Saturday, May 29, 2010

Shakes (closed)

As far as weeks go, it definitely could’ve been a more productive one where all things blog related are concerned. First of all, it turns out my beloved laptop (we shall call her Kerrigan) must remain I the shop for another short while. Then if that weren’t annoying enough, any spare laptops that were at my disposal have closed up and gone packing down to Kerry for the weekend! In a way I’m glad to see them go since all of them were slower than a roast cooking in Heston Blumenthal’s oven, but on the flip side it left me with no option but to resort to the iPhone or house PC to write this up on. I can barely manage ten words with that little touch qwerty keypad, so in very un-dramatic fashion and for the first time ever, I present to you a Consumed blog entry composed entirely on a near decade old family computer!

Apt (or ironic?) then that this entry via what’s quite possibly Dublin’s oldest PC be concerned with the very newest chapter in its rich foodish tapestry. That’s right, today we’re gonna look at Dame street’s latest institution for food lovers and students alike: Shakes milkshake bar.

Open for little under the two-month mark by now, Shakes has been selling itself on the basis that it is Dublin’s only dedicated milkshake bar. Often you hear a line like that and take it with a pinch of salt; a certain pastry café just up the road will, after all, lay claim to serve up the best carrot cake in the city. Carrot cake - and the scale thereof - is entirely subjective of course, but that doesn’t stop such a line from drawing in the customers to try said baked goods. In Shake’s case however, their hook of a claim is nothing but the truth! Eddie Rocket’s may have carried the milkshake torch in Dublin over the last few decades, but it was always about the burgers for them; shakes and malts were simply a small part of the bigger picture. The only frequent alternative has, up until recently, been MacDonald’s. The niche was there to be exploited like bagels, smoothies and gourmet burgers before it. Ultimately, a young man named Wassim Dakik arrived from London, grabbed the challenge by the straws and did exactly that.

Two things will probably strike you about Shakes once you happen upon it: 1) their incredible location, directly opposite Starbucks on the College Green and only a matter of metres from Trinity College itself, and 2) the queue that will more than likely be spilling out of the door and onto the street. These two naturally go hand in glove, and as such you will have to wait to finally get to the milkshake itself but the sheer popularity of it all after only a matter of weeks should be more than enough to assure you that it is definitely worth the wait. If not, I will!

Ordering works like this: in front of you is a counter; behind it banks and banks of chocolate bars, sweets, biscuits, cereals and almost every other delectable that you remember growing up with. Custard creams, bourbons, Skittles, chocolate digestives, Cadbury’s Crème Eggs; they’re all there and in ample supply! Above the counter and a small army of staff you’ll find the menu board. Take note of it, you’ll be staring at it for a while in either awe at realising what’s about to be done with your confectionary of choice, or inability to choose from the plethora of options. If and once you get around to selecting a base flavour, toppings and boosts can be added afterwards. Vegetarian? Shakes will serve you up a milkshake of organic soya milk and ice cream instead of the regular fare. I was slight disappointed that they didn’t offer a malt option, but I’m sure that this will be suggested to Wassim at some stage given that it only takes a spoonful or two of Horlicks powder.

Edit: after having gotten in touch with Wassim himself, it turns our that Shakes do indeed offer malt as an option, but it was left off the menu by mistake.

As for the base options in particular, most of them fall under ‘chocolate bar shakes’. Without going into a novelised list, there are fifty-seven different kinds covered with almost equal attention given to Cadbury’s, Nestle and Mars. You’ll even find some interesting particulars in there such as Reese’s Cups, Terry’s Chocolate Orange and even Hersheys (well, the European version that doesn’t have that terrible aftertaste!), as well as everything you’d expect from your local newsagent’s. A handful of household name sweets, biscuits and cereals all get a look in elsewhere, as does fruit for those of your who can’t quite tear yourselves away from smoothie addiction just yet. All of these will set you back a paltry three euro for a small sized serving, three-fifty for a large. Separate to the rest is a (slightly more expensive at four-fifty each) VIP milkshake menu, which features a list of more intricate house recipes. I tried two milkshakes altogether: the VIP chocoholic that included Fererro Rocher, chocolate sauce, whipped cream and a flake to top it off with, and a plain chocolate digestive shake. Both tasted exactly the part, and were far lighter than I expected them to be!

The only downside to the overall experience is of course that moderation means you can’t try everything on the menu, and with the number of tantalising options screaming at you it’s hard not to regret choosing just one. Or two. Or three, and so on. Sometimes an abundance of choice can be counter productive in the catering industry, but in Shake’s case, the fundamental simplicity of those options only serves as a means to draw in repeat customers from the word go! They also offer a ten percent discount for students, which will only serve to keep them coming thicker and faster if the idea of drinking something ‘random’ (shudder!) didn’t already appeal.

