Monday, March 29, 2010

Juice Vegetarian Restaurant (closed)

Despite the obvious benefits, I’ll never quite be persuaded to turn vegetarian. If I had to sum up my reasons as to why in one word, it would be ‘steak’. I think a lot of you will agree. Yes? Good. Let’s not beat about the bush, the human race has eaten meat in mountains for millennia, and it’s an integral part of cooking throughout the present day world. Dishes like the veggie burger or quorn mince vie to imitate it, but none succeed. I do, however, have an open mind and to deny that vegetarian cooking is nonetheless an exciting and tasty area would be an outright fabrication. So, I’m more than happy to be a temporary veggie whenever necessary. It was how things went during my visit to India last summer, and after two weeks of nothing but garlic soup, Kashmiri dum aloo and delicious mango lassis I’d never felt healthier! If ever you need to shed a stone or two then Ladahki cooking is definitely relevant to your interests, though anything I lost over there was pretty much remade in gift and souvenir weight. Regardless, it wasn’t long before I was tucking into a juicy chicken breast; despite leaving an impression on me, my two-week vegetarian experience didn’t stick. That impression did however lead on to an investigation as to what exactly Dublin’s vegetarian food scene was like, and where exactly it was producing the goods. Cornucopia the oldest and as such, the most widely spoken name in the city when it comes to vegetarian restaurants, with Govinda’s a close second after having opened three locations and going down a storm with students on a tight budget. The fantastically named Blazing Salads deli on George’s street has been around for an entire decade by now, and you can find Café Fresh, purveyor of veggie friendly soup and sandwiches in the Powerscourt shopping centre nearby.

The one that had, up until a couple of recent visits, eluded me was Juice, a comparatively larger vegetarian restaurant on George’s street. To be honest, I’d known about it for some time but simply hadn’t copped on that it was a ‘no meats allowed’ joint. Instead, I’d figured it was a café that revolved around smoothies and, obviously, juice. In my defence, both are featured quite highly but if that’s all you were to sit down for and try then shame on you! There’s any number of delicious gems to be discovered on Juice’s extensive menu. Japanese, Italian, Greek, Lebanese, Thai; all of these styles are covered by two or more dishes. Brunch, lunch, dinner and dessert are each accounted for, with a good selection of herbal teas and no less than twenty-nine varieties of juice and smoothies available. The food aside, Juice absolutely lives up to its name. The beauty of it all is that despite running what looks to be a larger operation than Govinda’s or Cornucopia, the all round low pricing bar is retained with dinner mains never exceeding the fifteen euro mark, and mostly hovering closer to ten! Brunch and lunch dishes stay firmly below, and the inclusion of an early bird is an added money saving bonus. On top of this, they offer a discount for students which, given the immediacy of Trinity College, is a move that’s bound to have hit off with numerous regulars in the past few years. If you have no prejudices against eating veggie, then you’ll be hard pressed to find a restaurant that’s so bargain friendly whilst offering the menu that Juice does.

This particular meal was my second, Áine and I being in the mood for a decent plateful of something after she’d been good enough to show me her exhibit, ‘Oddio’ in the Exchange (it’s aurally satisfying art, if you have the chance to then inspect it!). We’d scoped the usual suspects of Café Bar Deli, Soho and Shebeen Chic but to expect a free table at any of those restaurants midway through a Saturday evening would be optimistic at best. Thankfully, Juice was bucking the trend with several free places. I’d been eager to go back to be quite honest, as it hadn’t been a month since I first discovered it. The last time it had been for a late lunch, and I was hugely impressed by the good service they offered. Now it was a little busier, so it was a good opportunity to see how consistent they were. As before, water was immediately brought to our table and refilled constantly the moment each glass was emptied. Beyond that, it was quick and flawless. It wasn’t tightly packed as any of its carnivorous neighbours, but you’d forgive the staff if they’d been a little slower at something like refilling glasses on a weekend night. The reality was perfection, so a big hats off to all involved!

Interior-wise, Juice plays it safe but stylish; halfway between café and restaurant with wine glasses visible but decor kept to a minimum, each table with its own large, colourful flower. By day the light streams through the panelled windows that comprise of the entire front wall and by night, a lattice of fairy lights blink away toward the back of the restaurant. Artwork and stuffed toys adorn the walls around the entrance, all of which can be bought if you happen to be interested!

