Sunday, April 11, 2010


It might as well be said now rather than later: the meal I had at Darwin’s on Tuesday night was one of the best food experiences I’ve ever had. Yes, you read correctly, it was indeed up there. Actually – all things relative considered – I’d go so far as to say that it may very well have been the best thus far. Strong words, right? Especially when coming from a pedantic, biased-toward-katsu curry/Yamamori perfectionist, who secretly dies a little inside every time somebody describes anything as being amazing, genius or a similarly out of context adjective!

See, I have a terrible habit of considering almost everything in relative terms and I shy away from laddering things, food especially. You normally won’t hear me say that one restaurant is particularly better than another, just a ‘different’ place that one person may like or be able to afford more than somebody else would. For example: a very nice takeaway might be, to me, as much a great meal as what you’d expect to be served in Fallon and Byrne. The food itself is fundamentally incomparable, but the enjoyment you get from either can vary to one end of the scale depending on any number of factors. The same can be said of X, Y or Z recipe. It all depends on the person, their individual tastes and the situation they happen to be in. This defines the overall experience when it comes to a meal in a restaurant, of which the food is only one part. So, to hear me say that Darwin’s in particular was the ‘best’ is a completely blue moon affair that you should all take a snapshot of!

Forget my own thought process for the time being though, you’re here to read about why it was that good, and conversely why you should ever visit yourself. In a nutshell, all of the elements that make a meal experience enjoyable – food, service, company, atmosphere and cost – came together flawlessly. Combine that with high expectations on my and Rebecca’s part and it made for a great feeling of satisfaction all ‘round. Not that I’m trying to stir up similar expectations in you, but I am. Unashamedly.

This actually wasn’t my first visit to Darwin’s; I’d previously been to their old location on the same street a few months ago. Back then I’d been surprised at how small a restaurant it was for one with such a good reputation, so the move to a bigger venue (twenty-five seats bigger to be exact) was quite simply a case of ‘if you cook it, they will come’.

The new building used to be an antiques dealership, from which the two iconic statue lamps you can see in the background were originally bought. Funnily enough, there had only been space in the old restaurant for one beforehand, the other staying in the dealer’s itself until they finally moved over instead! Of course, these two lamps are one of many things you notice about Darwin’s when you first walk through the door. The food may have little to do with evolution (don’t go in expecting Galapagos giant turtle steak or braised iguana), but the walls are adorned with large drawings of the man himself, humanity’s ancestors and even a large tribal bow! Very little has changed in the move-over, the only thing you’ll notice is that it feels much roomier.

Greeting us as we arrived was Dolores, who spent the whole evening thereafter taking care of us, filling us in with stories about Darwin’s and generally being the friendliest hostess I’ve ever met. The funny thing is that it took zero effort to actually get conversation flowing to begin with, just the simple question of ‘is this your first time with us?’ Yes, some people prefer to have a meal in peace but personally, I feel that the more welcome you’re made feel the smoother any dinner will be. All of the staff had such a relaxed and casual demeanour, with cups of tea changing hands between attending the other diners. Given, it was a Tuesday night after a bank holiday, but it just felt comforting; everybody knew exactly what they were doing, which has a lot to do with the same people being carried over from the old restaurant I’d imagine – a factor that they advertise proudly.

Before the meal I’d been talking up Darwin’s desserts something incredible, so everything that was going to be served otherwise had become, as far as both of us were concerned, just the build-up. This was entirely the wrong way to go about it, but thankfully (or rather, inevitably) the starters, mains and even the bread dips completely stole the limelight. I can’t remember if I had the plate of bread and dips the last time I visited, but if I did then it surely knocked me out beyond memory.

What you get is a few slices of mixed bread accompanied by three dips: spicy hummus, basil pesto and sun dried tomato paste. If the entire meal had been three courses of this we’d have left happy! Even better is that it was given to us as an amuse, although at three euro, we ought to have bought another. Maybe three.

The starters on offer are plentiful and diverse, covering antipasto, pate and the usual favourites including fried calamari, spring rolls and tempura prawns. Rebecca skipped hers, but stole plenty of my wild mushroom and black pudding risotto. I don’t blame her; it was beyond delicious and featured plenty of nice, chunky mushrooms. This is a definite bonus, as I’ve known a lot of other restaurants to serve similarly mushroom-orientated dishes without any actual mushrooms noticeable. The black pudding was a perfect accompaniment, almost as supple as the risotto itself. In the end, the empty plate left over says more than I ever could.

In the way of mains, Darwin’s reputation is firmly founded on serving up a great steak. I’d personally stop short of calling them a steakhouse outright, but they are definitely central to the menu. Complimenting the cuts is a vegetarian page (for those with enough strength to turn it), one or two intriguing fish dishes and several side orders, all reasonably priced at three euro. The mains themselves do all land between the twenty to thirty mark but in gauging quality and portion size, I guarantee you that this price is well warranted.

In the end I opted for a juicy rib-eye, Rebecca the lamb plate. Both were perfectly cooked, both had us scraping the bones for whatever little bits of meat we could salvage as it all slowly disappeared. The lamb in particular was frighteningly good, largely thanks to some delightful parsnip chips and a mint jus that seemed impossibly subtle. If I could have stolen one recipe from Ciprian Isbanda all night, it would have been for that jus. All the more reason to return sooner! Either dish came with a choice of salad or vegetables, either being a nicely portioned addition.

Finally, it was time for the dessert I’d been harping on about all night. The choice had already been made: Darwin’s dessert platter for two. If could only order one item off the menu at Darwin's, this would have to be it, no question about it.

As I’ve said many a time before, what often separates a good restaurant from an okay one is how they handle dessert. When love and effort, or at least a bit of inventiveness is put into the final course, it sends the diner away impressed and satisfied. Darwin’s takes pride in this department, and the result is a raft of sweet delectables that include an Eton mess, rhubarb fool and their signature bread and butter pudding. All of these, with added slices of chocolate brownie and mango something (tardy note taking, sorry!) cheesecake, made an appearance on the platter and ended the meal with a sumptuous flourish that you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere else. A Baileys each was also kindly gifted on the house, topping off what had turned into an excellent dining experience. The total cost? Seventy six euro; an absolute bargain, all things considered.

We spent the final twenty minutes before leaving locked in conversation with Dolores, who reaffirmed that despite the current economic climate – in which restaurants are certainly a high risk business – Darwin’s is most certainly not in a position to be worried about. Phew! She did however suggest one or two household names may not be as secure, which only means that we all have to speed things up if we don’t want to miss out on some dining opportunities! Then again, when things go this well in any given restaurant, it makes you wonder what need there is to try anywhere else. The reason is a simple one: there will always be a better food experience to be had, one way or another. For now though, Darwin’s is the record holder in my books.

80, Aungier Street,
Dublin 2

Tph: 01-4757511


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