In a nutshell, Shakes has gotten off to a roaring start and looks to be setting the benchmark for what could become the city centre’s latest craze. They offer a simple fare that appeals not only to the typical Dublin love of all things trendy, but also our inner children that want nothing more than to see our favourite chocolate and sweets mixed up into a creamy beverage. The queues continue to run out the door on the worst of days, so it wouldn’t be any surprise to see this little business venture of Wassim’s expand in the not too distant future.

15, College Green,
Dublin 2

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Irish Food Bloggers Event, Bord Bia

A few weeks ago, Donal Skehan of the Good Mood Food Blog decided to update his blogroll. He was aiming to create a list of the most regularly updated Irish food blogs; something that I hadn’t as of then come across in any of the internet’s many corners. If that wasn’t enough, he also planned - with the help of Bord Bia – an ‘event’ to facilitate this update that would see a whole host of the aforementioned Irish food bloggers gathered in one place for a gastronomic chat, iPhone frenzy, Twitter-thon and all of the inbetweens! Luckily, I caught wind of all this early on and managed to secure an invite, despite only being just three months into the whole food bloggery (my new favourite word!) lark. Roll on an incredibly humid Thursday and there I was, rubbing shoulders with around thirty other bloggers from various counties in Ireland and even a handful who hailed from overseas! Some, like me, were new and a few others were altogether seasoned (no pun intended, but I might as well...) but nearly all of us had never experienced something like this before.

Of course, to just stick a group of food bloggers into a room and let everything develop organically from there would have been far too much of a comical disaster waiting to happen, so an afternoon’s worth of entertainment and foodie showmanship had been arranged to keep all of our minds busy. Kicking off the festivities was Bord Bia’s Maeve Desmond to welcome everybody who had arrived on time, ie not me. Five minutes later (plus my own personal nametag!) and I got in just in time to catch the start of David Owen of Bord Bia’s meat department’s presentation on Irish pork.

Speaking of which, as part of the buildup to the event, Bord Bia kindly arranged for several pork packs to be distributed to quite a number of the bloggers in attendance. This was all in light of an ongoing promotional drive of Irish pork products by Bord Bia, the reputation of which has suffered in recent years due to a largely isolated hiccup in 2008. Rest assured, the pork that was delivered to my door was quite possibly some of the best meat I’ve ever tasted. It also did nothing to help dispel Irish stereotypes given that it was signed for and taken by Rebecca (proper Cockerney luv!) from a farmer wearing none other than a straw hat! In the end we used it to made two dishes: roasted pork with homemade colcannon and apple sauce, and sweet and sour pork with udon noodles. I wasn’t entirely happy with either recipe at the time so neither have featured on the blog, but after tasting meat that delicious you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be giving it another whirl in the not too distant future!

So, the recurring theme of the day quickly turned out to be a porky one. Well, after Lorraine Fitzmaurice of Blazing Salads had taken her turn at demonstrating some vegetarian cooking for us that is. She was kind enough to take time out of what I’m sure is a hectic schedule to give pointers on baking spelt soda bread and how to create a quick and simple miso pesto tagliatelle dish that was just as quickly gobbled up by everyone in attendance!

Following shortly afterwards was a presentation by master butcher Pat Conway of GMIT who provided the best tagline of the afternoon: ‘and if Maeve will allow me the time!’ with regards to everything, anything he sought to do.

An entertainer in the making if not already a skilled butcher, Pat explained in precise detail the ins and outs of preparing your very own sausages, loin and shoulder of pork with not one piece of meat spared. The lovely Maire Dufficy then proceeded to rustle up a plethora of dishes using similar cuts of meat, also introducing pork belly and mince into the mix.

The best tip we picked up along the way? Don’t annoy your local butcher by only having him mince a small amount of pork for you at once, their mincing machine will have to be cleaned out afterwards.

A quick networking tips and pointers session for Damien Mulley led us into lunch, which, as you may have guessed, featured plenty of delicious pork loin and belly cuts with the added bonus of a very light cheesecake for dessert! Of course, nobody touched the food for a good five minutes for the sake of photography; it’s nice to know I’m not alone in eating most of my meals lukewarm.

Time constraints meant that advice from Eoin Purcell about developing your blog into other forms of media had to be delivered at the same time as the cheesecake, whilst the following hour or thereabouts was dedicated entirely to the professional food styling of Jacosta Clarke and Erica Ryan. Altogether they provided some fantastic tips but reading through my fellow bloggers’ pages does nothing but suggest that anybody actually needed them!