And what about the food? Part of the reason I’d inclined toward Juice again was because of my last visit, during which I’d ordered two courses which I considered a miss and, well, maybe a half miss. That and I’d been on my own, which didn’t help. Either way, I felt compelled to give them another shot, avoiding what I’d eaten before. Said dishes were the vine leaves and ‘Juiceburger’ with chips. In a nutshell, the former was extremely tart and difficult to eat; a shame, since I love feta with a passion.

The Juiceburger was actually a rather tasty substitute for the real thing (and my first ever veggie burger, I’m ashamed to admit...), but aduki beans are the primary meat substitute which, pleasant tasting as they are, became a real task to chew as time went on. It came with some lovely hand cut chips however, and a tasty relish which I’d have loved a bigger helping of. Armed with menu enlightenment, I chose a simple tofu norimaki to start with and homemade cannelloni for the main. Áine meanwhile had taken the Juiceburger’s side, although I will admit that the piece I stole still tasted good. If you’ve the jaw strength then by all means try it!

My norimaki was, to be honest, a bit dry and unimaginative. Thankfully, there were no such problems with the cannelloni; melt in your mouth pasta, a delicious marinara sauce, spinach, hazelnuts and rich, creamy ricotta all combined to make a fantastically executed dish that did a very good job at shattering the myth that vegetarian food is 100% healthy. The hazelnuts in particular were a lovely surprise as I hadn’t noticed them on the menu at first. We shared a pot of mandarin orange tea and I decided to try what seemed like the obvious choice: one of their freshly made juices. The choice was an apple, lemon and ginger juice and probably the best I’ve ever had. Again, Juice absolutely lives up to its name. I finished with a very nice lime and lemon tart (picture unfortunately AWOL), albeit with a slightly unusual base. No matter, it fit the bill and I finished every last crumb!

In the end, we left just under forty five euro lighter which, considering that a 10% (deserved) service charge is applied to all customers, was an absolute steal (Even more so given that I’m now being treated to cinema tickets for paying!). Yes, it may sound like I’m being harsh on the food at times, but a little perspective is needed: you’re only paying a little over ten euro at most for a main course, Michelin star fine eating is not what you ought to go in expecting. Do however, by all means, expect a great menu, a good meal, excellent service and extremely reasonable prices.

Juice Vegetarian Restaurant
73-83 South Great Georges Street,
Dublin 2

Tph: 01-475 7856

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Importance of Being Serviced

Yes, the title of this entry is a terrible play on words that has probably been recycled a hundred times in any number of food blogs. It also wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of people thought it extremely stuck up; not everyone is particularly bothered about whether or not you get a smile when the Subway girl hands over your change or how much in depth knowledge a waiter has of his wine list after all. So I apologise for making you cringe through it. The unavoidable truth is, however, that service is arguably the second most important part of any meal you pay for and as such, the cheesy title is warranted.

As we all know, service forms the link between the food you eat and the experience any given restaurant offers. It has the remarkable power to brighten your day when you find it in places you wouldn’t expect; equally so it can downright spoil an evening when it adds an undeserved percentage to what’s already a terrifying bill. Service is, of course, especially important when dining out proper, as the aim of any respectable restaurant should be to make the entire experience a relaxing one, altogether sending the customer away feeling like he or she had been the centre of attention and properly appreciated.

Here’s where I like to add a bit of perspective. You’d know very well not to expect Patrick Guilbaud’s surgical precision in say, Juice of George’s Street; most of their mains clock in at around the ten euro mark as opposed to fifty. Time and manners should, by comparison, be all that you’re concerned about. It’s what you’re paying for, right? As such, in restaurants like Juice, the little things that you shouldn’t expect make a huge and endearing difference: the glass of water appearing at your table without having to ask, regular refilling of said glass, unprompted recital of the day’s specials and a check up during each course... none of this you’d necessarily miss – and indeed probably don’t – in many similar restaurants but Juice impressively nails each one. It points firmly in the direction of a good, customer orientated mindset which deserves just as many plaudits as any enjoyable meal and will ultimately do half the work of drawing visitors back in for seconds.

