main Street transitions to South Main Street. It occupies the premises that I knew in my student days as Rosie O'Grady's and which my younger sisters knew as The Classic. In the first phase of the Classic development, the interior has been completely overhauled in the modern style of mis-matched vintage chic. With the front windows wide open, the parquet flooring was glowing in the morning sunshine, making the venue feel welcoming and comfortable.
The bar at the new Brick Lane
Vintage doors at Brick Lane
The brunch menu is pretty straightforward at first glance but a deeper reading reveals some touches of brilliance. Firstly, there is no bacon, but honest-to-god, rashers. Other little touches appear like the addition of cinnamon to waffles or pancetta and sourdough French toast to an eggs Benedict. The menu also clearly calls out the price for additional orders (such as rashers, sourdough toast or maple syrup). 

Sister No 1 chooses the Monte Cristo Benedict (€8.50) which consists of sourdough French toast topped with crispy pancetta, Hegarty's cheese, free-range poached eggs and a creamy hollandaise sauce. Sister No 2 chooses the chunky Belgium cinnamon waffles with crispy, smoked thick rashers and maple syrup which is great value at just €7.00. 

For myself, I choose the potato chorizo breakfast (€8.50) which is quite similar to one of my favourite dishes to cook at home. A large bowl of sautéed potatoes mixed with spinach, chorizo and sweetened with a drizzle of maple syrup is topped with a softly fried egg. It's utterly delicious, right down to the small, golden-brown crispy bits sitting at the bottom of the bowl.
Monte Cristo Benedict (with rashers)
Potato chorizo breakfast
Belgium cinnamon waffles with rashers and maple syrup
Brunch was finished off with a sample of superb pistachio shortbreads and an incredible dense, chewy peanut butter brownie. Service is just the right level of friendly throughout (as you'd expect in Cork) and we really enjoy our meal. The only exception is the bizarre stuffed ferret (?) which stares at us from within his cage. Sometimes vintage chic just goes a little overboard.

We arrived for brunch at approximately 10.30 am and even at that time, there were groups of diners scattered around the bar and tables. It seems pretty clear that there's a market in Cork for early morning brunching and Brick Lane is benefiting. If the casual and comfortable vibe is continued throughout the day and into the nighttime, it's pretty easy to see Brick Lane being a success in Cork City. 

Brick Lane, 1-3 South Main Street, Cork.
Tel: +353 (0)87 271 0710
URL: bricklane.ie
Twitter: @Bricklanecork

Sunday, July 12, 2015

[Review] Boqueria, Stoneybatter, Dublin 7

Inspired by the world famous "La Boqueria" market in Barcelona, the newly opened Boqueria Tapas and Gastro restaurant in Stoneybatter promises to deliver dishes made from locally sourced ingredients cooked with love. The man in the kitchen is chef Matt Fuller, who has spent time cooking in Ireland at L'Ecrivain, Salon des Saveurs (one of the few restaurants I miss in Dublin) and Citron at the Fitzwilliam, as well as spending several years cooking in Valencia, Spain, where it's said that Ferran Adria was quite a fan.

We had arranged to meet several family members for Saturday dinner at Boqueria and, as our taxi headed across the river Liffey and up through Stoneybatter, I wondered if we would be getting tapas or tapas concept. The first thing I learned is that Boqueria is already proving very popular with diners being turned away due to no space at the inn, although several were able to return later in the evening when tables had emptied. The second thing I learned is that the dining room is attractively clean and simple, with cream walls and bright chairs. The third thing I learned is that the menu reads wonderfully well, with an equally imaginative wine list. 

With 6 of us at the table, we ended up ordering a substantial amount of dishes from the menu. Interestingly, we weren't allowed order for a short while, in order to give the kitchen time to process the existing orders. In order to keep us occupied, we ordered bowls of olives (€3.50) and baskets of bread with flavoured butters and wonderful olive oil (€4.50), along with a superb Vina Tondonia Rioja Reserva (€48) and a Louro de Bolo Godello (€39).  
2oz Dexter beef burger
Lamb belly with Manchego cheese 
Pork cheeks with caramelised pineapple
After a short while, our dishes started to flow from the kitchen.  Crispy cubes of fried potato were artfully arranged on a slate platter with stripes of spicy tomato sauce and dots of roast garlic mayo (€5.00). The perfect presentation on this simple dish indicated that we were dealing with a kitchen that was aiming for more than just good. Irish rare breed pork cheeks were cleverly paired with tangy caramelised pineapple (€7.00) while a mini burger made from Dexter beef came with a small portion of chunky chips (€5.50). Goatsbridge rainbow trout starred in a vibrant bright dish with fennel velouté and fruit salad (€7.50) while the humble mackerel was enhanced by apple and fennel salad (€6.50). 

