Saturday, February 21, 2015

Pitt Bros BBQ Project

I’ve always dreamed about opening a restaurant. It seemed like a natural way for things to unfold what with me spending so much time in them, the joy of cooking and so on. Of course, I lack both the experience and vast funds necessary so I chose the only realistic alternative: keep on eating and become a blogger! *triumphant fanfare*

Not that I didn’t have a plan for if I did open a restaurant mind. We love adopting American culture here in Ireland, but I was always puzzled by the lack of an all-out American style barbecue restaurant, in Dublin or anywhere for that matter! Maybe I’d just spent too many evenings watching Diners, Drive ins and Dives, but I just didn’t understand how dishes like sweet pulled pork, smoked brisket and racks of finger licking, sticky ribs hadn’t already become a feature while other niche markets like gourmet burgers, burrito bars and grilled chicken were already exploding. No matter, I’d spotted the gap and if I won the lottery or somehow gained magical cooking skills, it was mine. Well, it had been until I was walking down George’s Street and noticed three neon red letters that spelled BBQ, framed by an equally neon pig shaped street sign.

And so I discovered Pitt Bros BBQ Project, the barbecue venue Dublin had been waiting for and I had been dreaming of running. Dammit! Ah well, at least I now had a good source of barbecued meat to soothe the pain, and that is exactly what it did. That was in 2013, and I’ve since eaten there at least five times. What better place then to visit so I can get back into the swing of writing? Not that I’m looking for an excuse to eat my weight in barbecued meat or anything.

This time, I went with my good friend Damien who is a confessed fan of barbecue but for whatever reason had never heard of Pitt Bros. I’d be lying if he was the first friend I’ve forced to go there, but thankfully none of them ended up regretted the kidnappings! And given the queue running out the door that greeted us when we arrived, I’m clearly not the only one doing it. My advice: try to avoid lunch time and dinner peak hours unless you can get there early or don’t mind waiting; I’ve never seen the place with a table to spare at either times and reservations are not taken so you might have fifteen/twenty minutes to kill. That said, the atmosphere is always buzzing and it’s a great place to have a social gathering if you can manage it.

When you do get your seat, things work very much like they do at say Nando’s where you pick what you like but order and pay up at the counter. It’s a straightforward system in a restaurant that takes a similarly straightforward approach with its food and menu in general. You won’t find starters, mains and desserts here, no specials or drinks menu, all you get is just a single page with ten meal options and seven sides. It’s pure, uncomplicated barbecue and comfort food, exactly as it should be.

Yet still it’s hard to choose something! Every time I’ve been I find myself agonising over whether to get a bun filled with pulled pork or just a plate with a few big slices of smoked brisket. Even after that there are other items I’ve yet to try like their ribs, sausage, half chicken or burger. When everything tastes good, it’s a problem in itself! This time I eventually went for the brisket on its own while Damien opted – on my insistence – for the Pitt Master’s combo, a bun (courtesy of the not-too-distant Bretzel Bakery) filled with brisket, pulled porn and a fried onion ring. Both come with some pickles and slathered in the house barbecue sauce, of which you can apply more at your leisure from the squeeze bottles on every table (hot sauce and a Carolina dressing included!). All meals also come with at least one side included as well, so please, for the love of all things that are delicious, do yourself a favour and try the macaroni and cheese. I won’t even describe it, it is just one of those dishes every city has that you simply have to try at least once. 

As for the meat, it’s as tender, crumbly and absolutely delicious as you’d expect from a fourteen hour, overnight stay in a smoker. My brisket fell apart the moment I took a fork to it and it was deceptively filling, every bite an explosion of hearty, barbecue goodness. Damien absolutely loved his Pitt Master’s combo, though he did a better job at polishing off his food that I did! Serves me right for ordering a second side. Speaking of which, all of the barbecue support acts like slaw, fries and corn on the cob are there, in addition to some of the more decadent sides like burnt end beans or bone marrow mash. There’s even homemade lemonade on offer, along with a respectable choice of craft beers and some wine available if it takes your fancy.

All the while, none of this food will set you back any more than twenty euros. Okay, I’ll rephrase it, if you want to stand any chance of clearing your plate, it shouldn’t cost you any more than twenty. All of the main meals clock in between ten and fourteen euros which is tremendous value, considering they come with at least one side anyway. Want another? It only sets you back €3.50. Oh, and everyone gets a free soft serve ice cream for dessert! But be warned, the machine has a bit of a kick so you might end up covered in it if you aren’t careful.

