Stitch and Bear

A long-running Irish blog with reviews of the best restaurants in Dublin and throughout Ireland. Some wine and cocktails thrown in for good measure!

Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Favourites from 2011

It's time for a little retrospective on 2011, courtesy of Stitch and Bear...

Personally, 2011 was the year that I got back into blogging. Prior to 2011, Stitch and Bear had been a mishmash of topics. But once I returned from my 13 month stint in Amsterdam, I decided to focus purely on food matters, and more specifically restaurant reviews. I put my technical hat on and purchased the domain as well as fixing my Google ranking issue. I made many new and interesting acquaintances on Twitter as well as attending a great food photography workshop hosted by Bord Bia.

I had the opportunity to eat out a lot this year, as well as try out lots of great Irish products. Here's a selection of my top picks.

Best Meal of 2011
A meal is more than just food. Service and atmosphere all contribute to a great meal, and the memories will linger with you long after the food has been digested. You don't have to spend a lot of money to get a great experience, but this year both of my my front-runners for 2011's best meal were Michelin star venues - Chapter One and Bon Appetit. Both meals were fantastic examples of moden Irish cooking, but they were also true experiences. Trying to choose one over the other was akin to splitting hairs, but I'm going to give the gong to Bon Appetit (all because I want an excuse to go back and try their downstairs tapas bar).

Best Ethnic Restaurant 2011
I am addicted to spicy food (as well as Twitter and Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc), and the Chinese cuisines of Hunan and Sichuan are my firm favourites. However, my best ethnic restaurant of 2011 has been Kinara Kitchen in Ranelagh.  This location delivers flavoursome and authentic Pakistani and Eastern Indian food in a beautifully decorated dining room. Top tip: Try the Champ Kanddhari (grilled spicy lamb chops).

Runner up: Mandarin House for some excellent, authentic and great value chinese food.

Best Restaurant 2011
I had no difficulty at all in choosing my winner in this category, despite the sad fact that it is located in Drogheda. Owners Jeni and Reuven have created a wonderful and magical emporium and I have no hesitation in naming the Eastern Seaboard Bar & Grill as my favourite venue of 2011. Going for a meal in this quirky but quietly sophisticated restaurant makes me very happy inside, while visits to the sister Brown Hound Bakery bring about a return to the wonder of childhood. The Eastern Seaboard is a shining beacon of creativity and excellence in a vibrant Irish dining scene.

Runners up: Bibi's Cafe for casual food and  The Fatted Calf, Glasson for amazing food in a pub.

Best Irish product 2011
The Irish craft beer industry has been growing strongly for some time now but my favourite Irish product of 2011 has been the Cork-made Stonewell Cider. This cider features a mix of fresh juices from different Irish apple varieties and the finished product has a wonderful apple taste. Drink this and you will not want to ever again pollute your mouth with mass producted ciders. This is currently only available in the Munster region due to limited quanitites, but plans are afoot for greater production in 2012.

Runners up: Great beers are coming from companies such as Eight Degrees Brewing, Metalman, Dungarvan Brewing Company and Trouble Brewing. (Is it coincidence I wonder that the first 3 companies all come from the same corner of Ireland?) Get yourself to one of the emerging pubs specialising in these beers (such as L Mulligan Grocer in Stoneybatter or the BierHaus in Cork), and you can have a fine night tasting the best of the Irish brewing industry.

Other highlights of 2011
  • Redisovering Coolea mature cheese - this is a sweet, nutty and smooth Dutch-style cheese made since 1979 in the Cork Muskerry Gaeltacht (my home region). Purchase some in Sheridan's Cheesemongers (or your local store) and eat at room temperature. There is none better.
  • A vanilla panna cotta with coffee & truffle ice-cream and espresso jelly at Mulberry Garden. I think this is a dessert that you'd either hate or love. I loved it. 
  • Wonderful Irish whiskey from the Cooley Distillery. Until recently, this was the sole remaining independant distillery in Ireland, but their recent sale to Beam doesn't change the fact that Irish whiskey is having a resurgence in popularity. Try the Greenore 8 Year Single Grain or the Kilbeggan blended whiskey.
  • A perennial local favourite of mine is the fantastic range of jams and relishes from Cúil Aodha based Folláin. I simply love their Exotic Fruit Relish, particularly in a grilled cheese toastie.
  • The emergence of proper cocktails, firstly at Harry's on the Green (although it's prone to loud music) or more lately, at the Cliff Town House. My love affair with cocktails reached new heights with the tableside preparation of the perfect martini at the Sheen Falls Lodge.

Looking forward to 2012
My wish for 2012 is to see more variety and independance enter the Irish dining and drinking scene. We need establisments with more character and uniqueness. 

I think that the Celtic Tiger destroyed the pub culture in Dublin City centre. Too many beautiful and traditional bars had their guts ripped out to become late night bars which poured forth bad loud music and drunkenness. Let's turn down the music and get back to talking in our bars, preferably over a glass of Irish beer or cider.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

O'Brien Chop House, Lismore, Co Waterford

Back in early December 2011, we found ourselves driving between Cork and Waterford. As we passed by Youghal, I saw roadsigns for Lismore, reminding me that I was yet to visit O'Brien Chop House (which has been open since 2009). Being a creature who demands immediate satisfaction in matters of food, we quickly decided that lunch in Lismore would be a very fine idea indeed.

Lismore is a beautiful town, sitting on the Blackwater river at the foot of the Knockmealdown mountains. Old shopfronts have been preserved and the entire town just breathes history and tradition. O'Brien Chop House is itself located on the premises of an old Victorian pub. As you push open the narrow wooden door, and walk across the tiled entrance, you will find yourself in a piece of old traditional Ireland. The original bar, shelving and snug have all been maintained, while the dining room extends out to the rear.

