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!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

[Travel] Cocktails in Amsterdam

Just like the Irish, the Dutch also take their pub traditions pretty seriously. Bruine cafes (brown cafes) are the Dutch answer to the local - casual, wooden-walled neighbourhood bars, perfect for a snack or a drink. They epitomise the unique sensation of gezelligheid, a feeling of warmth and coziness that has no real translation into English. While living in Amsterdam, I too had my favourite bruine cafes where we spent long nights drinking perfect Heineken from little glasses.

On our recent weekend in Amsterdam, we did manage to visit a bruin cafe or two, but our real focus was on the growing cocktail scene in the city. We were staying at the new Doubletree hotel, just a few minutes away from Centraal Station, and which was a perfect weekend base. We kicked off our first night in Amsterdam with a cocktail in the 11th floor SkyLounge, looking out over the city nightscape.  We could even see the lights of planes taking off and landing in Schiphol.Yes, the music gets loud and irritating later in the night as the night crowd piles in, but it's still worth a stop while the bar is quiet. 

On our first night, we headed to Tales & Spirits, located in a lovely old building on Lijnbaanssteeg, close to Singel and Spui. Offering both cocktails and food, Tales & Spirits is always busy, so a reservation is a must (unlike us!). Despite the lack of a booking, we were invited to take a spot at the bar, where we eventually sourced two seats underneath the sparkling chandelier. Every cocktail comes with a bottle of water, reminding you to take it easy, as you enjoy the very well-made cocktails. 
Stitch and Bear - Amsterdam - Selection of cocktails at Tales & Spirits
Top left Little Miss Troubles & bottom left Mai Luna-Tic 
Highlights included the Little Miss Troubles (€10), a mix of Bombay Sapphire Gin, fresh lemon juice, blackberry puree and Bols Elderflower served in a coupe and the Mai Luna-Tic (€12.50), a mix of  Bacardi 8, Apollo 11, falernum, fresh lime juice and Tiki bitters, served in a rather naff Tiki cup. As we sipped our drinks, we watched the busy chefs send out dish after dish from the little kitchen. Soon, we found ourselves ordering a meat platter and a cheese platter. All components were excellent, especially sausage slices from the butcher located just across the street. 
Stitch and Bear - Amsterdam - Selection of food plates at Tales & Spirits
Tasty plates of meats and cheese at Tales & Spirits
On Saturday morning (or early afternoon) we visited the House of Bols Experience. I had shopped many times at the Albert Heijn on Museumplein, but for some reason, I had never visited this exhibition about Bols, the longest distilled brand in the world. Tickets cost just €12.50 each, including a free cocktail of your choice at the end of the exhibition, with additional cocktails costing just €5 each. The exhibition maximises the amount of space available, and features a long gallery of atomiser jars where you have to guess each Bols flavour represented. It truly makes you realise how many different flavours Bols produces.

Following the fun of exploring the senses, the exhibition switches to the history of Bols and particularly  genever, the Dutch precursor to gin. There is even an old ledger notebook featuring the original Bols genever recipe as well as many little anecdotes about Bols history. Finally, you head upstairs to the glorious Mirror Bar, where you can select your cocktail of choice for the mixologists to whip up. Even though it was the middle of the day, we showed our dedication and stayed for an extra round. My definite favourite was a toffee yogurt cocktail which exceeded all my expectations on the taste front.
Stitch and Bear - Amsterdam - House of Bols Experience
House of Bols Experience
Stitch and Bear - Amsterdam Cocktails - Cocktails at House of Bols Experience
Cocktails at House of Bols Experience
On Saturday night we headed out onto the dark streets again, this time in search of Hiding in Plain Sight. Located in an old split-level bruin cafe on the corner of Rapenburg and Peperstraat, HPS is instantaneously captivating from the minute you enter. Once again, we didn't have a reservation, but the gracious host found two spaces for us amongst the low tables and comfortable old leather sofas. 