One other thing that desperately deserves a mention is the smart design that’s gone into the restaurant. You can tell whoever’s behind it has a genuine understanding of what barbecue means, as everything from the steel drum light fittings and wooden log counter front to the tin plates and rolls of kitchen towel at each table gives off exactly the kind of relaxed and rustic vibe you’d expect of an actual barbecue gathering. I can’t think of one other restaurant in Dublin where the look and feel goes so hand in glove with the food it creates, and it’s a wonderful, oft-overlooked thing to see.

So that is Pitt Bros in a semi-nutshell. Vegetarians beware, meat loves rejoice! They may have dashed my dream somewhat, but in doing so they’ve made authentic barbecue much more accessible to the Dublin public and filled a niche that was painfully wanting. If you haven’t already been, go now. And if you know me, take me with you. 

Pitt Bros BBQ Project
Unit 1, Wicklow House,
George's Street,
Dublin 2

Tph: 01-6778777

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Just a Quick Update

Hi everyone!

Just a quick update; I know it’s been roughly four years since I last posted anything so before I jump back in,  I’d just like to reaffirm that yes, I am alive and (mostly) healthy, and have neither forgotten about this place or how much I enjoy talking/writing/thinking about food. Also eating it, minor detail! I may have tried to forget at times, but thankfully my long suffering partner Rebecca wouldn’t let me.

In the time I’ve been absent, I’ve kept myself busy either cooking or eating out when I can, so all that’s left is to get some posts written and hopefully produce something useful. My focus remains restaurant reviews, but I’ve definitely learned a thing or two extra about cooking in the interim; fingers crossed you may actually get one or two half decent recipes out of it!

So thank you to everyone who’s visited and commented in the meantime, all the nice things you've said mean a lot to me and I promise I’ll be a lot more present going forward. Watch this space, with any luck (and a meal or two to write about) I’ll shortly be of some help in finding you all the best places to eat in Dublin and/or anywhere I go. 

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Hell (closed)

Kris Kristofferson once said that “the Devil haunts a hungry man”. He may not have delved into the specific food types that Satan uses to tempt us, but everybody has their own preferred indulgence; for some it’s chocolate, others a plate of curly fries. One dish you can expect to find its way into almost any list of sinful comfort foods is pizza, truth be told perhaps the most popular food in the western world! And here in Dublin, we have the added benefit of being able to order it piping hot from the ovens of Hell itself. No, not Lucifer’s cooking range; what I’m referring to is Hell pizzeria of Wexford Street (sorry, the devil’s in the details).

Now I must admit that the first couple of times I saw Hell, I thought it was just a normal takeaway with a catchy name. Then again, this had always been at ten o’clock on a Friday evening with more than a handful of banteriffic lads spilling in and out the door! It wasn’t until my good friend Áine invited us into town for what she described as a ‘hunt for gourmet pizza’ that I finally took the time to look at Hell’s menu and realised exactly what it was they were offering. Five pizzas later and I was kicking myself not only for never having taken a closer look in the first place, but also neglecting to bring my camera to take the mandatory snapshots of what we’d just eaten (not for the first, seventh or twenty-sixth time either). Ever since then I’d been itching to return and photograph the food for a proper review, not to mention enjoy it! Thankfully, my friend and DVD jockey Niamh was recently in the mood for a lunch outing and although I mentioned several possibilities, I’d already made up my mind as to where we’d be heading.

*Fade in AC/DC’s Highway to Hell*

Before I get into the nitty gritty, let me fill you in on a bit of Hell’s back story. Like many a modern ‘gourmet’ restaurant, it serves unfamiliar variations on a familiar food type. Think ingredients that you look at and wonder how exactly such a combination is meant to work, yet alone when introduced to something like a pizza base. It’s the hallmark of an adventurous cooking style that originates all the way from far flung regions such as California or – in Hell’s case – New Zealand. Before this recent visit, I actually hadn’t the foggiest that Hell is a very popular restaurant chain in the Southern Hemisphere with multiple outlets feeding Kiwis and Aussies alike. The Wexford Street branch is one of a few locations to have opened across the UK and Ireland since 2006 when the franchise was being expanded further afield. Officially speaking, ours is a ‘pilot’ store, but hopefully that will change in the not too distant future. If Callum, Stu and Otis (Hell’s Kiwi founders) are reading this then here’s advice/plea on the matter: open a branch in North Dublin City, preferably smack bang in the middle of Beaumont. There’ll be little to no competition and you’re guaranteed to have one very loyal customer! Anyhow, back to Niamh and I’s journey into the pizza inferno.

Half of the fun in visiting Hell is to simply witness how stylishly designed the restaurant’s interior is. No opportunity to exploit the devilish theme is wasted, with cracked mirrors lining the wall, bare bulb lighting, red velvet curtains and a trio of big LCD screens that – depending on the day you visit – will either be displaying tongues of fire or Murnau’s Nosferatu.