After ordering, we received selection of freshly baked breads served with a pat of Glenilen Farm butter. The breads were excellent, and it's really nice to see farmhouse butter starting to appear in different restaurants. The menu at O'Brien's regularly features a fizz and on our visit, spiced apple fizz was a nod to the season (3.50). Elderflower fizz also features frequently, thanks to abundant crops which need to be used and frozen.

Selection of fresh breads & butter
Pork crackling popcorn
We ordered a portion of pork crackling popcorn as a snack while waiting for our mains. Little puffs of crackling came served in an old, battered pewter cup lightly dusted with paprika and sea salt (2.50). To be honest, we found them somewhat compulsive eating.

We shared one of the daily special starters - Dry aged McGrath's beef steak tartare (12.50). This was served with a stunning yellow duck egg yolk sitting on top. Once the yolk was broken and mixed through the meat, we was found the tartare to be wonderfully flavoursome with a smooth, dense texture. Delicious stuff.

Steak tartare with duck egg yolk
My main course was Ballyvolane House Saddleback pork chops, apple and onion jam with pan juices (21.50), while he chose another special, pan-fried ray wing with lemon and caper butter (19.90). Wonderful roast winter root vegetables and a portion of fries accompanied our mains. The ray wing was a simple piece of cooking with plenty of firm, meaty flesh and it caused us both to wonder why ray wing isn't featured more frequently on restaurant menus. The pork chops were substantial, with the pink hue that comes with really good pork. Despite all this, the roast root vegetables were the stars of the show. Piled high in a blue & white china bowl, they were warming and hearty with all the goodness of the roasting pan.

Ballyvolane House saddleback pork chop

Pan-fried ray wing
O'Brien Chop House sources local, seasonal produce, with an in-house garden kitchen. On the day we visited, the menu featured a special of whole, roast mallard, and I gained much amusement watching a fellow diner wield a knife to the whole duck. Although the duck may have lost the battle to the gamekeeper, it was definitely managing to defeat my neighbour. As we left through the old bar, I imagined myself back again, only this time in the evening, and with a local beer in hand. O'Brien Chop House draws you back, it's that kind of place.

O'Brien Chop House, Lismore, Co Waterford
Tel: +353 (0)58 53 810
Twitter: @obrienchophouse

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Bar Lunch at the Cliff House Hotel

I reckon that I've driven over 1,300 km in the last 2.5 weeks. Although I live in Dublin, my newest client is based in Cork, and I've also been trekking between Cork and Waterford for family Christmas obligations. In the two and a half years I've owned my beloved car, I've nearly doubled the mileage on it and I've only slept in my own bed 2 nights out of the last 20. 

The funny thing is that I kind of like being out on the road. I love driving, and although I dislike being away from home, I also do some of my best work when I'm cooped up in hotel rooms, removed from the distractions of home. Still though, it's no substitute for your own bed and sofa.

Thanks to all this drving between Cork and Waterford, I've finally been able to visit two establishments that have long been on my wish list. Several weeks ago we enjoyed a pre-Christmas lunch in O'Brien's Chophouse in lovely Lismore, followed recently by lunch in the Bar at the Cliff House Hotel perched high on the cliffs over Ardmore Bay.

Although we arrived a little late in the afternoon, the Cliff House bar was doing a brisk trade with late-lunchers and cliff-walkers seeking some warmth after the icy winds. We got lucky and secured a table along the windows with a stunning view out over the sea. We initially put our eyes on the smoked haddock salad and crab claws as the front runners, but unfortunately they were not available, due to "supply chain issues". However, I consoled myself with an excellent Tinpot Hut Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (9 per glass).

McGrath's Spiced Beef
We shared a starter of McGrath's spiced beef with hazelnuts, parsley "pesto", cheddar and rocket (€9.50). It came carpaccio style with a tender pink centre and generous drizzles of pesto. I loved this twist on a Cork classic, and it tasted even better on a slice of the fresh brown bread.

Helvick cod fillet

Slowly roasted pork belly
Initially himself had chosen a seafood and barley risotto, but clearly Sod's Law was ruling that day as the waitress returned from the kitchen to tell us that it was no longer available, so instead he chose the fillet of Helvick cod (€23.50). A substantial piece of dense meaty cod came served with a spinach crust, topped with toasted flaked almonds and a creamy white wine sauce. Slowly roasted belly pork came with butter fried onions and a rich gravy (€23.50) and we shared some lovely baby potatoes gratin and roasted root vegetables. 

Coffee with a tasty treat
We finished with two very good coffees which came with a little plate of tasty mini-cakes studded with fresh sharp raspberries. The coffeees were listed on our bill at €4.50 each, but I was later informed by Adriaan Bartels (General Manager at the Cliff House Hotel, and all round good guy) that we should have been offered a pot of coffee for two, which comes with a lower price tag.

I literally had to drag myself out of the chair in order to leave. A feeling of wellbeing and relaxation had crept through me as we watched the rain sweep across the bay followed by a shimmering rainbow. After all the Christmas rush and mayhem, this had been the short tonic I required.

The Cliff House Hotel, Middle Road, Ardmore, Co Waterford
Tel: +353 (0)24 87 800
Twitter: @cliffhousehotel

Monday, December 26, 2011

Show some manners!

The run up to the Christmas season is obviously a busy time for restaurants, generating much needed revenue (with over 20% of the annual restaurant income being generated in in 3 weeks). Office and work parties mean that large tables are reserved well in advance allowing the restaurant managers to plan, purchase stock and organise work rosters.

Over the past year on Twitter, I've noticed the occasional tweet from assorted restauranteurs about confirmed bookings who fail to show. These no-shows caused annoyance as it means that managers have turned away other bookings as well as the loss of income.