Perspective can also be applied to the lower end of the eatery scale. Take McDonald’s: a fast food business where the fundamental idea is to get the food out into the waiting mouths and be done with it. They’re never going to produce a dickie bow wearing Ronald lookalike to personally deliver your meal, but you can still differentiate between a location that actively makes an effort toward offering service that isn’t necessarily expected and another that doesn’t. Think one in which the guy behind the counter offers to bring the food to your table if it’s quiet, instead of silently asking you to wait. This isn’t a difference that’ll to put you in a bad mood like a wrong order in an upmarket restaurant would, but it’s a small gesture that demonstrates whoever is serving you acknowledges the experience of the individual as opposed to the masses. You won’t ever tip him for it (shame on you!), but it certainly ought to register as an example of good quality service.

The reason I’m discussing this at length (although given how long every other entry is, so far it’s about right!) is because the other day, I had two very contrasting experiences with service. I was in town with Grace and, as always, looking for a place to eat before she headed Cinema-ways for Alice in Wonderland. I’d been racking my brain for a restaurant nearby Henry Street that I wanted to try and finally, I remembered that I hadn’t yet visited Koh on the Millennium Walk. I’d always heard good things about it; the combination of Asian fusion cuisine served in a trendy bar setting had several reviewers writing all sorts of pleasantries when it first opened. Awards soon followed, and it’s been firmly rooted on my ‘to do’ list since. It was decided. At first, getting a seat on a Friday night looked a difficult ask but they soon had us at a table with menus in hand. One plate of prawn crackers with a sweet chilli dip later and I’d chosen both a starter and main: Vietnamese shredded chicken salad followed by Thai style king scallop and prawns. Grace was skipping both and going straight to dessert as per usual, the Thai sticky rice and mango rolls in particular catching her attention. The salad, when it arrived, turned out to be a perfectly light and fragrant starter with the added bonus of ground peanuts! Nothing to get excited over if you’re allergic, especially given it wasn’t actually listed on the menu (I’d question what anybody with an aversion to peanuts is doing in an Asian restaurant in the first place to be honest) but for myself it was a welcome addition to the dish. Grace’s dessert was happily delivered at the same time and reminded me very much of a milk rice pudding I’d had in the now deceased Rajdoot. In other words, it was extremely delicious. She finished and split for the film, I stayed for the main. Ten minutes passed. Then twenty, thirty and finally forty without so much as a word from any of the staff. Yes, they had glanced in my direction quite a number of times but I hadn’t been looking for their attention, so nothing happened. By the time it was nearing three quarters of an hour I gave up, explained what had happened and paid for what I’d eaten. Why did I not simply point out to the staff that there’d obviously been a mix up with my main order you ask? Because the mistake itself was entirely independent of their failure to notice that nothing was happening at my table, despite it being a) a Friday night in an obviously popular spot where turning a table should probably have been a concern, and b) the aforementioned multiple looks in my direction. The manager was naturally apologetic, and in fairness offered to take one of two items off the bill as a good will gesture. Personally, I prefer to pay in full for whatever I’ve eaten; I’ll never request items be removed but won’t say no in cases like this, so I did appreciate the effort when he brought it up. The problem was that I paid for everything despite this. Whoops!

Now a few Euros lighter and feeling just as hungry, I decided to make a bee-line for Eddie Rockets on O’Connell Street since word had, by now, gotten around that they’ve completely revamped their menu. As always, you’re immediately seated by whoever’s on security detail (in this particular branch) and within minutes, seen to by one of the waiters. In this case, I wasn’t given a menu immediately and it looked like the beginnings of another wait. Thankfully, a waitress noticed that I was on my lonesome after only three minutes and quickly fixed the problem. Eddie’s 1, Koh 0. A quick glance at the menu reveals that last year’s blue plate special ‘sliders’ are now a permanent fixture, and at four euro for two with a decent portion of chips to boot you’re looking at one of the best meal bargains Dublin city has to offer outright!

The sliders themselves are miniature versions of the classic hamburger (based on the White Castle favourite, stateside) with a small slice of cheese, Eddie’s secret sauce and fried onions thrown in on top. Simple, compact, tasty and filling. Midway through, the same waitress who’d spotted me earlier checked up to see if everything was okay. Eddies 2, Koh 0. I finished up quickly and left the tip that would have otherwise gone to Koh if everything had worked out.