Cocktails at HPS are not for the light of heart. My Exquisite Corpse Reviver was a blend of mezcal, yellow Chartreuse, lime juice, agave syrup and fresh oregano (€14), with a wonderful smoky, salty flavour served in a heavy crystal glass. Later on, I supped on a traditional sorrel punch (€14) served in jam jar complete with handle and candy cane paper straw. Just like Tales & Spirits, regular top ups of water were provided to counteract the powerful drinks. 
Stitch and Bear - Amsterdam - Selection of cocktails at Hidden in Plain Sight
Hiding in Plain Sight - Top right Traditional Sorrel Punch - bottom right Exquisite Corpse Reviver.
So there you go, a brief roundup of our cocktail tasting in Amsterdam. In the case of Tales & Spirits and Hiding in Plain Sight, the prices are higher than Dublin, but the experiences are sophisticated and mature. For a fun afternoon, the House of Bols Experience is well recommended and makes for a relatively cheap and informative drinking location. 

Tales & Spirits, Lijnbaanssteeg 5-7, 10-12 TE Amsterdam

House of Bols Experience, Paulus Potterstraat 14, 1071 CZ Amsterdam

Hiding in Plain Sight, Rapenburg 18, Amsterdam

Sunday, February 24, 2013

[Review] Zen, Rathmines, Dublin 6

When I start to write a review, I like to spend some time doing research. I look up the location's website, as well as reading any press reviews that I can locate. It's good to build up a picture of the location, which I can then draw on as I write up my own thoughts. This proved to be a bit of a challenge when it came to Zen Restaurant. Despite being in operation for over 20 years, it's quietly low-key and I found it hard to located older reviews.

Zen is located in an old church hall on Upper Rathmines Road, but this isn't really apparent from the outside. It's only when you step inside the main dining room that you feel the sense of space and reverence (pretty much standard issue in church buildings). A large golden disc is suspended on the main wall, reflecting gentle light over the plush red velvet seats. A backlit bar and softly-flaming fireplace add to the sense of warmth and comfort. 
The interior of Zen Chinese restaurant
Zen is a Sichuan restaurant, which is an important distinction to make. China is a very large country, divided into over 30 administrative regions, each of which has its own unique culture and cuisine. Sichuan cuisine can be characterised as being fresh, hot, spicy and fragrant drawing on flavours such as the Sichuan peppercorn, peanut and ginger. (If you want to read more about the magnificent cuisine of Sichuan, I'd thoroughly recommend picking up a copy of Fuchsia Dunlop's memoir Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper.) 

We were dining at Zen to celebrate the Chinese New Year, 2013being the Year of the Snake. Our plan was to enjoy the special celebratory menu, created by head chef Mr Shucheng Yu, priced at a very attractive €25 per head. As the lighting in the restaurant was low, I don't have good photos of the food, so here's the menu instead.

Pickled broccoli and mooli
Sweet and sour ribs
Braised trout with black bean
Chicken and peanut salad
Meat sung
Aubergine with marinated ground pork, ginger, garlic and pickled chilies
Braised whole bream in chili bean sauce
Lamb with ginger and scallion

To start, we received four little tasting bowls, each dish containing a different taste and texture. The braised trout stood out as the delicate fish was contrasted beautifully with salty bean. The pickled mooli was tangy and crunchy. Delicious meat sung came preassembled in lettuce leaf boats, standing proud on the plate.  Our three main dishes proved to be a feast. The whole bream was perfectly cooked and the flesh came away easily from the bone, even with chopsticks. As always, himself went straight for the cheek flesh before turning his attention to the main body. The aubergine and pork came in a slightly spicy, rich sauce with the aubergines literally melting in the mouth.

The set menu was excellent value for money, but there's also a wide selection of a la carte and even daily specials. Dishes like Pang Pang chicken (shreds of cold chicken breast in a spicy sauce) or stewed spicy fillet of beef with Chinese cabbage sound wonderful, though I'd draw the line at shredded lamb with celery. The devil vegetable has no place in civilised dining. I wouldn't even feed it to my dwarf hamsters!

Zen is bit of a hidden treasure. It's clearly got a strong customer base who know all about it, but don't shout about it. I knew about it but didn't realise until recently that it was a Sichuan restaurant, which is one of my favourite cuisines. On recent visits to Zen, I've been spitting out Sichuan peppercorns like a Gatling gun, which is high praise in my book, as too few Chinese restaurants in Ireland make use of this wonderful spice. But despite the use of Sichuan peppercorn, it's a bit funny that my only real complaint about Zen is that the food could be spicier.