As Christmas came closer, the frequency of these "no-show" tweets gradually started to increase, turning from a trickle into a flood. Restaurants who hadn't previously commented started to share their experiences. Here's a selection of tweets from the run up to Christmas.
4 confirmed tables no show so far, somethings will NEVER change. 

We lost 40 people between Fri and Sun through no shows..needs to be highlighted.
Last night 12 people didn't turn up but thankfully we had a few walk ins so it was a good night :-)

on Friday we turned away a few & 8 no showed sun & 2 tables of 6 no show I know of another rest on sat night 3 groups no show
 a nearby restaurant where a full house would be 70 covers, 1 nite last wk had 30 no shows & late cancellations
Since 5pm today 42% of my bookings tonight have cancelled or not turned up and the nights not over yet!
This problem isn't limited just to Irish restaurants as I've also noticed similar complaints emerging from English tweeters. Understandably, restaurants are annoyed at these no-shows and late cancellations and the Restaurants Association of Ireland started a press campaign to highlight this issue. Many venues are considering implementing a deposit scheme at the time of booking, which will be refunded against the cost of the meal.

The message is simple - if you can't make your reservation, please get in touch with the venue to cancel, preferably giving as much notice as possible. It's just manners after all.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Heineken launches

I've written recently about Heineken's efforts to promote the pairing of food and beer. As part of this initiative, I was invited to a session in the Siam Thai Dundrum, where we learned a huge amount about beer from a master beer sommelier, as well as seeing how beer works with different foods.

Heinken Ireland continue to promote the matching of food and beer and have recently launched a new webiste Described as a "beer hub built to celebrate the natural goodness of beer", the website is intended to act as a venue where experienced and novice beer drinkers can discuss and learn about beer.The website will provide details on the different Heineken brands, as well as providing recipes to showcase how beer can pair with food.

Sometimes, it's easy to forget that beer is a wholly natural product, made from just four ingredients: water, barley, hops and yeast. As a natural product, beer is a perfect accompaniment to food and with a wide array of brands on offer from Heineken Ireland (including Tiger, Zwyiec and Paulaner), there surely is a beer out there for everybody.

For more information on beer and food matching, visit

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Quick & Easy - Puff Pastry Pizzas

Everyone needs a surefire recipe for the Christmas season. It has to be easy, quick but still produce a result that is delicious and suitable for this period of indulgence. So here's my suggestion of puff pastry pizzas. The beauty of these pizzas, or tarts, is the ease and speed with which they can be made. But once that buttery, flaky pastry comes out of the oven, there is a feeling of luxury and specialness. Perfect for Christmas.

I think ready made puff pastry has to be one of life's greatest inventions. Making puff pastry from scratch is no mean feat (usually reserved for Masterchef competitors), so why bother at home when you can purchase it chilled and ready to go? The commonly available option is Jus-Rol frozen pastry, but I've never fully liked it. However, I recently tried Tesco's Finest chilled puff pastry and really liked the results. It also has a shelf life of several weeks, which means that you can keep it in stock for ad-hoc cooking.

First of all, you'll need a tomato sauce for the base. I love my own recipe for pizza sauce but you can use whatever you have to hand. Preheat the oven to 180C,  get the chilled puff pastry, cut into four equal pieces and place onto some baking sheets. 

Chorizo, feta & carmelised red onion
Place some tomato sauce onto the middle of each sheet and spread out, making sure to leave bare strips on the sides. Doing this means that pastry will puff up at the edges, providing a lovely flaky crust to your pizza. Top the tomato sauce with some shredded or grated mozzarella. Finally, add your toppings. Recent favourite combinations of mine have included parma ham and fresh shredded basil as well feta cheese, chorizo and carmelised red onion with a light dusting of chili flakes.

Parma ham, mozzarella & basil
Place the pizzas in the oven for about 15 minutes, or until the edges are puffed up and golden. Once out of the oven, leave the pizzas to sit for a few minutes to give the cheese time to set a little before eating. To add some extra flavour and aroma, scatter some fresh basil on the parma & basil pizza.

Cut the pizzas into smaller portions and serve. Just make sure to catch all the delicious buttery flakes!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dressler, Brooklyn, New York

I spent two whirlwind days in New York in November. I was scheduled to travel to North Carolina for work purposes, and we decided to wedge in two vacation days and make a pitstop in the city that never sleeps. I only got the green light for the business trip one week beforehand, so all our personal arrangements were made in a flurried hurry.

As a result of all this rush, we didn't work out an eating plan in advance. But we did promise ourselves that we would try to hit one really good restaurant, ideally for that New York institution, brunch. For a change of scenery we stayed in Brooklyn, as opposed to Manhattan. This turned out to be a real brainwave and we got to see some new and upcoming areas in Brooklyn.

Dressler is a Michelin-starred restaurant on Broadway (not THAT Broadway, but the Broadway in Brooklyn). It's very handsome inside, with old tiled floors, iron chandeliers and backlit metal grilles. The dominant colours are dark red and black with soft lighting. It all adds up to a feeling of aged sophistication.

Fig, blue cheese & prosciutto salad
Smoked trout & apple salad
The brunch menu is a nice mix of light fare, egg-based dishes and more substantial sandwiches and burgers. The menu is rounded off with oysters and a nice selection of brunch cocktails to help on those hairy mornings. We both started off with salads, a fig, prosciutto and blue cheese salad ($12.00) for me, while he enjoyed a smoked trout and apple salad ($12.00). Both dishes were light with a good balance of flavours from the different combinations.

Pork BLT

Turkey club sandwich
For main courses, he chose a turkey club sandwich ($15.00) while I chose a pork BLT ($16.00), both of which came served with fries. A little bowl of pickles completed the plates. As it was Sunday, and I was on holidays, I also chose a La Batida cocktail ($12.00) to enjoy with my brunch. I ordered the cocktail just a little before midday, which meant that I had to wait for the clock to tick over before the barman could make and serve it to me. La Batida is a Brazilian coconut-based cocktail which features fruit mixed with cachaça. It was creamy and gently sweet, with the bite of alcohol. Very tasty indeed.