What followed was probably the last thing anyone with the slightest ounce of common sense should have done: left a mountain of culinary freebies for a gaggle of food bloggers to consume. To sum it up, I walked off with a bush of rosemary in hand, cheese in a folder and smoked trout in my pocket. There were delightful oat biscuits courtesy of Lilly Higgins, a great range of Good4U produce, herbal tea and even shredded, dried beef by a company called Biltong; the closest thing I’ve seen to American beef jerky on this side of the Atlantic! Let’s put it this way: I ended up with wrist cramp at having to figure out the best way to carry my plunder up Nassau Street.

That’s not to say I didn’t spend time chatting to my fellow food bloggers before leaving, no. I met some great people there from all kinds of different backgrounds, many of them named Aoife coincidentally! To actually put a face to some of the Irish blogs I’d already seen was a big thrill, and to discover new ones even better. If I learned anything from the group, it’s that many felt exactly the same way about the recipes they post as I do: worry over whether or not it’s good enough. At the end of the day however, what I see on their blogs consistently looks and sounds fantastic so I guess the right attitude to adopt is to put yourself in everybody else’s shoes and imagine they think the same about your own work; it’s probably the truth! Either way, only good things can come of us networking between each other, especially for me given I’m always on the lookout for dining buddies. I managed to catch up with Donal briefly as well, who’s midway through writing his second cookbook at this stage.

All in all, the food bloggers event was a massive success and a great experience for everyone involved. Maeve, Donal and Klara Golez of Bord Bia did a fantastic job at arranging the entire event, so a huge thank you goes out to them from myself and Consumed. Apart from that, all I have to say (or ask, rather!) is when’ll the next one be? And count me in.

One minor note to finish up with: check out my blogroll. Just do it. You’ll see it now contains virtually all of the blogs listed on Donal’s update. Like he says, us foodies have to stick together!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Cola Flavoured Yop: a Blast of Validation from the 1990s

‘You’re a liar’, ‘it was just a dream’, ‘don’t be stupid, they’d never mix yoghurt with cola’ and ‘my, haven’t we an active imagination?’; all replies I got to my recent suggestions that a Yop that was cola flavoured could be found on supermarket shelves at one stage during the early nineties.

Up until two years ago, Google went at least some way toward backing me up with a few sporadic mentions of it, but recently there’s been zip, nadda; absolutely nothing to suggest that such a Yop ever existed. So, I did the only thing I could: I e-mailed Yoplait’s Irish customer service address in hope that they could validate me where nobody else would. Then I waited. A day, two days, a week... I had visions of everybody in the customer services office having a laugh riot at the implication that a cola flavoured Yop ever existed. So, I pretty much gave up on the idea of ever being able to prove myself right. It was over. Or was it? Yesterday, I opened my hotmail and surprisingly, there was an e-mail from one Eve O’Leary. No prizes for guessing what she said, all that matters is that yes, they did exist and no, I amn’t losing my mind. Yet. Validation achieved, and here’s the screencap to prove it!

What I find interesting is of course the mention that it may be reconsidered as a flavour at some stage. Naturally you’d take a comment like that with a pinch of salt, but my nostalgic, ignorant inner child really does hope it happens. If they did, I’d at least know if my memory’s in full working order and I still do actually remember what they taste like. Back then at the age of four-ish, anything cola flavoured was considered a treat so naturally I only got to taste two or three of these pan dairy-mineral delights before they were banned altogether. Nonetheless, the flavour has, for some odd reason, stuck with me. Well, what I think it tasted like has.

So, I’d like to say a big thank you to Eve O’Leary at Glanbia for taking the time to respond to my odd enquiry. Not only has she validated my sanity, but she’s proven all of the doubters wrong. All that’s left now is to kick start a petition to return cola flavoured Yops to our shelves and my work here will be done!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Rebecca's Tuxedo Cookies

One of the many things Rebecca, my wonderful girlfriend, is good at is baking. Particularly cookies; I discovered this one evening upon arriving home from a bad day in work to a plate of wholesome, chocolate chip delights were waiting for me. Yes, they were made from a dough that both of us had mixed up a couple of nights beforehand, but her way of forming them produced a much more satisfying, thick cookie.