Zen Restaurant, 89 Rathmines Road Upper, Dublin 6
Tel: +353 (0)1 497 9428

Zen Chinese on Urbanspoon

Saturday, February 16, 2013

[Recipe] Butternut Squash Cake (Wheat-free)

I subscribe to many blogs, and I have found some treasures through word of mouth and recommendations. I usually bookmark the posts I find interesting and stockpile them until I have time to sit down and transfer the good content into my Evernote account. I recently added Juls' Kitchen to my list of subscriptions and started to read her posts about life and food in Tuscany. As I browsed, one particular recipe reached out and caught my attention almost immediately. 

The recipe was for a butternut squash cake and it's bright orange colour demanded that I make it myself. The concept of using carrots is well-established and I do have a trusty reliable recipe for delicious carrot cake. Butternut squash is one of my favourite vegetables, regardless of whether it's in a soup, oven roasted or mixed in a risotto. But I had never considered using a butternut squash in cake! Plus Juls had made her cake in a bundt tin, and I had just acquired such a tin. This seemed like the perfect occasion to christen it.

As I don't eat wheat, I modified Juls' recipe slightly by replacing the flour with Doves Farm Gluten-Free & Wheat-Free flour. This is an amazing flour substitute and produces great baking results. I even used it to make my Shrove Tuesday pancakes, and the results were excellent. But back to the cake! The end results are excellent; it is a moist, solid cake but not overly heavy. The sweetness of the sugar is nicely balanced by the vegetable tone of the squash and the tang of yogurt. It's a great alternative to carrot cake, and bound to garner some attention.

One final word, get over to Juls' lovely blog and start reading. You won't be disappointed. 

(taken from Juls' Kitchen)

350g butternut squash
125g plain yogurt
3 eggs
180g Demerara sugar
125g butter, melted
250g wheat-free flour
15g baking powder
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
Icing sugar to decorate

Preheat the oven to 180C, and generously butter, then lightly flour a bundt cake tin (24cm).

Use a food processor to grate (or alternatively grate by hand) the butternut squash, then puree with the yogurt. 

Beat together the eggs and sugar, until pale and increased in volume. Stir in the butternut squash puree, then fold in the sifted flour, baking powder and nutmeg. 

Pour the mixture into the cake tin, taking care to wipe away any bits stuck to the edges or outside of the tin. Bake in the preheated oven for about an hour, or until golden and a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. 

Let the cake cool down somewhat, then turn out from the tin and leave to cool completely on a wire rack. To serve, dust with icing sugar. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

[Listing] Whiskey Tastings from Celtic Whiskey Shop

The great resource that is the Celtic Whiskey shop on Dawson Street have announced a series of whiskey tastings. It doesn't matter if you're a fan of whiskey with or without the "e", there's a tasting to suit everybody. Ticket numbers are limited for all events and can be purchased instore at the Celtic Whiskey Shop or by phone (01) 675 9744. Events are strictly for ticket holders, and children cannot be accomodated.

Michael's 4 Nations Whisk(e)y Tasting
This evening will see whiskies from the four best whisk(e)y producing countries; Ireland, Scotland, the USA and Japan, with a superb collection of very different whisk(e)y styles to enjoy.
Cost: €25
When: Thursday, February 21st
Venue: Against the Grain, Wexford Street, Dublin

St Patrick's Whiskey Tasting
Obviously this tasting will feature only Irish whiskey, with eight different whiskies available for tasting. There should be hot contention for the title of favourite.
Cost: €25
When: Thursday, March 14th
Venue: Against the Grain, Wexford Street, Dublin

Coastal Tour of Scotland Whisky Tasting
Enjoy a tour of the coastline of Scotland with some real gems on tasting, featuring a selection of well-known and lesser-known drams.
Cost: €25
When: Thursday, April 18th
Venue: Against the Grain, Wexford Street, Dublin

Speyside Whisky Tasting
This year, the annual whisky trip will be heading to Speyside around October. This tasting will help get you in the mood.
Cost: €25
When: Thursday, May 16th
Venue: Against the Grain, Wexford Street, Dublin

Islay Whisky Tasting
Islay is many peoples favourite whisky region and this tasting is bound to be very popular. A whisky from each of the island's distilleries will be compared.
Cost: €30
When: Thursday, June 13th
Venue: Against the Grain, Wexford Street, Dublin

4th July USA Whiskey Tasting
This evening will hopefully be a mix of great American whiskies with some live music and food. The demand for American whiskey is growing every year and this tasting will show both the quality and differing styles.
Cost: €35
When: Thursday, July 4th
Venue: Against the Grain, Wexford Street, Dublin

Sunday, February 10, 2013

[Listing] Events for Valentine's Day

I'm not a fan of Valentine's Day (insert generic anti-commercialism comment here), but there's no escaping the fan that plenty of people do like it and even worse, celebrate it with enthusiasm. And obviously, it's a big day for the restaurant and leisure industries. If you want to want to do something with your special half, then here's a few suggestions.