Our meal was Sunday brunch food at its best, satisyfing and tasty. Dressler really seems to exemplify modern American cooking. The relaxing and unique dining room is just lovely, and service, as you'd expect, was attentive. Two good americanos meant that our total bill came to approximately $90. By any standards, that's a lot of money for brunch, but Dressler was worth the trip.

Dressler, 149 Broadway, Brooklyn, NYC
Tel:+1 718 384 6343
Twitter: @DresslerBrookly

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Beer & Food Tasting with Heineken

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to attend a beer and food matching evening, courtesy of Heineken. Several different sessions were taking place in Cork and Dublin and I put my name down for the dinner at Siam Thai in Dundrum Town Centre. 

I was curious to see what Heineken would offer at this event, and how they could make their big name brands stand out. It's possible to argue that they are Goliath, striding into the growing Irish craft beer movement, potentially at the expense of the smaller breweries. However, I have to say that I enjoyed the event immensely and found it very educational. The knowledgeable Fiona Smith from the F&B Partnership was our tutor for the evening, and she gradually took us through the different ways of experiencing and tasting beer.

A special menu had been selected for us at the Siam Thai. We were to have a mixed starter plate with each starter being paired to a particular beer. This would be followed by our choice of main course, again with a suggested beer pairing. All tables were set with a selection of large wine glasses, which were used for tasting the various beers.

  • Chicken and pineapple skewers with Paulaner
  • Salmon cakes with Zywiec
  • Laab gai salad with Tiger
Main Courses
  • Sweet and sour chicken with Zywiec
  • Lamb with Thai herbs with Paulaner
  • Panang pork curry with Moretti
  • Massaman chicken curry with Sol
  • Red curry prawn noodles with Heineken
Fiona kicked off by informing us that beer had the same basic properties as wine, particularly when it came to pairing with food. In fact, beer actually has a broader spectrum of flavours than wine and comes in different colours including dark, amber and white (naturally cloudy or unfiltered beers). 

The quick guide to tasting beer..
  • When pouring beer, the glass and bottle should never come in contact
  • Take short sniffs of the beer to get the aromas
  • Stir the beer with a spoon to build up a head, which you then taste to get an indication of the hop level. Hops attach to the CO2 contained in beer, so the head on a beer will contain lots of hop flavour
  • Taste the beer in slurps (yes slurps!). This will get lots of air into the beer, giving you a chance to taste the flavours
We moved onto our first beer, Paulaner, which was paired with chicken & pineapple skewers. We poured the beer into the wine glasses, swirled and sniffed as instructed, revealing tropical fruit smells. Paulaner is a Hefe-Weissbier from Bavaria, but I really pleasantly surprised to find lots of banana flavour in the beer, something I'd never noticed before.

Zywiec beer and a tasting notes booklet
Next up was the Polish beer Zywiec (pronounced zee-vee-ek), a darker beer made from barley. As a result this had a darker, maltier aroma and flavour. In fact, I thought of Maltesers when I sniffed it. It has more hops than the Paulaner as well as hints of lemon, which meant that it paired very nicely with the salmon fishcakes

The last of our starters, spicy Laab gai salad, was paired with the Malaysian Tiger beer, which has been brewed since 1932. Author Anthony Burgess even named a novel "Time for a Tiger" after the famous advertising slogan "It's time for a Tiger". This was hoppier than the previous beers, but it's light and fresh flavours meant that it balanced the spicy chicken salad quite well.

Suggestions had been given for our main course pairings, but I declined the suggestion for my main course choice of lamb with Thai herbs, and instead chose another bottle of Zywiec. This beer had been my clear favourite of the 3 tasted so far and I wanted to enjoy it some more. Himself chose Moretti to accompany his red curry prawn noodles. As we were eating and slurping beer, Fiona was doing some rounds of the tables, answering any additional questions that we may have.

The big lesson of the night was to serve beer in glasses that are wide enough to give you a chance to really smell the beer. I had been surprised to see big red wine glasses on the table, but they were the perfect vessels for the beers. Some of my previous thoughts about beers were overturned on the evening. Prior to this event, I would never have ordered a Paulaner of Zywiec, but this tasting event really opened my eyes (and nose) to their fruity aromas and flavours.

A big thank you to Fiona and the crew from Heineken and Thinkhouse for organising this great event. For  more information on the Heineken family of beers, events, and suggested food pairings, visit


Saturday, December 3, 2011

Locks Brasserie, Portobello, Dublin 8

I've been so busy with work lately that I only realised my birthday was imminent a few days before the event itself. To celebrate my 33rd year, Himself booked dinner at Locks Brasserie, located in a little terrace on the banks of the Grand Canal. I was delighted with the choice as the restaurant always looks so captivatingly lovely at nighttime, with light spilling out over the canal and swans sailing serenely past. Memories of Patrick Kavanagh and "stilly, greeny" canal water come flooding back.

After arriving, we sat at a small table in the bar area to enjoy some aperitifs and read the menu. Perhaps it was due to the canalside location, but I thought there was a slight smell of damp in the air. We were going to order something fizzy, but then we saw the barman making martinis for some other customers. Shortly after, we found ourselves sipping on two excellent gin martinis with a twist. Martinis ooze adult sophistication and these babies definitely oozed gin. In 2002, Roger Agnell wrote a wonderful essay about Martinis for the New Yorker magazine - definitely worth reading if you have any interest in this wonderful cocktail. 