Food is served on beaten metal dishes with ‘remains’ given to you in coffin shaped pizza boxes. Even the landline phone number ends with a 666! Literally everything that can be done to earn Hell the right to its name has been covered, bar being a deliberately unpleasant place to eat. It’s an altogether remarkable dedication to an image that you seldom see in most modern restaurants, yet alone one of many in a franchise.

When it comes to the menu there’s no let up in the Satanic send off either; the first handful of pizzas listed are affectionately named after lust, envy, pride and the rest of the seven deadly sins. Further on you’ll find the likes of ‘serpent’, ‘brimstone’ and ‘Mordor’, which feature some of the more exotic topping combinations.

If you’re expecting to find a basic margherita in Hell then you can forget about it; the closest thing to your average set pizza on the menu is a double ham, pineapple and cheese affair. There’s a create your own option if none of the pre-made choices tickle your fancy, and all pizzas come available in two sizes (seven/eight euro for an individual serving, fourteen/sixteen for a double). Oh, and you can order a cute ‘333’ size for the kids. In addition to Hell’s main fare they serve a decent selection of sides, salads, beer and wine, not to mention ‘dessert pizza’ which I’ll tell you all about very shortly.

So, after spending the best part of a decade oogling at not only the menu but also the restaurant itself, Niamh and I made our choice. She went for the brimstone (a Mexican style pizza with the whole shebang; avocado, onions, salsa, Cajun chicken and sour cream), whilst I chose purgatory (sun dried tomatoes, spinach, feta, onions, mushrooms, garlic and kalamata olives). The last time I’d eaten in Hell we’d tried some delicious wedges called kumara chips but unfortunately they weren’t available on the occasion. Shame, they’re almost identical to your average sweet potato chip; something I’ve a major weakness for! We settled for some Cajun wedges with a garlic mayo dip instead.

Ultimately, both of the pizzas were a success. I put this down largely to the base, which slots nicely into perfect thickness territory. It’s substantial enough to withstand the loaded toppings in most cases, but thin enough so as to not preclude any flavour – a very important aspect when you serve pizza with the likes of apricot and stilton cheese!

Niamh enjoyed her helping which had a distinct Mexican twang to it, whilst mine was definitely in and amongst the more flavoursome vegetarian pizzas I’ve eaten. The only let down was the Cajun wedges, which were just a bit too much on the salty side to properly enjoy.

As good as the savoury pizzas were, the star of the show on this particular day was the aforementioned pizza dessert. Unlike most other pizzerias that stick to the usual formula of ice cream, cheese cake and pie for afters, Hell offers us an interesting twist on their food of focus by serving a normal bread base covered in lashings of custard and other delightful sweet toppings.

At only a mere four euro, the combination of banana, chocolate and mixed berries was too enticing to resist, and it arrived looking even better than either of us could have imagined! The taste: absolutely divine. What else would you expect of hot custard laced with melting chocolate?

In total we paid just over twenty five euro for what effectively ended up being a two course meal for both of us; exceptional value when you consider the quality of food you get. Niamh was both impressed, and patient enough to wait for me whilst I chatted with the staff and Bruce, the head chef. If I didn't enough at the time, I'd like to thank him for giving me a great photo opportunity with a wonderfully presented dessert!

Hell is a rare example of a catering franchise that has a very obvious soul and sense of humour behind the ins and out of how it's run. The philosophy of their gourmet pizza is to present us with inventive and unusual creations, whilst their dedication to a very novel and 'damned' interesting theme goes far beyond anything else I've witnessed on such a large scale. Most importantly of all, they've given me a fantastic chance to get a few terrible puns into this write up. So, if you're disollusioned with any other Dublin pizerrias, then all I can say is that you should go to Hell.

32, Wexford Street,
Dublin 2
Tph: 1890-456-666

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Da Enzo (and the Musings of a North Sider) (closed)

For somebody who aims to eat out as often as I do, you’d think I grew up surrounded by restaurants and visiting them from the day I could walk! As it happens, this couldn’t be any further from the truth. For one, I only began trying new places to eat in for a hobby some five years ago. It’s a good enough time-span in which to build up an appreciation for cooking and the restaurant industry but not a lifetime’s experience. The other is that I live, and always have done, in Beaumont; a small area at the heart of a culinary desert (not dessert, down foodies!) that seemingly covers a lot of what the locals like to call ‘dee Naarth soyid’.

Think for a moment about all of the best restaurant hotspots in Dublin.