The difference between Eddies and Koh is obvious. The latter is a twenty euro main course restaurant; a trendy spot that’s built up a fairly decent reputation amongst Dublin’s foodie elite in the past couple of years. It's the kind of place you’d expect – at the very least – regular checkups on the diners. Yet for forty-five minutes, I was stuck in a bubble! Eddies, on the other hand, is a near fast food café style eatery where few, if anyone, expect much beyond a burger and fries to be delivered, yet alone good service. Where Koh got it all wrong, Eddies got it absolutely right but what’s important to acknowledge is that none of what they did well was anything they necessarily had to do, beyond getting a menu into my hand to begin with of course. Perspective is the watchword. Everything that Koh did wrong, on the other hand, was a service disaster, because they forgot the absolute basics on a night where they needed to get those at least right. This was made a double shame since the food itself had been pretty enjoyable, and for that reason I will eventually go back; mistakes do after all happen everywhere and I don’t complain for the sake of it, but this was unfortunately one that repeated itself over the forty minutes. In a nutshell, I’d have major concerns if this wasn’t the first time it’s happened in Koh but will be happy to revisit to, hopefully, try out the rest of their menu.

Ultimately, I prefer to concentrate on whatever positives I can take from a bad situation. I had an enjoyable meal in Eddies and discovered that they now offer what’s probably the best value on decent food in the city. If you haven’t already checked out their new menu – and I’m sure most of you have – then get down there right now for a few sliders! And if you’re happy with their service, don’t forget to tip.

Koh Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge
New Millennium Walkway,
Dublin 1

Tph: 01-8146777

Eddie Rockets
O’Connell Street,
Dublin 1

Tph: 01-8722374

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Boojum Fresh Mexican

One of my earliest proper foodie experiences happened in America. What I find surprising about this is that I was fourteen at the time and surrounded, of course, by Pop Tarts, quadruple Macs, Oreo breakfast cereal and 32 ounce soft drink cups that you could refill at any decent petrol station for a mere fifteen cents! Basically, most of the prominent foods in America at the time were geared towards fulfilling every young boy’s dream: a constant supply of sweet, fatty snackables in exceedingly large amounts. I haven’t been stateside in nearly six years now, but word has it that things may or may not be the same. It has been suggested, we’ll say. Despite the grand list of treats above, the food that stuck with me more than any other was – in fact – a burrito I had in Madison, Wisconsin. But not just any burrito, no, this was a burrito made in a Qdoba Mexican Grill; a moderately sized restaurant chain that covers most of the United States. It was my first burrito outright, and first taste of Mexican style food altogether. I was bedazzled, completely. There, in the palm of your hand was an entire and filling meal. It had rice, beef, salsa, vegetables and most importantly, tasted fantastic; nothing I’d have expected to find in what looked to be another American fast food (fast casual, I should probably say) chain. Even to watch the burrito being made was fun as it passed from station to station, the ingredients piling up generously until the whole thing was literally wrapped up. I immediately wondered why there was no equivalent in Dublin, or Ireland for that matter. Sandwich bars were of course common place at the time, then came the smoothie revolution and afterwards, bagel cafés. The odd sushi bar has also started popping up more frequently of late, but still I we had nothing in the mould of Qdoba’s burrito production line. I’d given up all hope, but last weekend it finally happened. On the New Millennium Walkway, next to Koh and opposite Cactus Jack’s you will now find Boojum; Dublin’s first ‘fast casual’ Mexican eatery.

As far as location goes, it couldn’t have been picked more perfectly. The Millennium Walkway sees thousands of diverse pedestrians daily, is next to the Jervis Luas stop and what you might call an invertible foodie’s Mecca: Lemon Jelly, the aforementioned Koh and Cactus Jack’s along with Bar Italia all flank either side of the pavement, whilst you can also shop in your choice of an Asian or Turkish market. In the past, it’s also been home to one of Boticelli’s ice cream joints. The remaining shops on the Walkway are chic to the core, attracting exactly the kind of people who are likely to be intrigued with what a new eatery like Boojum is offering. Effectively, half of the work has already been done for them, so all that’s left is to roll out the food!