After a few minutes, we sailed on a cloud of oily gin to our table. Our lovely waiter gave us plenty of time to make our selections, which in turn gave us time to look out from the warmth to the cold night outside. The downstairs dining is simply decorated in cream wood panelling, letting the charm of the old building shine through. It is, in short, a very comfortable and welcoming space.

My starter of a single large langoustine and lobster ravioli came served on spinach, with the waiter pouring a lobster bisque at the table. At €15.50 this was a pricy starter and it just didn't work for me. The ravioli was lovely with sweet meaty flavours but I just didn't like the bisque, which seemed to have a slightly burnt, over-carmelised tone. His chosen starter of celery veloute (€7.00) was deemed to be quite nice, with a sweet creamy flavour (I can't abide celery, which means that it's banned at home, so he grabbed the opportunity to enjoy).

The lobster bisque hadn't suited me and things didn't get any better with the arrival of our mains. He had chosen the wild mallard, served with pumpkin gnocchi, savoy cabbage and blackberry vinaigrette (€26.00), while I had opted for the dry-aged rib-eye steak, served with bone marrow, french fries and Bearnaise sauce (€28.50). The major fault with these dishes was the disparity in size - the steak was large enough to feed a caveman, while he received a few meagre slices of what must have been a rather skinny duck. It really amazes me that a chef saw these dishes at the pass and never paused to question the asymmetry. 

When ordering, himself had inquired if he would need to order a side dish. Our server had been quick to assure him that the duck would be plenty large, so the resulting small size was doubly galling, and to add insult to injury, the duck was dry. We ordered an extra portion of fries to provide some bulk, but like the duck, the portion sizes were on the small side.

I should mention that my steak was cooked excellently, and I really did like the small piece of accompanying marrowbone. But there was no escaping from the fact that the size of my dish meant that I was eating long after he had cleared his plate. The imbalance was striking. On the flip side, desserts were excellent. I ordered an iced whiskey and honey parfait with wonderful homemade honeycomb and tiny little pearls of mulled pears (€10.00) and while he had crème brûlée made with free-range eggs (€6.00). 

We did have a very nice time in Locks. Service was wonderful throughout and the dining room has a lovely atmosphere at night. But the disjointed food left us feeling disappointed with the meal and we just didn't feel that we got value for money. At this end of the money scale, a customer should expect all aspects of a meal to deliver. Lock's does offer a value menu, which features a limited range of courses from the a la carte menu, so I suspect that I might be back to try again, but at a better price.

Locks Brasserie, 1 Windsor Terrace, Portobello, Dublin 8.
Tel: +353 (0)1 420 0555


Monday, November 28, 2011

A Tribute to my grandmother (and Bramley apples)

About a month ago, an invitation was issued to members of the Irish Food Bloggers assocation to enjoy a tour of the Bramley apple orchards, located at St. Margaret's, Dublin (courtesy of Keelings). The mere suggestion of Bramley cooking apples sucked me into a time vortex (thankfully sans swirly lights and music) back to my childhood and to the time when I received my first introduction to cooking.

My educator was my maternal grandmother, known to me as Ma. She lived about 2 miles from us, on her own in a farmhouse that had never really been modernised. Her sole cooking devices were an open fireplace and an old enamelled gas cooker, which lurked in the back kitchen, clearly playing second fiddle to the fireplace. 

When it came to cooking meat and two veg, Ma definitely came from the old-school style of cooking. This could also be more accurately described as the "lash it all into the one pot and boil until grey" style of cooking. I used to be entranced by the fact that she would boil whole onions, which would be served translucent on the plate alongside the poatoes and meat du jour. My fascination however, never extended to actually eating one.

Ma was a serial visiter of funerals and upon receipt of the daily edition of The Cork Examiner, she'd turn straightaway to the Deaths section and mark out her travel itinerary for the next few days. She would then use her pensioners' allowance from Telecom Eireann to deliver the driving orders to my mother. Once I gained my first provisional licence, she quickly realised that she now had two drivers at her disposal. And thus it was that I spent many days driving up narrow winding country backroads in West Cork and Kerry, delivering my grandmother to removals, rosaries and wakes. One of the major (but mainly useless) benefits of this was an in-depth knowledge of church and funeral home locations.  I also developed an unnatural ability to predict when I would next encounter a single sheep in the middle of the road.

Sheep detection skills aside, the key benefit of accompanying my death-obsessed grandmother was the fine food presented in the parlours and front rooms. Victoria sponges with fresh cream and home-made jam, snowy white with icing sugar. Fresh warm scones, served with more lashings of the same home-made jam. (I should point out that the foodie word "preserves" would have never been uttered, it was always simply "jam"). And there was always an apple tart. A home-made tart, in the shallow country-style, with golden encrusted seams where the juices had escaped during baking. 

I was convinced that my Ma made the finest tart of them all. She would never have held with the modern styles of deep dishes or the addition of cinnamon or other spices. She knew just one way to make an apple tart, but by God, it was a good way. First out would be the mixing bowl with flour, measured by china cup, along with butter, egg & milk. Pastry made, it was used to line the enamel dish, into which she would then layer sliced "cookers", or Bramley apples, a sprinkle of sugar and then the pastry lid. A quick coating of milk and into the oven. Her pastry never rose, and her style was quick and rough, but some magical alchemy happened in that oven. What emerged was heavenly, a transubstantiation, if you will, of the coarse, tart Bramleys into a sweet, fragrant dish.

The shallow old-fashioned apple tart, made with Bramleys will forever remind me of my grandmother. There is nothing else that transports me so quickly back to her kitchen, with its open turf fire and wooden settle. I still sometimes make this style of apple tart when I'm at my parents' house, and best of all, my mother still has the old enamel dish my grandmother used to use. Some things just can't be beaten.