The city centre is a given, and I’m sure a few of you thought of Dundrum, Blackrock, Ranelagh, Dun Laoighre, Rathmines, Dalkey and so on. Coastal regions like Clontarf, Malahide and Howth excepted, how many areas could you think of that weren’t on the South side? I can say with years of certainty that you won’t find anything better than a chain of takeaways in Beaumont, whilst there isn’t much excitement to speak of in the surrounding Coolock, Artane or Ballymun. Further afield you have Killester, Raheny, Donaghmede and Finglas, all of which are simply no match for what some of the city’s more vibrant dining areas. Strictly speaking on foodie terms of course! There is a healthy collection of cafés and one or two evening restaurants in close proximity to each other as you near Drumcondra, but at that stage you’re getting to within walking distance of the city centre, not to mention being a few doors down from one Bertie Ahern’s residence. Just to give you a better idea of where the area I'm referring to starts and stops, here's a picture parading my wicked Google Earth skills:

The reality is that I’d be surprised if many of you named any of the latter areas listed, if one on the North side outright! Neither do I blame you; all of the above locales suffer from a comparative dearth of any exciting, modern restaurants. The occasional long standing but run of the mill Italian bistro will punctuate a street every few miles, but nowhere will you find something to compare with the dynamism of Dublin’s current food scene darlings, yet alone a collection of them. The gaping void that’s left is filled mostly with chippers, Chinese takeaways and McDonald’s, give or take an Eddie Rockets in a couple of shopping malls. If you need any proof short of personally driving around and searching for a reputable place to eat, look no further than Menupages for some rough statistics. It doesn’t represent Dublin’s eating scene in its entirety, but a quick add and subtract job reveals that there are approximated one-hundred and thirty reviewed restaurants in and around the areas I’m talking about, as opposed to the one thousand or thereabouts you’ll find in the direction of Dublin City Centre and the South side. 

In a nutshell, there’s a lack of good restaurants or general foodie destinations in and around where I live and, for the most part, it’s always been that way. That’s not to say there aren’t any places to eat outright; our Indian takeaway certainly isn’t the worst by comparison, but we have little to go by in the way of sit down eateries that you’d actually walk away from looking forward to the next visit, if indeed you find one to visit at all! So, you can understand why we greet any and all new arrivals with not only excitement, but a hefty dollop of cautiousness. Da Enzo – a curiously placed Italian restaurant sitting on top of a paint shop and crèche – is one such example, and although it did everything possible to look like the kind of restaurant you should avoid, it was only a matter of time before I cracked and gave it the benefit of the doubt. Never judge a book by its cover, right? Or a restaurant by its menu... Actually, scratch that and I’ll get back to you with a batter food analogy!

Rhetoric aside, the good news about Da Enzo was that it gave Rebecca and me plenty to discuss afterwards. The bad barely needs explaining; terrible food, a completely dead atmosphere and prices that flatter to deceive. Highlights included the dying plants on each window ledge, pictures of sushi on the fish menu page and, best of all, an electric pepper mill that not only grinds on command but also shines a spotlight onto your food! Speaking of which, you don’t need any more than summaries and a few pictures to tell where it all went wrong: 

Soggy, tasteless bruscehtta on a ciabba- sorry, cuisine de France roll; chewy chunks of plain chicken masquerading as a starter; ravioli cooked into a sloppy oblivion and oozing enough truffle oil to literally make you feel ill; the list continues ad nauseum, but there’s very little reason to spend any more than a few lines on discussing how Da Enzo gets it so badly wrong. No, my main concern is more to do with the potential influence it has on the locals of an area that offers little else in the way of proper dining alternatives.

Now I know what you’re thinking:

“but Rob, Dublin’s a small city and it takes only five minutes to walk from one side to the other! Surely one or two mediocre restaurants aren’t going to end up being the sum total of a north-side Dubliner’s eating universe?”

To which I would say that you’re absolutely correct; it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the majority of Dublin’s population spends as much time commuting to the city centre or beyond as I do, which is effectively almost every day I have to spare at this stage! Business or pleasure, we all do it. Nonetheless, working for a couple of years in Finglas and Donaghmede has made it quite clear to me that a vast collection of frazzled parents, nonchalant pensioners and generally unadventurous inner North siders find it difficult to follow suit, either by design or circumstance. When I suggest in work that they head into town to find a more specific DVD or CD, half of the time their faces will be painted with a look of disgust that implies I’ve just asked them to carry a cross all the way to Calgary! Normally I laugh at reactions like that, but after visiting Da Enzo it got me thinking about everything in food terms. Essentially, what you have is a number of people who live in the aforementioned North side ‘culinary desert’ who are either unable or simply don’t want to travel far enough to eat in any of Dublin’s restaurant hotspots. If they instead prefer to stay close to home and try the local eateries, what they’ll more than likely experience is something that falls far short of what the city’s best and brightest have to offer.