In principal, Boojum’s approach to their menu is modelled in a very similar way to Qdoba’s. In fact, the staff I talked to during our visit suggested as much. So far, so good. You initially choose what kind of meal you’d like from a burrito, fajita burrito, burrito bowl, tacos or a salad, then select your meat filling from chicken, shredded beef or steak (there’s a veggie option too!) and finally what salsa you’d like to finish it off. Sour cream and cheese either come with your selection or as add-ons. Beyond how they’re served, all of these choices are virtually the same in terms of what you have to choose from; it largely depends on whether or not you want to eat from a flour tortilla or a bowl. That said, you may find the menu somewhat limited the more you look at it, but the level to which you can customise each meal available will probably distract you from this sufficiently. A quick inspection of their website reveals that the menu in Boojum’s Belfast branch is reinforced with the presence of Nachos; something I hope will make its way down south sooner rather than later. There is a lot of room to expand the number of items available, but thankfully Mexican cuisine is expansive enough to ensure that this should happen at some point in the future.

It didn’t take me long to decide on a fajita burrito in the hope of recreating my Qdoba experience, and Rebecca was equally quick to choose the taco option. In we strode. The first thing that greets you as you walk through the door is a practical army of men and women behind the counter, all with their place on the burrito production line. One steams the tortilla, the other adds the vegetables, then another the meat, sour cream and so on; each just as enthusiastic as the last I have to say! There was a definite atmosphere of brimming eagerness to please, as you’d expect to find in any new establishment like this in the city centre. All I can say is that once the food is good, if you feel welcomed then it makes anywhere a place worth going back to. Even more so where the onus isn’t as much on creating a dining experience, pleasantry is still very much appreciated. You might call that an American trait; the Wal-Mart approach if you will. Yet another example that Boojum looks to be carrying over from stateside.

As for the food itself? My burrito didn’t blow me away like the one I’d had so many years ago, but it was still rather tasty. I’d chosen shredded beef for meat and came nicely seasoned in plentiful but proportionate amounts. No ingredient was left to fall into the background so every bite was filled with juicy peppers and rice too; sometimes more than others depending on which direction you eat it from! The only element lacking omph was the salsa verde, which had more of a mild spice as opposed to the medium it’s listed as on the menu. This was, however, nothing a quick dash of the sauces provided tableside didn’t fix.

Rebecca finished as much of her three tacos as humanly possible, with a little help from myself. What pleased me about them was the obvious authenticity of the fried shells where it would be so easy to use and serve mass produced ones instead. This was echoed by both the menu and manager on hand at the time, both underlining to us that Boojum is a place where you will only find fresh ingredients, everything prepared from scratch in the morning. In the end, we left satisfied and less than twenty euro lighter for both of our meals and two bottles of water; me doubly so since the staff had been kind enough to let me take a couple of pictures of them preparing a burrito or two (thanks guys!).

It’s early days yet, but I have little doubt that Boojum will stand the test of time and settle amongst Dublin’s favourite quick stop eateries. Their location gives them a great head start, all that’s left is to perhaps expand their menu to include two or three more additional base items and they’ll be running a very safe and reliable operation. Who knows? In the line of Zumo and the Bagel Factory, we might start seeing similar venues popping up on every street corner. And if we’re really, really lucky, a Qdoba may one day join them. If only for my sake and nobody else’s.

Boojum Fresh Mexican
New Millennium Walkway,
Dublin 1

Tph: 01-8788152

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Cake Café

Dublin City is full of little secrets. Some are incredibly obscure, others well known enough to be more accurately described as common knowledge but out of plain sight. One of my favourite secrets to advertise (I am well aware of what irony means) amongst friends is a little bakery of cakes and café called, aptly, the Cake Café. It falls under the latter ‘well known but physically obscured’ type of secret, meaning that it’s frequently mentioned and published in Dublin food guides but to find it you need these rigorous directions: venture down Camden Street, turn right onto Pleasant’s Row, then take a left down a small alleyway that will bring you past a little recording studio. Anybody you bring with you will, by now, be wondering if you’re planning to jump them for whatever they happen to be carrying but a little further on they’ll spot the hanging sign that indicates food is indeed on the agenda and not aggravated burglary. You enter through the large wooden gateway into what looks like an apartment block courtyard and tada! You’ve arrived at the Cake Café.