Written in loving memory of Margaret Scriven.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A recent weekend in Cork

Let me take you on a whirlwind tour of Cork and some of the fine eating & drinking I enjoyed there recently. As well as all the treats listed below, we also visited the Fish Wife chipper on MacCurtain Street and Market Lane restaurant on Oliver Plunkett Street. Separate blog posts will follow for those locations.

After checking in at the Gresham Metropole hotel on MacCurtain Street, we headed out for some drinks. We wanted to enjoy some craft beers, so we headed to the Bierhaus on Pope's Quay. As well as serving a great selection of beers, it's also possible to enjoy a pizza at your table, courtesy of neighbouring pizzeria Uncle Pete's. On a previous visit, the smell of warm fresh pizza and basil had permeated the bar, leaving me salivating. On this visit, I was able to resist until the walk home, when I conceded defeat to a slice of margherita pizza for a mere €2.

Stitch and Bear - Howling Gale Ale at the Bierhaus Cork
The tasty Howling Gale Ale (from Eight Degrees Brewing) at the Bierhaus
I must give a shout out to the great Mitchelstown-based Eight Degrees Brewing. I've become quite partial to their beers, particularly the Sunburnt Irish Red. Unfortunately, it wasn't available in the Bierhaus that night, but I quite happily made do with the Howling Gale Ale.

Stitch and Bear - Breakfast bap at Idaho Cafe Cork
A breakfast bap from Cafe Idaho
The problem with beers is that they tend to have an impact the next day, which often takes the form of a craving for fried food. Thus it was that we found ourselves enjoying a breakfast bap in Idaho Cafe, tucked away behind Brown Thomas on Caroline Street. This small location, which can be a tight squeeze at times, offers coffee, pastries, cakes and light food throughout the day. It's a very nice spot to stop and relax while in town.

Stitch and Bear - Cafe con leche with chocolate chips at O'Conaill's Chocolate shop Cork
Cafe con leche with chocolate chips at O'Conaill's Chocolate Shop
Later in the day, I needed more coffee, so I called into O'Conaill's chocolate shop on French Church Street. Although the interior has changed since I last visited (and not in a way that I like), the coffee is still good and a little paper cups of chocolate chips (milk, dark and white) bought some sweetness to my afternoon. These tasty chocolate chips can be purchased as part of a hot chocolate making kit for your enjoyment at home.

Stitch and Bear - Shandon Century stout from the Franciscan Well Brewery Cork
Shandon Century Stout from the Francisan Well Brewery
I made one final stop on my walking tour of Cork by calling to Bradley's of North Main Street. My grandmother used to call regularly to this great value grocery, but given that she was a Pioneer, I don't think she had much interest in their range of wines and beers. The back of this shop is a true shrine to the brewer's art. Many craft beers are on offer in a 4 for €10 deal but they also stock some Cork treasures including the delectable Stonewell cider from Nohoval and the limited edition series of beers from the Francisan Well Brewery on the North Mall. 

I opened the bottle of Stonewell cider as soon as I got back to Dublin. When I was finished, my only regret was that I hadn't bought more bottles. It features a mix of 3 different types of cider apple juice which is blended with fresh juice at the time of bottling. Right now, it's only available in Munster due to limited quanities, but I've been promised that much more will be available in 2012.

Himself and his brother cracked open the numbered special edition bottle of Shandon Century Extra Stout. It's pretty strong for a stout at 7.5%, but was easy drinking with a lovely caramel flavour and dark malts. I've heard from the knowledgeable Michael (of Bradley's fame) that the stout is now all sold out, but he has also reassure ment that there will be more special edition beers from the Well.

Locations visited & Goodies tasted

The Bierhaus, Pope's Quay, Cork.
Tel: +353 (0)21 455 1648
Twitter: @BierhausCork

Uncle Pete's, 31 Pope's Quay, Cork.
Tel: +353 (0)21 455 5888

Idaho Cafe, Caroline Street, Cork
Tel: +353 (0)21 427 6376

O'Conaill's Chocolate Shop, French Church Street, Cork.

Bradley's 81-82 North Main Street, Cork
Tel: +353 (0)21 427 0845
Twitter: @bradleys_offlic

Franciscan Well Brewery, North Mall, Cork.
Tel: +353 (0)21 421 0130

Stonewell Cider, Nohoval, Belgooley, Kinsale, Co. Cork
Tel: +353 (0)21 234 8878
Twitter: @StonewellCider

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Fish Wife, MacCurtain Street, Cork

When in Cork, I pretty much always stay at the Gresham Metropole. It's has free wi-fi throughout, clean white bed linen and is very centrally located. Best of all, prices can be quite keen and I love the old style and corridors. As far as I'm concerned, it's a far better offering than some of the newer, more expensive hotels in the city.

Ever since I've moved to Dublin, I've missed Cork chips. Dublin chips are good, but they're a different style and sometimes only chips from Lennox's or Bartie's will fill the void. The fact that the Fish Wife chip shop is located just across the road from the Metropole is just another plus for this hotel. 

The Fish Wife is a relatively new addition to the Cork chipper scene, but it manages to bring a modern twist to this traditional food style. Alongside the old favourite of cod, you can find daily specials, which range from tiger prawns in filo pastry to fresh battered seabass. Even the packaging is novel. Instead of the traditional newspaper, the fish and chips come in a clever cardboard box, which makes a handy plate when opened out.

The daily specials at the Fish Wife, Cork
Chip portions are more than generous and they even carry a personal favourite of mine, the mushy pea fritter. The Fish Wife also sells a range of burgers, which I've been told are good, although I've yet to try them myself. Every time I've eaten at the Fish Wife I've found the batter to be very light and crispy, and a recent piece of seabass showed how any piece of fish can be battered. In a city where chippers are taken very seriously, the Fish Wife is definitely one of the best.