The part that I find particularly hard to swallow is that for a lack of any good, local alternatives with which diners can compare, restaurants that fill the gap like Da Enzo can not only afford to continue rolling out poorly executed food, but also charge prices that are vastly disproportionate to the quality of what you get. Most of their pasta mains hit in and around the fifteen euro mark; equivalent to, or more expensive in some cases than what you might find in Nico’s of Dame street, a reliable and well respected Italian restaurant in and amongst Dublin foodies. Of course, this is exactly the kind of establishment I’m referring to when I talk about what a lot of unknowing North siders are missing out on, both in terms of vastly superior food and the money you ultimately save!

Just as bad is that for all intents and purposes, Da Enzo presents itself as being an authentic ‘Italiano Ristorante’ (which is incorrect ordering, right?) with flowery descriptions detailing how traditional and wholesome each and every single item on the menu is. Anyone with experience in eating out would see right through this kind of wordy veneer before the food even arrived, but to the everyday, once-in-a-while diner it might as well be a ringing testimonial. And who can blame them for thinking so?  There doesn’t appear to be one restaurant in all of the North Dublin City areas I’ve listed that comes anywhere near to serving genuine Italian fare, yet alone any other

At the end of the day and despite the ins and outs of immobile or unadventurous locals, the mouths of North siders from Finglas across to Killester are there to be fed, no different to those of Dun Laoighre or Ranelagh. If any given type of restaurant were to open in a convenient location therein and serve reasonably priced food cooked with just a little bit of love and passion, then I have no doubt that it would be just as successful as any or all of Dublin’s current favourites. What is there to suggest otherwise? Like I’ve always said, food is one of the few things that unifies absolutely every person on this planet, regardless of race or caste. Appreciation for genuinely good food in Dublin is not something that disappears entirely once you cross the Liffey, and there’s a vast amount of potential in all of the unfilled spaces up there. Modern Irish, Indian, authentic Italian, Mexican; each a style of food that as of yet has little to no good quality representation on the inner North side, each a prospective goldmine for anyone gutsy enough to try and introduce them to an altogether deprived group of people.

Of course, all of the above is simply an ideal. The reality is that anybody looking to open a restaurant with serious intent in the way of genuinely good food will automatically feel inclined to target the existing demography and locate in and around the areas that are already bursting with culinary options. The Catering industry is, as things stand, a risky business to be starting up in and it's easy to understand how the added element of venturing into the largely uncovered territory of North Dublin City is enough to put most burgeoning restaurateurs off, yet alone experienced ones! What you have left are those who look to exploit the situation, and this unfortunately appears to be the trend that is set to continue. Only last week I discovered that a restaurant/café called D9 will be opening just around the corner from my house. As always, I'm optimistic and will definitely give it a try, however the ever-present cautiousness remains. So, here's hoping for a pleasant surprise and to be able to say that for once I have my very own good, local restaurant.

Da Enzo
25G, Sunnyside,
Malahide Road,
Dublin 5

Tph: 01-4420013

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Black Food Colouring

Up until the last couple of days, black food colouring - and how to get it - was something of a serial enigma to me. I knew it existed, but always presumed you could only obtain some in a Fallon & Byrne-esque eclectic food market or from catering suppliers. Infrequent expeditions to find it always ended one of two ways: failure and presuming I’d have to resort to Ebay (ala liquid smoke), or eventual distraction from other obscure delectables in the various places I’d have been searching. Don’t get me wrong, I did actually care about getting my hands on some but any attempt to do so was always on a whim. In other words, it only ever popped into my head every so often and seldom stayed there.

What changed all of this was a recent spate of cookie baking that culminated in this recipe for black and white tuxedo cookies, which itself was inspired partly by what I imagined a tuxedo cheesecake to look like: inky black juxtaposed with creamy white. The finished product tasted good, but ever since publishing the recipe I’ve wondered if I could have made the dark dough mixture just that little, y’know, truer to the pure black colour that ‘tuxedo’ implies. Finding a way to achieve this was quickly becoming a matter of principle!

Fast forward two odd months and Rebecca was busy whipping up the first recipe for her very own burgeoning food blog. She had the red, yellow and blue food colouring out and I was decidedly unoccupied off to the other side. Suddenly, it hit me; combine the colours, just like you used to in junior infants! Whodathunk all of those years of scribbling on a sheet of paper with an entire crayon set until it was a blackish/brown mess would actually come in handy for a bit of culinary inspiration? Before you could say hey presto, I was filling up my first little phial of black food colouring. And that’s the beauty of it; it only takes a few seconds to perfect.

Makes approximately one 25ml bottle of food colouring

1 tsp red food colouring
1 tsp yellow food colouring
3 tsp blue food colouring

Simply add each measure of food colouring into a small bowl or jug. Stir until properly mixed. To test the mixture, let one or two drops fall onto a kitchen towel. The more blue food colouring you add, the inkier it will be whilst less will yield a slightly more red/brown hue. Experiment a little and find exactly the right colour for the recipe you’re making.