The first thing that strikes you is the courtyard itself; bamboo shoots touch the sky and their leaves cloud above a series of little wooden alcoves housing both diners and bicycles, some of which are used to deliver the café’s cakes themselves in dainty little baskets. The insides of these alcoves are plastered with very interesting artwork made of materials ranging from mosaic to old CDs and bicycle chains. With a camera in hand, it’s difficult to not just forget the food and start snapping the walls instead!

Navigating around the outside tables will lead you directly to the entrance proper. If – like my good friend Orla and I – you arrive during the busier lunch hours then be prepared for a squeeze because, as I said beforehand, the Cake Café is indeed obscured from view but widely published. It features in the Bridgestone Guide, the Georgina Campbell Guide and is rated as one of Dublin’s best 100 eateries by the Dubliner. People do know about it, and it does get busy. Especially around lunchtime, even more so on a Saturday. Neither of us had any qualms about sitting into the two-seat bar area tucked into a corner of the café between the kitchen itself and a window, so thankfully we didn’t have to wait. The normal seating area was jam packed for lunch, as was the entrance throughout our visit with hopeful diners and ordered cake collections. The buzz was electric, and friendly given every second entrant was greeted with an ironic ‘not you again!’. You feel like this could easily be the location of a Cheers-esque sitcom, where everyone knows your name by the fourth visit.

The point of course in our trip to the Cake Café is in the name; it had been a long term promise of mine to take Orla for some of their baked goods and after all the waiting she was very enthused. This is, unfortunately, where they take a stumble. The list of cakes is extensive and mouth watering, half of what’s on offer jumps out at you immediately when you open the menu. Rich chocolate Belgian cake, apple and cinnamon, the orange sponge cake halfway down carries an exclamation mark as if to underline the excitement you ought to be feeling at making your way through the page! (Excited?) You make your choice, order and then you hear it: ‘we’re out of that I’m afraid’. One or two items you might expect, but as the waiter proceeds to list a good seven out of ten cakes on the page that you can’t have, disappointment begins to set in. This was not a first time experience either, the same had happened several months ago on a Tuesday no later than half past two in the afternoon when the choice was between cupcake of the day, Victoria sponge or a brownie. Today the cupcakes were also MIA , but filling in was carrot cake that had been lamentably absent in my last visit.

The problem would appear to be that the Cake Café has fallen victim, somewhat, to its own success. A quick inspection of their online menu reveals exactly the kind of operation they run: full bakery order service with particular custom requests accepted and delivery thereof, on top of the café that also runs a breakfast menu and serves a decent collection of savoury dishes. It’s easy to understand the difficulties involved in managing such a workload and how, given their popularity, this won’t have gotten any easier since they first opened. Unfortunately for me, their website also boasts a series of quotes from Dublin’s foodie elites – such as Tom Dooley of the Irish Independent – lauding several of the delicious cakes that I as of yet have not had the chance to try and definitely wanted to. It certainly works against their favour to inform any new arrival at only one o’clock in the afternoon that most of the set cake menu is obsolete, so what I would recommend is perhaps altering that aspect slightly. How about a chalk board that lists only the available cakes? In having such a display, it turns the negative into a positive. Instead of apologetically reeling off what is unavailable, proudly direct the diner’s attention to the current selection! It won’t improve the number of cakes on offer, but it would definitely leave a late luncher ignorant to the disappointment they might otherwise experience.

Regardless of the selection issues, Orla settled for a Victorian sponge which was reliable as ever. The jam and cream were layered thickly in the middle, sandwiched by two wonderfully light and fluffy sponge slices. It was melt in your mouth goodness; perfect for relaxing with on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

I, meanwhile, was hungry so immediately aimed for the more savoury side of the menu. On offer you’ll find homemade baked beans which are no less interesting and delicious than they sound, a tapas cheese and meat platter with an Irish twist, sandwiches, soups and even one or two tarts. A board above the kitchen area broadcast’s the days specials which were enthusiastically listed to us by one of the waiters as we seated ourselves. In the end, I went for the hot pot of the day which combined potato, spinach and chorizo with a few other choice ingredients. In a word? Fantastic, and moreish! Well, two words then but I can be forgiven. The chorizo itself was perfectly cooked and tender, lacking none of the flavour you’d expect. Don't be mistaken, the Cake Café is not just a bakery. You’re also given two slices of their homemade soda bread which is so crunchy it’s to die for. I’d left the whole dish untouched for a few minutes for the sake of conversation, but after my first bite it was gone in even less time! That’s a compliment in itself. Two homemade lemonades, a walnut brownie later and it was time for us to scoot.