Fresh battered seabass with mushy pea fritter, chips and sauces from the Fish Wife

The Fish Wife, 45a MacCurtain Street, Cork
Tel: +353 (0)87 264 4266
URL: Facebook page

Market Lane, Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork

On a recent weekend trip to my hometown of Cork, we found ourselves looking for somewhere different to dine. There seemed to be one main contender, the Market Lane restaurant which had received several good recent print mentions along with Twitter recommendations. I attempted to make a booking for a Saturday night, but once I navigated the irritating automated answering service, I learned that they do not take bookings for smaller groups.

In order to ensure that we got a table without any hassle, we arrived around 6.00pm, entering through thick red velvet curtains. Even at this early stage, the restaurant was very busy, but we were led upstairs and seated in one of the few remaining free tables. Placemats double up as menus and there were plenty of options from which to choose. In fact, I'd go so far as to say there was too much choice. I'd have preferred to see a smaller list of well-chosen options.
Country pork pate with chutney, toast & crackers
Staff were emerging at machine gun pace from the kitchen bearing plates of food and our starters arrived quite quickly. My generous portion of country pork liver and date pate with crackers, toast and chutney (€7.70) was reasonable, although somewhat grainy. The plate featured an unnecesary pile of sad looking wilted lettuce leaves which I left uneaten. I'd love to know how much money restaurants waste on plate garnishes that are returned to the kitchen.

Sweet potato with Crozier blue cheese, spinach & dates
Himself received sweet potato with Crozier blue cheese, spinach, dates and roasted pine nut oil (€7.20). When ordering this dish, we had to ask what it actually was, as the menu only lists the ingredients. Was it perhaps a tart or maybe a salad? It turned out to be a melt of blue cheese, spinach and dates, topped with crispy sweet potato strings and the unusual combination of salty and sweet ingredients worked really well.

Spinach and ricotta ravioli with wild mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes
When ordering, I had felt a craving for pasta. For your information, I generally don't order pasta in mixed-menu restaurants as it's usually overcooked, stodgy and coated in bad sauce. I should have followed my instinct in Market Lane. My main of spinach and ricotta ravioli with wild mushrooms, semi-sundried tomatoes, cream and parmesan (€13.95) was served compressed into brick-like solidity. The presence of meaty mushrooms and tangy tomatoes meant that the sauce was pretty good, but the stodgy ravioli just didn't do it for me.

Pork Wellington with Jack McCarthy black pudding
We had both been tempted by the Pork Wellington in flaky pastry with Jack McCarthy black pudding, fondant potato and carrot puree (€17.95) and it didn't disappoint. Lovely light flaky pastry with just-cooked pork and a lovely layer of spicy black pudding. This surely is a signature dish for Market Lane and I love the incorporation of McCarthy's excellent local pudding.

A glass of Southern Light Sauvignon Blanc and a bottle of Paulaner beer bought the total bill to a very reasonable €58.80. Market Lane is clearly a popular venue with a high table turnover on the night we visited. The pork Wellington was a particularly good dish, but I feel that Market Lane suffers from its popularity. There are too many choices on the menu, which gives a feeling that the restaurant is trying to be all things to all people. I'd much rather see a pared down menu, keeping the best dishes and losing the noise.  
Market Lane, 5-6 Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork
Tel: +353 (0)21 427 4710
Twitter: @market_lane

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Il Primo, Montague Street, Dublin 2

I have a slight addiction to Masterchef. I watch it in all its variants, although I must admit that I'm not that partial to Masterchef Australia. Perhaps it's a bit too relaxed for me, which is probably the reason I adore the more high octance Bristish Professional version. In order to cook for Michel Roux Jr, the contestants must first pass the gauntlet ferociously guarded by sous-chef Monica Galetti. The withering looks from this woman are a joy to behold as the contestants inevitably fail to live up to her high standards. The standard is high, very high.

Therefore, it was with interest I watched the Irish Masterchef series. Dylan McGrath (from Rustic Stone) shone as our home-grown culinary superstar chef, and eventually the lovely Mary Carney was crowned the first Irish Masterchef. Mary's cooking in the final was superb (and looks like it was partially inspired by her stint at the great Chapter One), but my lingering memory of the entire series was the line "A hake died for no reason today". This putdown on a contestant's cooking was was delivered by Anita Thoma, head chef at Il Primo.

Her appearance on television reminded me that I had been passing by Il Primo for many years. The hand-written menu on the front window had often caught my attention, along with some tempting lunch time prices, but for some inexplicable reason I had never visited. One quick Twitter lunchtime booking and everything was put right. On arrival, we were warmly greeted and given two small flutes of prosecco to relax with while we read the menu and daily specials.

Stitch and Bear - Veal salad at Il Primo
Veal salad at Il Primo
Stitch and Bear - Grilled vegetable and goat's cheese salad at Il Primo
Salad with warm grilled vegetables and goats' cheese
We both decided to go for salads for starters - veal salad for him while I had warm grilled vegetables with goat's cheese. In my case, asparagus, courgettes and sweet grilled peppers mixed wonderfully with the tangy goats' cheese and the emulsified balsamic dressing. His salad of cooked veal slices and richly coloured leaves was equally substantial and well-dressed.

Stitch and Bear - Crab and leek lasagne at Il Primo
Crab and leek lasagne
Stitch and Bear - Pappardelle with sausage at Il Primo
Papardelle with sausage
Crab & leek lasagne sounded so intriguing that I had to order it for my main course. It featured dense layers of homemade lasagne sheets, sweet chunky flakes of crab meat and gently cooked leeks. A creamy tomato sauce bought it all together beautifully. Our server told us that it was one of the few dishes to constantly remain on the menu during the 20 years that Il Primo has been open, and it's easy to see why.

For himeself, ribbons of pappardelle with sausage was a winter warmer dish. The smoky meaty rich tomato sauce had beautifully coated the pappardelle, and a quick scattering of freshly grated parmesan was all that was required. This really was rustic, hearty Italian cooking done simply and done well.

