I can’t lie: it’s many years since I’ve been to Dublin. So long, in fact, that I was last there with my parents, staying in a b&b in Rathmines, where the tight-fisted landlady only toasted the bread on one side. Back then, Bewley’s, crooking its dowager-like pinkie on Grafton Street, was the very height of sophistication. Things have changed. A lot.
Everywhere we turn there’s a new café, food store or restaurant. The VAT on food is low in Ireland, and canny operators are taking full advantage. You’re almost afraid to turn your back unless a gourmet burger joint springs up behind you. My favourite is Bunsen Burgers in foodie Wexford Street; the thick patties in pillowy buns are genuinely some of the finest I’ve had, rosy juices from the Black Aberdeen chopped steak dribbling down my chin.
Here, as elsewhere, fine dining is making way for something less starchy. There’s more trend checklist ticking of the Nordic kind at Forest Avenue: chefs John and Sandy Wyer are the most thrilling thing to hit Ballsbridge since, well, forever – it’s almost impossible to get a table. The seasonal menus deliver food as pleasing to the eye as to the palate: charred leeks with truffle and scallop; beef tartare with freshly-grated horseradish.
There’s also been a flurry of activity from Ireland’s celebrity chefs: the bullish Oliver Dunne’s Cleaver East and Fade Street Social from Dylan McGrath. The latter is a sprawling gastropolis of cocktail bar, tapas joint, roof terrace and restaurant proper. I like the buzzy downstairs best, where young Irish chefs play at being Japanese itamae, and small plates come thick and fast: riffs on luxury ingredients married with comfort food (think lobster hot dogs, charred venison sausages or weeny fried crab sandwiches). This is where Dubliners come to show off.
I really like Super Miss Sue, from the same stable as Dillinger’s and The Butcher Grill: one half old-school ‘chipper’ where the stonking ‘Cervi’ chips – after Giuseppe Cervi, the Italian godfather of Dublin fryers – are golden and crisp; the other half swish, Campari-bottle-lined seafood restaurant: heaving shellfish platters, crisp little crab croquettes, or a whole, smoky mackerel served with sea herbs.
You don’t need me to tell you there are pubs in Dublin. Wonderful pubs – and this from someone who can normally live without them. Untouched by time, harbouring the ghosts of writers and a million cigarettes, they’re living history. We drink Guinness and Murphy’s in nicotine-stained rooms, marvelling at the etched glass, wood panelling – and even, in the case of The Swan, the ancient mahogany cash desk behind the bar. Our favourites? The original Mulligan’s, Kehoe’s, Grogan’s, Neary’s; and shabby little Fallon’s (with reputedly the capital’s best Guinness) in the antiques district round Francis Street. I’m delighted they still regard the toastie as a culinary specialty.
For a brand new slant on the historic booze haunt, the Peruke & Periwig behind St Stephen’s Green is a fabulously atmospheric recreation of a Georgian drinking den, with a menu that’s defiantly 21st century: shoestring fries and sticky pork ribs. These totems to a drink-soaked literary past feed my loathing of the tacky likes of O’Neill’s.
Ireland hasn’t yet fully embraced the gastropub movement. The closest approximation is in the magnificently- named northern suburb of Stoneybatter, where L Mulligan, Grocer serves up heaving platefuls of proper Irish grub to tables of boisterous fans: seafood from Howth, the notorious ‘porketarian’ board laden with apple and pork rillettes, black pudding croquettes, bacon jam and piccalilli. There are huge buckets of mussels and even a chicken Kiev: chichi it most certainly isn’t, but it’s a blast.
For modernity, we look to café society: Brother Hubbard, with its award-winning pulled pork sandwiches the size of small babies. Or my favourite, The Fumbally, unpromisingly located in an ugly block of flats away from the centre of town. Inside, it’s like a sprawling mash-up of souk, farmers’ market and street-food festival, the city’s cool youth beavering away behind the open kitchen to dish out Mediterranean and Middle Eastern-spiced delights. Damn fine coffee, too.
But the new Dublin wave doesn’t exclude seekers of something a bit upmarket: if you hanker for posh, head immediately for The Greenhouse. I’m not usually a fan of haute cuisine, but this is a warm, glamorous restaurant, ably served by Finnish chef Mickael Viljanen. I would happily go back for his creative amuse-bouches and petit fours alone, but that would do a disservice to the skill that goes into his dishes: almost caramelised, pearly turbot served with the greenest greens; luxury exuding from a fat, pink langoustine, Iberico ham and a faint, sexy hint of coconut; scallop, truffle, confit egg yolk and beurre Nantais (above, left). Irish produce with Finnish sensibilities? To coin a Dublin superlative: ‘Savage!’
By way of exercise (ahem), we take a foodie tour – the kind of thing that brings me out in hives. But headed up by knowledgeable Eveleen Coyle, it’s a great way to find goodies that simply wouldn’t have occurred to me – like slurping oysters at the little food market at Temple Bar. I was swerving this area, its pub-lined streets now the preserve of stag nights and backpackers all searching for the bloody craic, but this is a small treasure. Then Eveleen takes us to Sheridan’s – a blissfully reeking store and temple for turophiles; the oozing beauty of a washed-rind ardrahan is still haunting me.
Beneath the new Little Museum of Dublin, there’s Hatch & Sons, a ‘traditional Irish kitchen’ where you can have beef-and-Guinness stew, smoked salmon from The Burren, or any number of gorgeous cakes and scones, brownies and crumbles. Not forgetting the traditional Wexford blaa – a fluffy white roll stuffed with Irish cheese or spiced beef. This is a beautiful space for celebrating Irish produce a classic Dublin Georgian house.
Sure, Bewley’s still there – all fur coat, no knickers – but just behind it, the streets now throb with foodie excitement: glorious food stores such as Fallon & Byrne with its cool upstairs brasserie; funky chicken joints like Crackbird. The culinary scene is unrecognisable – and a gazillion times better. Dublin, I’m sorry it’s been so long.
Written by Marina O’Loughlin
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