The Cake Café is everything you'd want a place you drop into for lunch, a cup of tea or chat with a friend over a good slice of chocolate sponge to be. It has charm, atmosphere, great food on offer and is run by people who appear to be on a mission. It would take an entire paragraph to also pay tribute their ethos of sustainability, which is second to none. All of this is why I found myself more disappointed than I normally would have been over the ‘non availability of actual cake’ problem. It’s nothing that will drive me away in the long term, but I fear that first timers may not be so forgiving and in the currently tougher financial environment, that’s a worrying prospect. So, to all of you who are reading, I have this to say: you must visit the Cake Café if you haven't already. When you do, go early and benefit from everything they have to offer instead of only half. It is all in the name after all.

The Cake Café
The Daintree Building,
Pleasants Place,
Dublin 2

Tph: 01-4789394

Friday, March 5, 2010

Wholesome Tomato and Sweet Pepper Soup

I love tomato soup. Really, really love it. Specifically what used to be Campbell’s but is now Erin condensed cream of tomato soup; that one I loved to the point where it became an unhealthy culinary obsession. On any given day (ten years ago) you might have caught me having it for lunch, dinner, breakfast... Even a midnight snack at times! It was as much guaranteed to be in our cupboard as salt and pepper. Yes, that bad. Thankfully, those ten years have since taught that the world doesn’t revolve just around tins of glob. No, tomato soup is even more delicious – and rewarding – when homemade! Here’s a recipe for a very wholesome tomato and sweet pepper soup, perfect for warming up with, a good lunch or, in my case, your daily hit.

Serves 4/5

1200g vine ripened tomatoes
4 whole sweet peppers
3 cloves of garlic
250ml vegetable stock
2 tbs olive oil
1 tsp paprika
2 tsp sun-dried tomato paste or pesto
½ tsp salt
½ tsp pepper

Remove any vines from the tomatoes, wash them and score on four sides from top to bottom. Place them in a large pot of boiling water for roughly five minutes until their skin is visibly peeling. Whilst they are boiling, finely chop the garlic cloves and set aside. Drain the pot, remove the tomatoes and peel off all of the loose skin.

Prepare the sweet peppers. Remove the top of each one, slice them in half lengthways and de-seed. Place each slice skin side up on a grill and cook at a high heat until the skin is visibly burned and detaching from the flesh. Remove and de-skin by hand. The pepper slices should no longer be firm. If they still are, grill them for a few minutes at the same heat on the reverse side. Once softened, set aside.

Now for the fun part: blending the tomatoes. You can do this using a normal blender or a handheld one but if the latter then make sure to do so in a large, deep pot or container to avoid any dramatic mess. Once you have liquidised the tomato, repeat with the sweet pepper slices. If you have trouble blending the sweet pepper, particularly with a handheld blender, then add a small amount of water and this should help.

Add the olive oil to a large pot over a high heat. Then add the garlic and cook until it begins to brown. Add the tomato, sweet pepper, vegetable stock, paprika, salt and pepper to the pot. Stir until all of the ingredients are well mixed. Finally, add the sun dried tomato paste and stir until it breaks down. Bring to the boil and then simmer for 5-10 minutes, stirring regularly.

If you have a hand held blender, then simply stick it in at this stage and blend/whirl until it the soup has a smooth consistency. If not and just a regular blender, allow the soup to cool and then blend it. This is, however, just a personal preference given I like an even texture but if you don’t mind the occasional small piece of garlic then by all means, save yourself the time! Regardless, what you should now have in front of you is a large pot of wholesome, souped up goodness. Eat it on its own, with some bread or a serving of fresh cream for a really intense, rich experience.