If you know of any other events that are a little different and deserve a mention, please drop me a line, or leave a comment below. 

Temple Bar Cultural Trust's Date With Dublin

Temple Bar is not a spot that immediately comes to mind when romance is mentioned. However, the Temple Bar Cultural Trust has organised events designed to get you intimate with culture on February 14th. A special programme of short films, gallery tour and outdoor movies will tug those heartstrings and fire the imagination. 

Events kick off at 18.30 in Meeting House Square with an outdoor screening of Brief Encounter, a romantic and bittersweet 1945 drama about two married people who meet by chance in a London railway station and carry on an intense love affair. Mini meals, soft drinks and blankets will be provided and costs just €5.

Alternatively, also at 18.30, the National Gallery of Ireland on Merrion Square will offer a free special tour of their most romantic images. 

At 19.00, Filmbase will present Brief Encounters, a selection of three lovely Irish short films at the Roasted Brown Cafe on the 1st floor. The featured shorts include IFTA nominated Rhinos and Fear of Flying alongside Oscar nominated The Crush. The programme will take approximately 40 minutes, and Roasted Brown will serve wine and tapas alongside their gourmet coffee. The screening is free, but places are limited and will be allocated on a first come, first served basis. 

At 21.00, there will be a screening of the specially chosen viewer's choice movie, the French classic Amelie. A shortlist of 5 films is available at and the winning film will be screened outdoors at Meeting House Square. Again, this will cost just €5.

For more information, and links to book tickets, visit the Temple Bar Cultural Trust website. 

Smutty Science Valentine's Show @ The Science Gallery

The Science Gallery brings something a little different to Valentine's night with a tongue-in-cheek exploration of the chemistry of love. Scientific Sue will take a night off from teaching kids for this special adults-only show. 

The night will start with a glass of prosecco, before Sue will present some of her most playful and provocative chemistry demonstrations to date. Expect to gain a slightly tongue-in-cheek insight into the chemistry of your body, particularly the processes that might be relevant to Valentine's Day. 

Further information available from the Science Gallery. Tickets cost €10, and the event will kick off at 19.00.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

[Review] Overnight Stay at Dunbrody House, Co Wexford

Getting to Dunbrody House was one of the scariest drives that I have ever experienced. It was lashing rain all the way, but that's not terribly unusual in Ireland. There was however, much more surface water than normal, leading to an occasional uncomfortable moment and my tightly clenched fingers on the steering wheel. Once we left the motorway, we encountered several localised flooded roads. I must admit that I came close to saying a prayer or two as the headlights nearly disappeared underneath flood waters. 

Eventually, we drove through the lovely little village of Arthurstown and up the driveway to Dunbrody Country House Hotel, owned by Kevin and Catherine Dundon. Even on a dismal, wet and windy night, we already felt quieter and calmer as we gathered our bags from the car. One friendly and very warm welcome later, and we were settling into our lovely bedroom. We closed the heavy curtains over the original wooden-framed windows, shutting out the dreadful weather and turned our attentions to dinner.
Our bedroom at Dunbrody House Hotel
Our overnight stay included an eight course tasting menu (normally €80, with wine pairings for €30), and as we had been delayed by the weather and didn't want to further delay the kitchen, we did a quick spit & polish and headed to the dining room. Once I had a large glass of wine in my hand, I felt the tension from that horrible drive evaporate and I relaxed into the warmth. Lighting levels in the dining room were comfortably low, but prevented me from getting decent pictures of every course. 

Potato salad with rosemary foam and crispy garlic - a little cup containing a wonderfully light and silky foam, flavoured with rosemary & garlic. I found the little cubes of potato to be a bit discordant in terms of texture, but that sweet and savoury foam was addictive.

Dunbrody smoked and cured salmon, smoked salmon ice-cream and roe - two beautifully bright pieces of salmon, with the smoked version being my favourite, with little salty pops from the bright roe. But the real revelation of this plate was the smoked salmon ice-cream.