The intriguing lamb belly "San Jacobo" with manchego cheese (lamb with cheese!) had to be ordered and arrived as breaded portions of soft lamb and melting cheese (€7.50). A sublime pea risotto was a perfect shade of gentle green topped with shreds of smoked pork belly (€6.50) and perfect scallops came with delicious tarragon rosti and muted passion fruit (€12.00). There were many more dishes enjoyed and savoured, but I think you get the picture. 
Barrel chips with tomato sauce and garlic mayo
Pea risotto with smoked pork belly
Cured Goatsbridge rainbow trout with fennel velouté and fruit
Chargrilled tuna with pistachio and mango
The dessert menu is equally tempting with standout dishes such as a tantalising strawberry and basil soup (€7.50) and a wonderful combination of chocolate mousse, bright olive oil and flakes of crunchy sea salt (€7.50). Unfortunately, there was no sweet wine selection when we dined, but I am told that a selection will be available shortly. If the main wine menu is any indicator, I'm already looking forward. 
Mel y mato with fresh fruit
Chocolate mousse with olive oil and candied bread
The word "tapas" has definitely been enthusiastically embraced by the restaurant industry lately. Tapas now rarely means small Spanish dishes, but instead it is now used largely to mean small plates and food designed for mixing and sharing. How many times have you been faced with an enthusiastic waiter who has offered to explain the restaurant concept to you, only for him to start with the now-dreaded words "Our food is served tapas style…."? Sigh…

Boqueria isn't traditional tapas; there are no pintxos, sardines or bits of toasty bread here. It's what I call tapas-style dining, but also very much influenced by traditional tapas and Spanish cooking. It's thoroughly classy, which is no surprise given the pedigree of the chef. But it's also enhanced by the friendliness and chattiness of the superb staff who clearly enjoy working there. Post-dinner analysis on the way home was of the opinion that we had just dined in a standout spot. 

My single regret is that I think that having 6 of us gathered around the table was just too much. Everybody wanted a bit of everything, which largely meant that no one got to have enough of any one thing. Some dishes were vigorously defended from intruding forks, but I think that the best way forward is to visit as part of a couple or smaller group. In my mind, there's no doubt about it, this is going to be a hot restaurant for 2015. Get there while you still can. 

Boqueria, 3 Prussia Street, Stoneybatter, Dublin 7
Tel: +353 (0)1 868 3575
URL: www.boqueria.ie
Twitter: @BoqueriaDublin
Instagram: @boqueriadublin

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Sunday, July 5, 2015

[Review] Bread & Bones, Dublin 1

During the week, I fell ill with one of those 24 hour bugs that flashes through you. It disappears as quick as it arrives, but the aftermath leaves you feeling tired and drained. Over the course of the day, I drank lots of water and some tea, but I couldn't bring myself to look at food. Later in the day though, I was hungry and I wanted something that would help set me right. To be accurate, I felt in need of some pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) or something similar. 

Bread & Bones is a newly opened on Dublin's Northside, just a stone's throw from the Jervis Centre and Luas stop. Essentially it's a street food restaurant serving a fashionable mix of ramen soups, steamed buns (bao) and banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches). The noodle soups are served in homemade bone broths, hence the moniker Bread & Bones. 

A few small tables are lined up outside in the afternoon sunshine with diners happily tucking in. The inside of the restaurant is quieter, with several large mismatched tables scattered around and other smaller tables tucked into corners. It's a wide open space, with industrial height ceilings and a large open kitchen behind a high counter. The decor theme is manga rustic and the staff are warmly friendly without being off-putting. Posters advertising late evening dj sets make it clear that evening time is fun time at Bread & Bones. 
The open kitchen at Bread & Bones
Himself opted for the lunchtime offer of 3 bao (oriental steamed buns) for €15, or individually available at €5.50 each. The lunchtime menu offers a choose of 5 different fillings and we ended up with roasted pork belly, teriyaki chicken and panko crusted tiger prawn versions. The bao themselves are delicately soft, sweetly doughy and perfectly sized to be demolished in 3-4 mouthfuls. The addition of sauces such as chili mayo or hoisin sauce and tangy vegetable pickles adds crunch and flavour to the buns. Each one is a hit. 
Bao at Bread & Bones
Roasted pork belly boa with carrot pickle, peanuts and hoisin sauce
Bone broths may not look the prettiest at times, but they are gloriously restorative. When done well, they often have a little fat floating on the surface and are full of meaty flavour. Bread & Bones make their own broths and I choose the roasted pork belly soup to help sooth my insides (€10). A medium sized bowl came filled with rice noodles, soft slices of roasted pork belly, half of a soft boiled egg, bamboo and bright green scallions for some crunch. 