Nico's Restaurant

A picture says a thousand words. When there’s food involved, they have the power to get your stomach talking as well! Food photography has developed massively in recent decades, a lot of focus (pun unintended) having shifted from representing exactly what had been cooked in a defined manner to making the food in question look as tempting as physically possible. Depth of field has become a necessity, lighting and setting arrangement; even post work is more than often applied to make that sauce just a little bit more colourful. There are times when you can almost taste the photograph, be it an extreme close up of hot, bubbling lasagne or a sweeping shot of a market cheese stand. I’m what you’d probably call a (very) amateur food photographer; I can use a camera, understand the importance of colour balance when you have a red napkin in front of a white bowl filled with orange liquid and of course, the actual setup of a scene but it’s an area unlikely to be ever something I’ll become overly rigorous at. A quick, decent shot is all I need in most cases, one that strikes a simple balance between showing you everything that’s on offer and making it look just a little bit more than edible – AKA, desirable, particularly when I’m eating out; there’s no point in giving deserved praise to a dish and producing a shoddy photo to back up your words with.

So, when Darcie and I arrived at Nico’s on Wednesday evening and I realised I’d forgotten my camera, I felt both annoyed and, well, kind of excited to be honest! Annoyed because I wouldn’t get to show off to you in pictures what this little Italian restaurant can serve up, excited at the chance to persuade you not with pretty colours but with only what I can write. It may not be quite a picture’s thousand words, I may not even reach five hundred for that matter. But if it gets you through Nico’s door and into one of their seats then my job here will be done.

On that point, passing through the door is an experience in itself! Dame street: one of the city centre’s largest, busiest roads. Nico’s is located at the George’s street junction. It’s loud, it’s hectic. You step inside and as if almost by magic you’re not only transported to an island of quiet and calm, but an altogether grand room that has the look of a classy 1950’s New York restaurant! Soothing world music piped in overhead only further suggests that Emilio Cirillo, Nico’s director, is on a mission to sedate the Dublin masses, fully aware of how exactly his location ought to be used. Given it had taken Darcie and I less time than we thought to shop for soup ingredients, we arrived quite early and had the entire place to ourselves for the best part of a half hour. On closer inspection, the unmistakable Italian nature of Nico’s begins to shine through: drawings of Venetian and Roman architecture adorn the walls and the waiters on hand spoke quietly to each other in the native tongue. It’s no secret I’d been looking forward to this visit for some time, almost as long as the restaurant itself has been around for! And that’s a long time, Nico’s is one of Dublin’s oldest restaurants. The decor, the live piano in the evening and the presence of an good, old fashioned prawn cocktail on the menu all point in the direction of a lingering history about the place. However, none of it ever gives you the impression that it’s gotten caught in a time loop, unaware of itself. Not least the food, the eating of which was left mostly to me all evening. Don’t mistake that for a complaint.

Whilst Darcie waited for dessert, I started with Nico’s antipasti platter and for the mains, ravioli doppio burro (a meat ravioli in a heavy cream sauce with pepper). What impressed me about both of these dishes was the relative lack of any extravagant presentation yet their almost perfect execution. The antipasti included parma ham, salami, sautéed mushrooms, black olives and a good helping of creamy provolone cheese, all drizzled lightly in olive oil. Italian restaurants (in their vast numbers throughout the city) will often serve you a platter of cured meat, such as this, drowned in olive oil and nearly inedible. Nico’s, however, gets it just right. The mushrooms were also a nice touch, and underlined the ethic of fusion with Irish ingredients in their cuisine. My meat ravioli was no less enjoyable, and one of the most well balance dishes I’ve ever eaten. Despite the sauce being described as both heavy and creamy, it never once overpowered any of the other flavours. In every bite you got exactly what was described: pasta, lightly spiced minced meat, a thick, creamy sauce and pepper. It was all there, not one element went AWOL. Well, after about ten minutes the entire dish had, but what did they expect with food that delicious? I finished with a tiramisu which delivered the added firmness in the Italian lady fingers I’d been crying out for, whilst Darcie had a fluffy gateaux that I really should have stolen more of.

In total, the bill came to just under fifty euro for a three course dinner plus one dessert. It was a bargain for having tried the main course alone, not to mention that Nico’s menu is filled with a great selection of pasta dishes under the fifteen euro mark. Just as we got ready to leave, the legendary piano man I’ve heard so much about arrived, on cue as predicted. If I had one regret, it’s that we didn’t get to stay to hear more of him. With food this good, he’ll have to be the third reason I’ll come back. The second, of course, being to take a picture or two.

Nico’s Restaurant
53, Dame Street,
Dublin 2

Tph: 01-6773062