The finished mixture is ideal for darkening the colour of chocolatey baked goods and a purely black icing. As with any other food colouring, there are any number of recipes it can be applied to but the first thing I personally will be doing with it is attempting what’ll hopefully be a rather sumptuous looking chocolate cake. Expect some news on that topic in the not too distant future! 

Monday, August 2, 2010


Over the past month I’ve discovered two of the pitfalls involved in blogging. The first is that if your internet breaks down then you’re altogether screwed. Well, unless you have the time or money to spend an extra seven hours in your local internet café or can cope with posting entirely via an iPhone, neither of which I’m able to! The second is that getting back into the flow of writing and regular posting, even after just a couple of weeks without it is a lot harder than I thought. Admittedly this isn’t how it works for everyone out there; a lot of the hardcore bloggers out there would probably think nothing of taking a three day break and immediately launching back in at the same pace but as for myself, let’s just say that a combination of being a lovely noob, a very slight lack of confidence, limited funds and the distraction of Red Dead Redemption ultimately served to grind me to a complete halt.

Luckily, I never forgot that this blog is just about the one thing I’m good at doing, so the potential waste of it all was a constant reminder as to exactly why I should be picking it back up! With that said, I’m very sorry for the lack of any updates since the Taste festival and if any of you wish for a more substantial apology, I’ll personally cook you dinner on request. Yes, it’s dangerous to put an offer like that out there on a food blog, but it feels like the correct way to make amends; beyond writing another review of course.

Speaking of which, let’s get to it! In the week leading up to Taste, I discovered (thanks in no small part to the outbreak of Facebook ‘like’ pages) a small, quayside restaurant called Herbstreet. Everything about it from the name, the kind of food they served and their environment conscious approach to running the place screamed good review material. How could I resist?

Tucked neatly into a line of shops and bars on the dockland waterscape of Hannover Quay, it took us only a miniature pilgrimage around half of the surrounding area to find it in the first place! In hindsight, I really ought to have known exactly how to get there since I’d only passed it several hundred times beforehand whilst bussing to UCD but on the flipside, I’d been living on a diet of canned tomato soup and bread at the time; Dublin’s eating scene was, understandably, very much on the back burner. We ultimately arrived with one pair of shredded feet due to extended high heel exposure (disclaimer: the feet were not mine, just in case any of you were thinking it!) and thirty minutes less eating time.

As it happens, it was lucky things weren’t held up any longer since it quickly turned out that Herbstreet is not your average evening restaurant. In fact, they’ve only just expanded their opening hours in the last few months to accommodate diners after six, no doubt seizing upon the opportunity presented by the opening of the Grand Canal Theatre some hundred metres adjacent. This safe but calculated approach defines how Siobhan Kennedy and Vinny Mullen - Herbstreet’s husband-and-wife cum head chef/general manager duo - have developed their restaurant with as much attention being given to the efficiency of light bulbs as it is to the food itself! Indeed, the first thing you notice as you find your seats will be the Mondrian-esque array of LED lights that snake up the wall and across the ceiling. It’s just one facet of the sustainable attitude you’ll find upon closer inspection of how Herbstreet ticks. The water is charcoal filtered on premises, none of the wine is transported from any further than Europe to save on travel cost and recycled materials are used wherever possible.

Of course, you can’t run a restaurant on a sustainable ethos without also applying it to the food and Herbstreet doesn’t let up for a second. All ingredients are sourced locally wherever possible, with a distinctly modern Irish feel running through their four separate menus. Breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner are all covered with each offering just enough of a different choice to stand out from the other. Everything from a full Irish fry up to French toast with peaches and eggs Florentine are available between breakfast and brunch, whilst the heavy hitters like quiche, a turkey club sandwich and the Herbstreet burger make appearances on the lunch and dinner menus. It’s a great selection that fills the day, and all excellent value with only five items (mainly steak dishes and platters for two) hitting over the fifteen euro mark. The best part of it all is that every page oozes a fresh and healthy feel with no dish coming across as overly contrived or complicated.

Had I done better research, I’d definitely have been gearing for a breakfast but the one thing that had caught my eye whilst skimming through their dinner menu was the real Dublin scampi. Unfortunately, the gods were against us and it was the only item unavailable at the time. Disappointing, but more than probably our own fault since we arrived very close to closing time! The rest of the menu had us covered regardless, so I ended up opting for the seafood platter for a shared starter with crab and asparagus risotto for the main. Rebecca, also having had an eye on the scampi, chose the Herbstreet burger and chips instead. Since they were available, we also ordered a side of sweet potato wedges with a chipotle dip.