Back then, white chocolate and raspberries had been the key ingredients but I wasn’t entirely happy enough with the end result to post it up on the blog. No offence to the excellent cookies Rebecca made, I’m just a perfectionist. If the first batch of any recipe I take on doesn’t go well then I pretty much forget writing anything until the next bout. Roll on a couple of months and we tried again, only this time with more successful and ‘interesting’ results. The difference? I’d been told by Marion a while previous about a style of cheesecake called the Tuxedo; dark and white chocolate flavour as the name implies. I thought to myself: ‘surely this approach can be applied to cookies, right?’ In hope of not infringing any copyright I might not be aware of, I’m pleased to tell you that in can! So, perfected with a big help from her lovely self, I present to you Rebecca’s (and slightly my own) Tuxedo cookies.

The dough recipe is adapted from one I found at the start of the year on Refined Palate. You can follow the original here.

Makes 24-30 cookies

410g self-raising flour
125g cream flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp sodium bicarbonate
2 tbs cocoa powder
250g sugar
250g brown sugar
440g soft butter
2 eggs
1 tbs vanilla essence
2 large bars of white chocolate
2 large bars of plain, dark chocolate

In a medium sized bowl, mix the self-raising flour, cream flour, baking power and sodium bicarbonate. Set aside. In a separate, larger bowl, add the sugar, brown sugar and butter. Stir and scrape the sides of the bowl until you achieve a smooth mixture with no lumps of butter left wanting. Now add the eggs and vanilla essence, stirring until they are well combined and the mixture is again smooth. Begin to add the flour, but not all at once; this will make things very difficult and messy. Instead, add a small amount at a time whilst stirring constantly.

Once you have fully combined the flour and achieved acceptable levels of doughvinity, separate half of the mixture into the bowl that previously held the flour. Add the cocoa powder to one of the mixture halves and stir until properly combined. Grease a sheet of greaseproof paper and line a baking tray with it, then preheat the oven to 190º c. Take the white and dark chocolate bars and break them into small chunks, just large enough to make sizeable chocolate chips in the finished cookies (think everyone’s favourite, M&S sized!). Set aside.

Now comes the fun part: take a piece of dough roughly the same size as the ball of your thumb (a little bigger won’t hurt!) from either bowl and stick them together. Remember that wetting your fingers in water before you handle the dough is a time-saver, as otherwise it will stick and become difficult to work with. Gently push the cocoa dough around the other, with the aim being to make a swirling pattern or to at least end up with cookies that are a little more interesting than half brown, half white discs. Pat the combined dough balls into a roughly spherical shape (I find the best way to do this is just to toss them back and forth between your hands, as per Rebecca’s teaching) and place on the baking tray in sets of no more than six at a time. Push each one down ever so slightly so that each one sticks to its spot, but not so much that you flatten them entirely. The higher they sit on the tray, the thicker they will be and thick, wholesome cookies are what we aim for! As for diameter, I find that if the dough on the tray is roughly one and a half to two inches across then you're going to end up with a good three to four inch in diamater cookie. The good thing here is that you've plenty of dough to experiment with, so find the size that's correct for you and nobody else. Just remember, the secret is to not flatten them.

You may notice that I never mentioned to add the chocolate chunks as per usual when mixing the dough. Personally, I find it much handier to add them as the final step before baking since this will allow you to decide exactly how they’re dispersed. Mixing them in can be a little hit and miss by comparison, unless you use excessive amounts of chocolate to compensate. So, simply take as many chunks as you like and gently press them into each individual cookie. My personal twist on this recipe is to keep the dark chocolate in the cocoa half of the cookie and mirror this with the white chocolate, but Rebecca does the opposite by placing the dark chocolate in the white dough. It really depends on preference, but I find that separating either set of chunks into their matching dough gives a more defined difference between either half. It’s all horses and courses at the end of the day, so do exactly as you wish!

Place the now chunked up cookies into the oven and bake for between eight to ten minutes. Remove once the white dough halves begin to brown slightly and place on a wire rack to cool for at least twenty minutes. Rinse and repeat until you have an entire batch. Use it to wow your friends, make new ones or just enjoy on your own with a big glass of milk!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Meeting Extreme Pizza's Philip Martin

A few weeks ago, Rebecca and myself had lunch in Rathmines’ newest restaurant, Extreme Pizza. Any of you who are following Consumed will remember that I was excited about finally trying out the menu I’d read so much about prior, but ultimately left disappointed with what had been served up. There’s no need to elaborate, the pizza we ate on that day just didn’t live up to our expectations. I wrote up a review summing up as much, and that was effective the end of that for all intents and purposes.