Even though I was still slightly under the weather, I shook in some generous amounts of chili oil and bright red Sriracha sauce, picked up my chopsticks and ladle and got stuck in. With each slurpful, I could feel myself improving, slowly returning to centre. It was just the right tonic for my ails. 
Pork belly noodle soup
Tap water is bought to our tables in large bottles, and a quick look at the short wine list reveals some very interesting, modern options. Any young hip restaurant isn't complete without a craft beer selection and Bread & Bones has a decent listing of Irish and international beers and ciders. 

Bread & Bones has hit the proverbial nail on the proverbial head. It's fun, casual, tasty and reasonably healthy. The large open space means that it's particularly child-friendly, but I found it to be everyone-friendly. The grand total for lunch, including a glass of crisp Picpoul de Pinet and a soft drink, came to a wallet-friendly €33.50. Mission accomplished.  

Bread & Bones, 7 Millennium Walkway, Dublin 1
Tel: +353 (0)85 215 2408
URL: breadandbones.ie
Twitter: @Breadandbonesir
Instagram: @breadandbones

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Monday, June 29, 2015

[Review] La Bodega, Ranelagh, Dublin 6

Some Sundays are made for roast dinners and some Sundays are made for snacking. As we strolled up Ranelagh, heading northwards, we were definitely in the mood for grazing and a cleverly positioned blackboard advertising an outdoors heated terrace at La Bodega proved the snare.

We've been to La Bodega several times and while I like the comfortably darkened interior with its mismatched seating, a summer Sunday evening felt more suitable to eating al fresco. On Sundays, live guitar music fills the dining room, gently wrapping the diners in the magic of Spain. The corridor out to the terrace passes the kitchen area but then opens up in a lovely area with raised decking, faux grass, fairy lights and lanterns. Baskets of rugs are positioned around the space so that diners can wrap themselves up when evenings get too cold. 
The outdoor heated terrace at La Bodega
The menu at La Bodega is pretty typical tapas fare and we ordered with gusto. A generous portion of Garbanzas con morcilla (chickpeas cooked with Spanish black pudding €6.50) kicked us off, quickly followed by my favourite patatas bravas (deep fried cubes of potato with spicy sauce €5.00). 

Other dishes followed in swift succession from the kitchen including pan Catalan (crunchy bread rubbed with tomato and topped with thick jamon €5.00) and another vegetarian favourite habas con jamon (pan-fried broad beans with jamon €6.00). Our little feast was rounded out by a portion of gambas al ajillo (prawns fried with garlic €7.95), with additional bread ordered from the kitchen for soaking up of the tasty juices.
Garbanzas con morcilla 
Pan Catalan
Patatas bravas
Habas con Jamón
Gambas con ajillo
It's been a long time since I was in Madrid, but when I saw the traditional dish of churros served with liquid dark chocolate, I was hooked (€6.00). Freshly fried sticks of dough, coated in granulated sugar and dipped into slightly bitter chocolate is an experience everyone should try at least once. It's a recipe for diabetic disaster, but once every so often won't hurt, right?
Churros con chocolate
It's worth mentioning that many of the tapas at La Bodega are available in two sizes, the regular size and the larger racion. I personally found the regular size to be more than enough, so I'd recommend reserving the racion portions for the hungrier days.

Any restaurant that survives for a length of time in Ranelagh is clearly doing something right. While not wildly exciting in its selection of tapas, La Bodega produces a solid, tasty selection of classic tapas, topped up with live guitar music and a comfortable interior. The new heated terrace will have the dual effect of increasing dining space while offering an attractive option for wine on a summer evening. Viva la España!

La Bodega, 93 Ranelagh, Dublin 6
Tel: +353 (0)1 497 5577
URL: www.labodega.ie
Twitter: @labodegaranelag

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