Chicken and duck liver parfait, Dunbrody chutney and croutons - Smooth and rich, but served with croutons, even though I had requested a wheat-free meal. Nevermind. I passed the croutons to himself, but I was envious of the crunching sounds at the other side of the table.

Lemon sorbet  - simple and effective, served with a dusting of popping candy, which always makes me feel as if my teeth are imploding in my mouth and makes me want to book a dentist's appointment.

Pan-roasted cod with rock samphire, mussels, lemon confit and butter emulsion - Perfectly cooked cod with a butter emulsion so good I could have drank it by the spoonful direct from the saucepan. Sharp but not biting lemon flavours throughout.

20 hour pork breast, celeriac puree, black pudding crumbs and garden herb jus - Both of us had pointed to this dish when first reading the menu, labelling it as the showstopper. However, it didn't live up to our expectations as we felt it was too flabby. It just didn't look pretty either. 

Chocolate fondant, vanilla cream / Beetroot parfait - I had specified a wheat-free meal when being seated, but somehow a chocolate fondant found it's way to me. However, this was quickly rectified and I instead received a wonderful and subtly sweet beetroot parfait. Himself reported the chocolate fondant as being very good. 

Tea or coffee with Dunbrody petits fours - I don't drink coffee any more following big meals, but I made sure to order some tea to ensure that I could sample some petits fours. Any excuse eh?
Potato salad with rosemary foam and crispy garlic
Dunbrody smoked and cured salmon, smoked salmon ice-cream and roe
Pan-roasted cod with rock samphire, mussels, lemon confit and butter emulsion
Beetroot parfait
Dunbrody petits fours
Our fish course had taken some time to appear, so we received two glasses of a delicious French sauvignon blanc on the house. Following dinner, we decided to do as the gentry do, and retire to the drawing room for a post-prandial drink. Soon, our heads were nodding and so we took ourselves to bed leaving a wet and windy day behind us. 

Saturday morning was brighter and fresher, and a decided improvement on the previous day. In an incredibly civilised move, Dunbrody House serves breakfast until 12pm at the weekend. This time the dining room was brightly lit by daylight, displaying it to its best advantage.  We took a seat at the French windows, looking out into the walled garden with the ever watchful stone herons waiting for spring to arrive. The heron motif is cleverly repeated throughout Dunbrody House and is even woven into the carpets. 

For breakfast, you can choose from a continental buffet selection as well as a cooked-to-order menu. We quickly spotted some of the wonderful cured salmon from the night before and took as much as we felt was decent, along with some excellent cold cuts of home cooked ham. Our waitress bought a basket of toasted white and brown soda bread which looked and smelled wonderful. My mother makes wonderful white soda bread, but it's something that I don't see out too often. I nearly found myself reaching for this piece of childhood memories, but slapped my hand back. Himself placed an order for fluffy pancakes, dropping the berries in favour of bacon. (To be honest, everything is better with bacon.) My full Irish came with some really outstanding back bacon rashers and delicious herby sausages. 
The dining room at Dunbrody House
Breakfast at Dunbrody House
After breakfast, we took a brief and bracing walk around the grounds, venturing down to the sea. After a few minutes of being buffeted by the wind off the sea, we both agreed that this was enough exercise for one morning and headed back. Cookery classes were underway in the cookery school across the courtyard, and we spent a few minutes trying to figure out what was going on. As we walked through the very fine hallway, we spotted Kevin Dundon's fantastical Easter Egg, designed for the Jack & Jill Foundation's Big Egg Hunt (@BigEggHunt).

Soon it was time to pack up and leave the comfortable haven of Dunbrody House. I picked up a jar of Kevin's apple chutney as we checked out and I can confirm that it is a wonderful additional to a cheese toastie made with Marks & Spencers wheat-free brown seeded bread. We also received a copy of Kevin's book Full On Irish as part of our package. As we drove away, I was already flicking through the pages and thinking about tomato and poitín soup.

Dunbrody House is a wonderfully restored Georgian house, completed with a style and panache that is not often seen. The fittings and decor really are of very high quality, resulting in a luxurious experience for the guest. This is what many country house hotels around the country aspire to, but few fail to achieve. But, despite the grand setting and the gourmet food, it retains a real sense of comfort and relaxation. It is a rare beast.

Dunbrody House Hotel, Arthurstown, Co Wexford
Tel: +353 (0)51 389 600

Dunbrody Country House on Urbanspoon
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