The seafood platter turned out to be a delightful mixture of smoked salmon both cooked to flaky perfection and fresh, a crab salad served in a lettuce leaf and two kinds of bread, topped off with a salsa that was quite simply incredible. The salad itself was a simple affair of shredded crab meat, chives and a garlic dressing; uncomplicated but delicious.

Quickly following the empty plate came my risotto and Rebecca’s burger; not necessarily as healthy as the rest of what was on Herbstreet’s menu but healthy in portion size, make no mistake! The burger was thick, cooked well done and crowned with crispy onion strings. The accompanying fries unfortunately tasted as though they'd been cooked from frozen, but the sweet potato wedges were the perfect riposte; chunky, crisp and full of flavour.

My risotto meanwhile arrived as described; a creamy combination of finely shredded crab meat and soft asparagus. It has to be said that years of reading through restaurant reviews and food writing has led me to believe that a really, really good risotto was something of a rarity in and around Dublin’s dining scene, however I personally find the opposite to be true: a bad risotto has so far eluded me. Perhaps I’m just lucky, or perhaps the inherent criticism that seems to accompany a risotto dish with any kind of flaw in the slightest has scared it off the menu of any chef who doesn’t feel entirely comfortable cooking one. Regardless, the point is that Herbstreet did not drop the risotto ball; their own version is a wonderfully cooked dish.

While eating, it was impossible not to take in the fantastic view of the Docklands Herbsteet offers, especially if you manage a window seat. Only metres across was a barge filled with partygoers and that unmistakable wafting summer barbeque smell, whilst the docklands were bustling with theatregoers on their way to the evening show. There was something just so wonderfully suited about the location to the restaurant itself, almost as if there was no other place it could – or should – have been situated; an island of urban laziness and culture that you can’t but help enjoy.

That said, most of the fun we had was in strolling back home! Rebecca may or may not have a minor obsession with waterfront areas, so she was in her element by the end of it all. It’s safe to say that the food we’d just eaten played a big part therein; Herbstreet is definitely a restaurant that we can both look forward to dining in again at some stage in the near future. This in itself is a luxury when you consider how short the life-span of a catering business can be in the current economic environment, but the straightforward common sense behind how this little gem of a restaurant is run guarantees that it will have the longevity needed to satisfy us, and hopefully yourselves, time and time again.

Hanover Quay,
Grand Canal Dock,
Dublin 2

Tph: 01-6753875

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Taste of Dublin Festival

As any or most Dublin foodies will know, the talk of the past four days will have been dominated by one thing and one thing only: the Taste of Dublin Festival. For the last five years it has landed itself in the Iveagh Gardens, playing host to some of the biggest names in the British and Irish celebrity chef circles, many of Dublin’s finest restaurants and innumerable food related companies from Dubliner cheese to Lindt chocolates and Aga cooking stoves. If that wasn’t enough, free entertainment in the form of fashion competitions, barber shop quartets and live music are all thrown in as part of the package. It’s a literal day at the races, minus any horses! Which – given it’s supposed to be all about food - I’m glad is the case.

This year’s festival was particularly significant given that it was my first outright Taste of Dublin experience. Yup, shameful for somebody who calls themselves a Dublin foodie! The truth is that I’ve only started to properly stick my head into the city’s food scene since starting up Consumed, so whatever happened afterwards was always going to be a series of adventures into unexplored territory. What a difference a blog makes, eh?

I’d bought two Taste of Dublin tickets each for myself and Rebecca; one set for the early opening on Friday and the second for Saturday evening (each ticket cost roughly forty euro, but this included twenty Euro worth of ‘florins’ to spend at the festival). I figured that this would be the best way to see what difference the weekend made to it all, as well as just varying the overall experience. A visit on Sunday had been part of the original plan since my old classmate and fellow blogger Donal Skehan was doing a demonstration at the event, but a few whispers about the food petering out by then and - more importantly – my holidays ending on Saturday meant that this idea quickly flew out the window.

So it was that by half twelve on Friday, give or take a small bank balance disaster, Rebecca and I strolled past a handful of bouncers and into the almost unrecognisable Iveagh Gardens. Knowing little to nothing about the layout I’d expected it to be centred mostly around the middle of the park but you literally could not walk anywhere without coming face to face with a pavilion of some kind.

Not that I was complaining, we immediately launched toward the first row we saw and grabbed every last morsel of complimentary food we could beg for, borrow or steal! There was plenty to choose from; Tropicana, Green & Blacks chocolate, spiced hams, Dubliner cheese, Prosecco, smoked salmon and many, many more. The best part was, of course, that given the volume of people passing by, it was easy enough to do a lap and shamelessly gobble up a second helping of each one! Rebecca summed it up perfectly in pointing out on our seventh time around that having a cup of Tropicana was like collecting out €200 on passing ‘Go’.