Unbeknownst to myself, it would take Philip Martin – owner of Extreme Pizza and effective master of the franchise on this side of the Atlantic – only a couple of days to come across my review and get in touch with me regarding it. How he did so is still a mystery to me, but there’s a big online campaign behind this particular restaurant (with Philip himself at the helm) so it may well have been brought to his attention through Extreme Pizza’s growing fan base. Regardless, he not only took any criticisms I had on board but was also kind enough to invite me for a chat about the food itself, to see where I thought the problem lay. A week or so later and there I was, back in Extreme Pizza much earlier than I’d intended to be!

And on that small note, let me give you a little insight into my philosophy on bad dining experiences. We all have them, whether or not it’s to do with service, the restaurant itself or a simple matter of the food on offer not appealing to your tastes. They happen, and in many cases we all immediately decide never go back to X, Y or Z eatery again after only a handful of hiccups on their part. Personally, I think this attitude is a terrible one to take when it comes to dining out. It’s important to remember that most restaurants are extremely dynamic places; service, atmosphere and the food are almost never the same on any given day or at any given hour and what you eat is, of course, a mere fraction of the entire menu. If you thought one single item from said menu was sub-par, it’s entirely reasonable to imagine that it may just have been an off day where the cook and that particular dish are concerned. We are, after all, only human and this applies to everybody who is working an ever worked in a restaurant. To expect comparatively consistent perfection – even proportionately – is a fool’s errand. To complain with conviction when you don't get it is even worse. Instead, expect the best that can be done and, as you should do in general throughout life, throw in a bit of empathy for good measure. In a nutshell, don’t rule out giving restaurants a second chance if one or two things go wrong! I never do, and Extreme Pizza was no exception to this. The only difference here was that instead of going of my own volition, Philip was inviting me back personally.

Of course, I wasn’t visiting for a meal this time. No, what had been arranged instead was a sampling plate of select ingredients from the pizzas Rebecca and I had ordered the last time and a half n’ half pizza from the menu. Philip and myself talked about food and the business, I tried the ingredients and gave what I thought was the advice best suited to the problems I’d experienced with the previous two pizzas. The main issue beforehand had been the thickness of the base which ended up dominating the pizza, however this time around I was introduced to Extreme Pizza’s wholemeal base; more flavoursome yet considerably thinner without pushing into Neapolitan thickness territory. It yielded space for the flavours of the pizza toppings themselves to shine, and altogether worked far better than the plain version we’d eaten the last time.

As for the ingredient platter, it raised more questions for me about how the cooking process affected good tasting, fresh ingredients. Philip takes pride in how he sources those that go into his pizzas, with a meticulous selection process going into each one. He sources the salami himself, with two varieties currently on offer. The tomato sauce used in some of the pizza recipes tasted fantastic, and I pointed out that Rebecca’s pizza had suffered from a lack of it. Other customers had done the same, but Philip puts this down to a matter of taste at the end of the day; some like more sauce, some don’t. I’d still say that more could definitely be used, if only in tandem with the normal base.

What was also brought to my attention that hadn’t been during our last visit was Philip’s enthusiasm for micro breweries; small beer and ale producing companies a that, in general, create a much more refined drink than what you’d get from the bigger multi-nationals. They feature heavily on Extreme Pizza’s chalk board, with Curim in particular standing out as one I recognised. It’s great to see serious, positive backing to local companies like this, especially from restaurants that you wouldn’t normally expect to provide it! Unfortunately I wasn’t able to push my luck enough to get a sample, but when I do go back I most definitely will.

Yes, if I hadn’t already made it clear then let me make it even clearer: I will indeed soon be returning to Extreme Pizza for another meal. Under normal circumstances I’d definitely have been a little slower to, but here we have a restaurant that’s run by somebody with a genuine passion for what he does; enough to see my and Rebecca’s negative dining experience not an irreversible disaster, but rather an opportunity to make amends and show off what he can offer instead. That alone is reason enough to bump it up into second chance salon, never mind that what I tried when meeting him tasted much better! Even if, somehow, the food still then isn’t my cup of tea for round two, I still have great respect for what Philip showed me in how he approaches running a restaurant. Any up and coming catering enthusiasts would be hard pressed to find a better role model. And if you happen to be just plain interested in a chat about pizza, he’s got you covered there too!