The lunch menu offers 1 course for €13, 2 courses for €16 or best of all, 3 courses for €19. We might have stopped after two courses, but the daily menu featured chocolate cake with vanilla cream. The cake turned out to be moist and rich with a fudgy centre, but still have a light texture. A food contradiction! Two delicious espressos went fantastically well with the cake.

Stitch and Bear - Chocolate cake with vanilla cream at Il Primo
Chocolate cake with vanilla cream
My one regret about our lunchtime visit to Il Primo was that we hadn't visited earlier. The very generous portions meant that I spend the rest of the afternoon struggling not to fall asleep while a total of €38 represented great value for a lunch of this quality. Service was perfect throughout the meal, and the cosy nature of the interior means that it would also be perfect for a romantic and sophisticated evening meal.

Il Primo, 16 Montague Street, Dublin 2
Tel: +353 (0)1 293 3804
Twitter: @IlPrimo1

Il Primo on Urbanspoon


Sunday, November 6, 2011

Indie Spice, Sandymount, Dublin 4

With four locations in Ireland, Indie Spice is a well-established group of restaurants. The first was founded in Belfast over 20 years ago and expanded with newer venues in Swords and Naas. The latest addition to the chain is to be found in the genteel and sophisticated neighbourhood of Sandymount. 

Located upstairs, the interior is modern and extremely stylish. It's so nice to sit in a restaurant with vibrant colours and design. Red lattice lampshades and jewel tones are balanced nicely by dark furniture, while an open kitchen pass allows diners to view the chefs at work in the kitchen. Personally, I like this kind of decor as I find it a refreshing change from the curry-house interior that persists in many, older restaurants.

Stitch and Bear - The sleek interior of Indie Spice Sandymount
The modern interior at Indie Spice
The menu comes as a fancy, printed brochure, while paper place mats feature recipes to try at home. Traditional, well-known dishes mingle alongside some lesser known dishes, including one of my favourites, the achari pickle curry. For starters, himself chose the fearsome sounding Piri Piri Prawns (€10.95) while I went for a favourite with the vegetarian Achari Paneer (€7.95). 

The prawns came with scallops and pretty dots of different coloured sauces, providing a very meaty starter but the promised 2 chili rating didn't really materialise. This was probably due to the fact that despite being large and plump, the seafood was rather bland and watery. My paneer starter featured the same set of polka dot sauces, but needed lemon juice (stolen from his starter) to really zing.

Stitch and Bear - Piri Piri prawns and scallops at Indie Spice Sandymount
Piri Piri Prawns & Scallops
Stitch and Bear - Achari paneer starter at Indie Spice Sandymount
Achari Paneer
I was feeling in the mood for something mild, so I had chosen Malai Chingri (€21.95), which promised jumbo prawns cooked in coconut milk and sweet spices. It turned out to be deliciously sweet and creamy with plenty of chewy coconut flakes.  Himself has a big love of seafood curries so he opted for Malabar monkfish curry (€23.95), which featured dense monkfish chunks in a rich sauce fragrant with fresh curry leaves. However, both dishes were let down by the quality of the seafood itself, which, like the earlier starter, was bland and watery.

Stitch and Bear - Seafood curries for mains at Indie Spice Sandymount
Malabar Monkfish curry & Malai Chingri
Like a lot of Indian restaurants, rice and sundries are extra, which is a bit much considering the price of the main courses. When a restaurant charges €20+ for a main, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect rice to be included. We added a light, fluffy garlic naan to our meal for €2.95.  Our meal  was settled with a Living Social voucher (2 starters, 2 mains and 2 glasses of wine for €39), which saved us over €35, based on printed menu prices.

To be honest, I'd really have my doubts about paying full a la carte prices. Although I did enjoy my meal, it wasn't a stand out Indian experience in the way that you can justifiably expect in venues such as Jaipur or Ananda. It's good, decent Indian food that shouldn't carry a big price tag. Thankfully, Indie Spice offer some great value set menus for lunch and dinner (which can be found on their website here) including a 2 course lunch for €8.95 and a 3 course Sunday lunch for €16.95.

Indie Spice, 23-24  Sandymount Green, Dublin 4
Tel: +353 (0)1 232 0220
Twitter: @indie_spice


Beer & Food Tasting from Heineken

I recently received a PR invite to attend a beer and food tasting event, organised by Heineken Ireland. As a large corporation, Heineken own many international beer brands (think Birra Moretti, Paulaner and Tiger). The growing interest in craft beers as well as food & beer pairings has not escaped their attention, and now they are offering diners the chance to attend some dining events in Dublin and Cork.

The venues have been well chosen with Ely Bar and Brasserie, Siam Thai and Roly’s Bistro in Dublin and The Cornstore in Cork all taking part. At each event a beer and food expert will be present to guide the diners through the tasting of beers from around the world and how they match with the food on a specially designed menu.

Many of us put thought into the wines we enjoy with our food, so why not apply the same logic to beers? Hopefully these events will offer some ideas to people unfamiliar with the pairing of food and beer, or else inspire new thoughts in beer lovers. Simply call the numbers listed below to book a place.

Roly’s Bistro, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4
Dublin Tapas style menu with beer tasting for €29.95
Monday 7th November at 7.30pm – 01 6682611

Siam Thai, Dundrum Town Centre, Dublin
Two course set menu for €27.50
Tuesday 8th November at 7.30pm – 01 2964500

The Cornstore, Cornmarket Street, Cork
Three course set menu with beer tasting for €24.95
Tuesday 8th November at 7.30pm – 021 4274777

Ely Bar & Brasserie, IFSC, Dublin
Two course set menu with beer tasting for €24.95
Wednesday 9th November at 6.00pm – 01 6720010
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