There was also plenty of food available to buy. In fact, I’d almost go so far as to say that the majority of bites on offer would have cost you! Nearly every second stall represented one of Dublin’s restaurants or cafés, amongst which you could find Roly’s Bistro, Jaipur, the comparatively new Salon de Saveurs and Town Bar and Grill.

All in all, nearly twenty restaurants were represented with backup from several food companies and associations also producing their own dishes. Over the course of two days Rebecca and I had a chance to sample a wide range of what was being catered, the highlights of which for me were Jaipur’s Tawa Gosht (slow cooked lamb with aniseed and curry leaved griddled in a light onion and tomato masala) and Bramble’s beer battered fish and chips with a minted mushy peas. I even got a photo of my dish from Salon de Saveurs with Conrad Gallagher himself!

Whilst the food itself was delicious, the prices being charged for each individual helping were just appalling. One florin equates to one Euro, and many of the signature main dishes hit the seven or eight florin mark, despite information about the festival claiming that the average price of the dishes on offer would be just five. Many that you did actually pay five for turned out to be little more than a small plastic cupful of strawberries and cream. In a nutshell, genuine bargains were practically nonexistent. Given, many of the restaurants are well reputed in and about the Dublin food scene but rational thinking would dictate that to promote the food you cook and entice diners into your restaurant proper, you would offer a proportionately better or discounted price. This is particularly relevant to a festival environment where you would expect the emphasis to be on creating a more inclusive experience. I don’t even need to begin talking about how the ‘R’ word should also be playing on the minds of whoever deems such ludicrous prices suitable. To put it another, simpler way, it felt like paying to get into a music festival but then being made to pay five euro every time a band played a song.

Thankfully and as you’d expect, the cooking presentations were, for the most part, free. We were lucky enough to squeeze into a presentation by the notorious Gino D’Acampo who spent as much time flirting with his army of female fans as he did cooking!

The end result was a pesto tagliatelle, tiramisu and plenty of culinary innuendo. For both lack of time and the difference in the number of people attending on Saturday we didn’t stay around long enough to watch a second presentation. It was however truly remarkable to witness not even the slightest let up in how quickly the food was being served, despite the park being about three times busier by my estimation!

Ultimately, I learned three things from my two-day visit to the Taste of Dublin Festival. The first two were very simple lessons: only buy tickets for one day and don’t make assumptions about how holiday pay is dispersed! The third, unfortunately, is far more serious and in all honesty, upsetting to think about. Taste of Dublin is advertised not only as the definitive food festival of this fair city, but also as ‘the world’s greatest restaurant festival’, or so claims the official website. The latter is a bit dubious and you all no doubt will agree but regardless, it’s puts out there as the gathering that should define interest in Irish food both as a pleasure and business. Indeed, food is something that unifies everybody in a fundamental way given that it’s something that everybody must and will experience throughout their entire lives. Despite all of this, the only feeling I got in walking around the grounds of Iveagh Gardens for those two days was one of threatening exclusivity. The stocky bouncers siphoning you into lines at the gateway; the well dressed socialites proudly displaying their ‘VIP’ tags; the shockingly overpriced cups of strawberries and cream; all of this drags the implied idea behind the festival kicking and screaming into the background where it becomes little more than an accessory to a fashionable outing.

Think for a moment of any decent food market or street festival you’ve been to. What defined them? For me, it’s low prices, fresh and good food, great smells, lively atmosphere and a generally all inclusive feel. Taste of Dublin features only one of those qualities, which itself is mired in the issue of cost. The atmosphere is stiff and the smells of any actual cooking are sealed in by screens and tarps, lest the festival-goers be exposed to the visual horror of somebody working a stove. What summed it all up in spectacular irony was that the guys manning the Donnybrook Fair stall handed us a Eton mess cup (five florins) on the sly which, had you bought the ingredients in their shop, would probably have set you back less than a euro. They understood, and looked to be trying to make as much of a laugh of it they could.

To summarise, the food on offer at Taste of Dublin was everything it ought to be and delicious. The presentations were fun and the weather played ball which made walking around during the quieter hours a pleasant experience. On a whole, the festival itself felt more like a celebration of food elitism, with less attention given to the former. It typified the refusal of certain castes within Dublin city to acknowledge how things have changed since the early noughties, and that the exclusivity associated with eating out has been somewhat broken down over the past twenty years. I’d definitely attend again based on the fact that I try to keep up with Dublin’s dining scene and write about it, but my advice to anybody with a just a casual interest in food would be to stay well away and visit one of Dublin’s weekend marketplaces instead. They’re cheaper, friendlier, and unequivocally aimed at food lovers.

Taste of Dublin Festival
June 10th - 13th,
Iveagh Gardens,
Clonmel Street,
Dublin 2