Tuesday, August 17, 2010

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

Now I know what you’re thinking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tph: 01-4420013


Sunday, August 8, 2010

Black Food Colouring

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

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

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

Makes approximately one 25ml bottle of food colouring

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

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

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

Monday, August 2, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hanover Quay,
Grand Canal Dock,
Dublin 2

Tph: 01-6753875