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Counter

Working full time in Xtravision is not exactly what you’d call difficult. Thorough, yes but hard it most certainly ‘aint. Then again, I’d like to bust the myth that all we do is sit around and watch movies when nobody’s visiting during the day; they’re lies, and you’ll be very disappointed if you aim to build a nonchalant career based on them (especially once the local skangers pay you a visit!) No, there’s always something to do in one of Ireland’s favourite DVD rental stores if you look for it. This counts doubly so in my store, thanks to a set of… we’ll say, ‘circumstances’, I amn’t about to go into right now. What is difficult about working full time in Xtravision is managing your life around the late – sometimes very late – hours that are demanded. On a good day, I finish at seven. A bad day it’s ten. And I’m lucky not to work in a shop open until eleven on weekends! Of course, this means you get home with only an hour until midnight, which in my case means either cooking will go on deep into the night and restaurants are completely out of the question. Well, unless you have no qualms living on a wash, rinse and repeat of chipper, Indian and Chinese that is. It also affects the times I go to bed, because I hate for my day to end immediately after work. Most of my blog posts are actually at in and around two/three o’clock in the morning, for the unobservant of you who haven’t already noticed! So being glued to a computer at this hour naturally means a swath of late night internet browsing is bound to happen. I’ve seen some incredible things and some truly horrendous things during those types of sessions, but whilst searching for food reviews last week I came across something completely different altogether: the Counter.

Vague name aside, the Counter is what you might call a complete and total burger extravaganza. You’ll gather as much by simply clicking on the link to their website I’ve added below and watching the animated intro. …Bearing in mind that I was ordering you there, not suggesting.

Have you done it yet?


Here are some of the sounds you would’ve heard coming from Rebecca and I when we first watched it ourselves: ‘ooooh!’, ‘good GOD’ ‘oh wow…’, ‘yes, that one. That’s the one, right there’, and so on. I find it difficult to imagine you wouldn’t understand, unless you’re vegetarian. If that is the case then I recommend you stop right now; it isn’t going to get any less meaty hereon.

What defines the Counter from normal burger restaurants is, as you might have guessed, that they serve gourmet burgers. But that isn’t all! Separating this Dundrum eatery even further from most others of its kind is a menu heavily geared towards a completely customisable dining experience. Here’s how it works: you enter, are greeted with a smile, ushered into the bare-bones, eggshell blue restaurant floor and shown to your table. In front of you they’ll place a paper menu filled with various burger ingredients and ticking boxes next to each one. Add a pencil and you’re ready to go! You can chose from over sixty options that the Counter boldly claim will yield a total of 312,120 different burger combinations. Almost everything is up to you; cheese, burger weight and type, bun, sauce and toppings all must be decided before the menu leaves your table. It’s a fantastic hook that gets everybody talking and, without mincing words, is just good fun!

The customisable menu apart, there’s a set selection of house burgers (all of which are made and cooked fresh, never frozen), sides and sandwiches available with a kids menu thrown in for good measure. A good choice of malt shakes can also be found, which – if I’m going to be honest – was partly the reason I was drawn in so quickly. The menu is reasonably priced on a whole, though a few of the sides like crispy fried onion strings will make you wince at €6.25 a serving.

When Rebecca and I arrived it was Saturday, mid-afternoon. In a ‘trendy’ restaurant like the Counter, slap bang next to the armies of Ugg wearing ladies and scarf wrapped male (a half truth perhaps?) shoppers of Dundrum town centre, you’d expect the bank holiday weekend buzz to have affected the level of service you might have gotten during off-peak hours at least a little bit. The reality was nothing of the sort; everybody involved was incredibly helpful and enthusiastic, explaining each facet of the menu and making recommendations wherever possible. I especially appreciated the pointers in ordering side dishes, where I was guided to the option that lets you try everything as opposed to ordering overly large portions that’d leave you unable to finish.

Ultimately I opted for a 1/3 lb beef patty in a normal bun with sharp provolone, roasted sweep peppers, beetroot, dill pickle, sun dried tomatoes and a spicy sour cream sauce. Half the fun of it was actually trying to figure out what flavour combinations will end up working, and unfortunately for me the above choice turned out to be a bit of a hit and miss affair. Not to fault the ingredients, I just chose too many strong tasting ones. Particularly the provolone, which was had an almost feta-esque tang. Altogether it was quite a powerfully flavoured burger, meaning I missed out on a lot of the actual flavour of the meat. Such is the hazard of putting the creative meal options largely in the eater’s hands though, it makes you wonder if the staff have any stories about horrendously combined orders.

Rebecca’s burger meanwhile featured an English muffin, Cashel blue cheese, black olives, lettuce, honey cured bacon, sun dried tomatoes and a garlic mayonnaise. It also tasted a damn sight better than mine with the cheese and bacon really combining well! The English muffin wasn’t as sweet as either of us had expected, but it didn’t offend in place of a traditional bun. As for the meat, in either case was fairly coarse but ever so slightly dry; franchise rules – unfortunately – require that all of the Counter’s burgers be cooked well done, so you’ll never quite get the juiciness of a medium burger.

We shared a three-way order of normal and sweet potato fries with the addition of crispy fried onion strings. To top it off, we had two malt shakes; one vanilla and the other apple pie.

Albeit cooked from frozen, the fries did the job required of them and were nicely seasoned. Sweet potato chips are one of the foods that get my inner child all giddy and when done correctly they’re an incredible side dish. Sadly, what the Counter served up pales in comparison to those available elsewhere in Dublin; crispy with only a sliver of actual potato to be found inside does not equal a nice, big and meaty chip. Rebecca meanwhile loved the crispy fried onion strings, which were essentially very thin onion rings with none of the ring involved. The malts on the other hand, well they completely stole the show.

Vanilla was as described, but I couldn’t get over my apple pie version. It actually had chunks of real apple and pie crust in there which made it an absolute delight to drink my way through. Well, whatever Rebecca didn’t manage to steal. The only problem is that either malt cost a whopping €5.25, which is a whole two euro more than what you might pay for a larger helping in Eddie Rocket’s.

To finish, we shared a very sweet key lime pie that came with a generous serving of ice cream. And when I say very sweet, I mean to the closest you can possibly get to cloying without actually being so. As with the Gourmet Burger Company, it wasn’t the desserts we had visited to try so this wasn’t the biggest of issues. Especially given how full both of us were! In total, we paid just over forty euro for everything; fifty including tip for the great service.

The Counter isn’t the height of Gourmet Burger perfection; you can’t choose a cooking temperature and the sides are nothing out of the ordinary. Where they deal in sandwiches as an extra menu item, the Gourmet Burger Company dishes out wild boar. Similarly, Jo’Burger of Rathmines will blow your socks off with their own version of sweet potato fries. What the Counter is, conversely, is an extremely fun dining experience with a great selection of ingredients both familiar and not so familiar. Their menu is innovative, and I haven’t yet quite seen anything like it in Dublin. In most cases, you get more than what you pay for barring one or two unreasonably priced items and the service is absolutely top notch. In a nutshell, it’s the kind of place I’d visit regularly if it weren’t on practically the other side of Dublin. Or closed when I normally finish work.

The Counter
Dundrum Town Centre,
Pembroke District,
Dublin 16
Tph: 01-2164929

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Corks Café and Wine Bar

Wine bars are something of a little pet fear of mine. Just a tiny one. I see them, look at their menus, might be very interested in what they’re actually serving but ultimately hesitate to step through the door if I do actually decide I want to go in. The reason behind this is, of course, that I still amn’t the world’s biggest fan of wine. When I do order it, Rebecca tends to come home with me on the wrong side of tipsy (she’s very much dedicated to the cause!). As such, plenty of questions dog me as I think about having food in a wine bar: will I have to drink any; will I be frowned upon if I don’t? And given I’d probably intend to write about what I’m eating, is there as much of a point in doing so if I’m missing out on a large part of the philosophy at hand: flavour pairing what is cooked with carefully selected wines?

When I do decide to eat in one, I normally end up ordering a single glass either in hope that I have some kind of epiphany and walk out a born again wine lover, or simply to just feel like I belong. Then of course I have to drink something I don’t necessarily like, and it all goes downhill from there. Thankfully, I amn’t put in that kind of position very often unless I do it to myself. Invites will happen though and, as you might have guessed, last weekend was one such instance. The location: Ashbourne; the company: my two good friends Áine and Jess, plus Rebecca. The restaurant: Corks Café and Wine Bar.

A good half a year ago, Áine gushed to me about the fantastic cheese and wine she and our mutual friend Katrina had been served in Corks, which was subsequently pointed out to me on a walk during the summer. The ‘wine bar’ affixed to the end of its name, combined with the fact that I hadn’t started writing about food was immediately enough to make me forget about it. Roll on the best part of a year and we had a choice between Corks, two unnamed Indians and a Chinese. There was only going to be one winner, even if I was ever so slightly apprehensive. I mean who could blame me? My last hesitant wine bar expedition had ended with me looking at the menu not knowing how the food should be ordered, if ordered at all! At the end of the day I got away with some miniature crostinis and a bowl of very al dente pasta, but it never at any stage felt like I knew how things were meant work, or that the staff knew that it was food I was after.

Of course, that was then and this was now. Thankfully, Corks put us in the hands of David and Lisa Sheir who have gone to great lengths in crafting a restaurant that appeals to all castes. It hits much closer to home, barely suggesting (at least to me anyway) it had anything to do with wine beyond its title! Yes, the walls behind the bar counter were lined to the ceiling with bottles of red, white and everything in-between, but never did I get the feeling that our lack of corkage was being scrutinised. Rather, the whole restaurant oozes a very relaxed and casual atmosphere, with the emphasis definitely leaning more in the direction of local chef John Moore’s food once you get in and sit down. A quick glance at the menu will reaffirm this; it’s chock full of various options and extremely well balanced to cater for different meals and wine pairing without straying too far from your traditional menu setup. To summarise the whole thing’d require a dedicated paragraph in itself, so instead let me take a moment to sound like a Corks representative and say that you’re covered for breakfast, lunch and dinner with a great range of salads available, two good value set price deals (ten euro for lunch, twenty-five for dinner) and a couple of kids menus to boot. Phew! The restaurant’s website describes the food as European, but there was definitely more of a world feel to it with quesadillas, an oriental stir fry and nachos all jumping out at you. On paper, it hits both the foodie and wine lover mark with options aplenty regardless of what you’re getting.

Áine, Rebecca and myself all went for the twenty-five euro set menu option with two quesadillas and one soup for the starters, bangers and mash for myself and Áine whilst Rebecca chose the pot pie of the day in mains country.

Jess stuck with the soup on its own, which it has to be said was a good choice since it ended up being the overall star of the show; creamy, just right in thickness and full of all the flavours – tomato, apple and goats cheese – described. All too often soup can end up being a bit of a disappointment where what you get is a thin, watery liquid instead of the thick and wholesome broth you were expecting. They didn’t hold back with the serving either with a massive bowl and two hunks of soda bread on the side!

My and Rebecca’s quesadillas in the meantime were a little plain, the individual ingredients tasting fine but the overall combination lacking much bang. In keeping with the large portion trend, the mains didn’t let up: Lincolnshire sausage and mash with onion gravy challenges you to eat three whole spicy bangers, yet alone the potato underneath.

They came presented simply as described with a handful of rocket on top. If I had one criticism, it’d be that a little more gravy wouldn’t go amiss but beyond that it was a perfectly wholesome dish. The sausages in particular got Rebecca’s approval, who isn’t quite from Lincolnshire but it was about the closest we could manage on the night! On her side of the table it was a lamb and mint pot pie, served with vegetables and a parsley butter.

While the pie filling itself was as expected and the vegetables delicious, I take issue – as I always have – with the trend of flaky puff pastry blimps that are placed on top for a quick fix in dishes like this. Not only are they a tiny bit of a cheat, they’re messy and make eating the dish a mastery of control over successfully breaking the pastry into bite-size pieces. Puff pastry also has a tendency to absorb any of the pie gravy, meaning that it all ends up a bit of a gloopy mess if you break the pastry itself down into the dish. And I say if, the reality is that this is exactly what you have to do. In truth, I’ve yet to be served a pot pie in a modern restaurant without one of these blimps on top; often I don’t order one in fear that this is exactly what’ll be served. A home-made, baked on crust surely hasn’t become that much of a task already, has it? This is all it would take to turn Corks pot pie from being an alright dish into a good dish.

Desserts featured the usual cheesecake and apple pie for Rebecca and Áine, both of which were delicious. I chose the fruit plate fondue, which was a selection of diced strawberries, apple and grapes with a sumptuous dark chocolate dip.

The proportion of apple to everything else may have been a little off, but it was a simple and pleasant dessert that would’ve been perfect for sharing if I wasn’t so greedy! A free house wine or beer to accompany the food and easygoing service rounded off an altogether enjoyable meal.

(Thereafter the food kept on flowing into the night, with tasty fruit crumbles at a party we spontaneously ended up in and Áine’s rich, delicious cheesecake in the wee hours afterwards!)

It’s easy to see why this little restaurant is popular with the Ashbourne locals and, for the soup alone, I’d definitely return. As for the wine lovers amongst you, I’m sorry I couldn’t cover more of that side of things! But given the smart and thoughtful menu, it’d be pretty safe to say that as much care has gone into the wine list. If that doesn’t grab your attention, then Corks also offers a subscription wine club that details offers, wine tasting evenings and even the chance to win a monthly competition. At the end of the day, Corks did a lot to dispel my fears about wine bars and what’ll happen to me if I eat in them. I don’t think I’ll ever look at one with complete confidence, but certainly a good bit more after being shown that you can get through a meal that they serve to you without feeling any pressure to order a bottle of the vino.

Corks Café and Wine Bar
1 Hunter’s Court,
Co. Meath

Tph: 01-8353396