girl eats dublin

Enthusiastically eating my way around Dublin and beyond.

Month: December, 2012

Damson Diner & Fade Street Social.

So busy was I eating out and socialising in the weeks leading up to Christmas, that I had no time to write about it. This included a weekend of fantastic food in Galway (Girl Eats Galway?) which will get its own post in the next few days; another lovely lunch in the Whitefriar Grill; brunch in Peperina Garden Bistro in Ranelagh (which I’ll also post about soon); and many, many festive drinks in Dublin’s fine pubs. Ah, the Christmas.

But first, as I enjoy a few days’ Christmas break, with top button undone and the last of the Roses rattling in the tin beside me, it’s time for a belated look at two Christmas lunches in two relatively new Dublin hotspots – Damson Diner and Fade Street Social, both of which had been on my must-visit list for a while.

Strawberry Blonde at the Damson Diner (photo credit: Damson Diner on Facebook)

Strawberry Blonde at the Damson Diner (photo credit: Damson Diner on Facebook)

We hit up Damson Diner as a walk-in lunch on the Friday before Christmas, having been first turned away by its sister (or should that be Mother) restaurant, Coppinger Row. Surprisingly, Coppinger Row didn’t suggest that we visit Damson Diner, which I thought was a missed trick as when we got there, DD was half empty at 3 in the afternoon. They squeezed our party of four into a tiny four-top table on the ground floor, which still feels very much in the style of the South William (no bad thing) in its decor and layout. With winter coats and bags of Christmas shopping, we were a bit stuck for space, but the high stools and being able to look straight over the counter into the kitchen were fun. In the festive mood, we ordered cocktails – the Strawberry Blonde (muddled basil, elderflower liqueur, sweetened balsamic and topped with prosecco) was a perfect start to the afternoon. We followed this with a bottle of prosecco, about which I’ll say nothing more than “it was a great idea at the time.” Ahem.

Food-wise, between four of us we tried the Chinatown Chicken Wings (€9.50), Chili con Carne (€13.50), Philly Cheese Steak, and my highlight, the courgette fries (€3.50). So good we ordered seconds.

The Philly Cheese Steak was the other memorable dish – two authentic and delicious cheese steak sandwiches served in a pleasingly retro plastic basket. My Bangkok Chicken Salad tasted way too strongly of what I initally thought was wasabi, but then identified as daikon. It’s normally a taste I love, but it was overpowering here in the vast quantity of dressing vs the amount of leaves. However, the waitress was quick to sort me out with a bowl of fresh salad leaves from the chef which I added to the dish to scale down the taste of the dressing. The chicken was delicious and well-marinaded in (I think) tamarind, and there was plenty of it for the €12.50 price tag.

The food is kind of secondary to the cocktails and general buzz here, but it’s a great affordable option for a fun bite to eat with a few drinks to start off a night out. Nice one, Damson Diner.

The day after (nursing a whopper of a hangover – turns out prosecco followed by Grogan’s finest Guinness don’t mix), it was time to make my first visit to Fade Street Social. After months of failed contact between myself and the management of Fade Street/Rustic Stone, I had finally managed to get a booking for the dinner for two that I’d won in their Masterchef Twitter competition many moons ago.

Based on its’ celebrity status, some mixed reports from friends and my vain attempts to get a reservation on a few occasions, I was prepared to hate it.

I flipping loved it.

We sat in the Gastro Bar, which is on the ground level with one side looking out onto Fade St., and the other half facing into the kitchen area and the larger restaurant beyond. Packed with other Christmas lunching groups, the buzz was brilliant and our anticipation was piqued straight away. We were what I can only describe as “briefed” very efficiently by our server, who straight away explained that the food is served tapas-style and so it would arrive as it was cooked, and that three to four dishes was what she’d recommend for us. This was something I’d heard people gripe about – grumbles of “small portions” and “expensive for what you get” etc.

Well, having tried it now, to these folks I say “WTF? Were you actually there?” as (quite apart from the fact that most people should know that “tapas-style” indicates small tasting portions), there was nothing small about the portions here, and to get to sample this standard of cooking and creativity for between €7 and €13 per plate to me is actually amazing value. The whole soft-shell crab, crisply fried and served with miso mayonnaise, crab and lemongrass dipping sauce, could be the best €10 you can spend on a dish in Dublin today.

Clockwise from top left: Doughnuts, Baby Banoffi, special fries and soft-shell crab at Fade Street Social.

Clockwise from top left: Doughnuts, Baby Banoffi, special fries and soft-shell crab at Fade Street Social.

The seared tuna loin for €9 was spectacular, the Floured Crispy Chiffon Squid (€5.50) chased away my lingering sore head entirely, and the Chinese Pork Belly (€9) put the previous day’s fare at the Damson Diner entirely into the shade (sorry DD). The “special chips” that were on the board that day deserve a permanent place on the menu – skinny fries covered in parmesan, bacon and red onion puree… Amazing.

I could go on – but check out the Steve Simpson-designed Gastro Bar menu for yourself and be challenged not to drool. Finally, I would – scratch that, will – go back for the Baby Banoffi dessert alone. Seven euro gets you a glass (see the pic above) containing layers of banana puree, “caramel jelly, condensed milk caramel with banana sorbet” topped with a seemingly gravity-defying biscuit crunch which seemed to be spun from pure sugar. I’m getting dizzy just thinking about the textures, temperatures and tastes it contained.

We washed this all down with a superb Marble Leaf 2011 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough Sauv Blanc, I’m so predictable), €39, feeling very lucky to be enjoying all this wonderful food, wine and experience with the added bonus of having no check to pay at the end.

I had to take my hung-over hat off to Dylan McGrath and team. It’s a big, brave venture, but if the crowds continue to flock towards Fade Street Social then it will hopefully be around for a long time to come.

Halfway through my meal, I was already thinking of all the occasions I want to go back there for. A group dinner in the gastro bar at one of the big open tables; cocktails with the girls out in the garden; maybe a romantic dinner for two upstairs in the main restaurant – it would work for all.

Go there and go often – although if you’re like me, once January’s over of course.

Damson Diner, South William Street, Dublin 2 http://www.facebook.com/damsondiner

Fade Street Social, Fade Street, Dublin 2 http://www.fadestreetsocial.com

Unicorn, Merrion Row.

unicorn

Photo credit: Unicorn website

One of my pet hates when eating out, is being forced into a set menu.

And what’s guaranteed to raise my hackles in such a situation, is when two dishes (of the limited range) on the set menu, are off the menu.

And, when said set menu, with no option to shorten to two courses, carries a price tag of €49 per head – well, then no amount of wine, or the dubious privilege of doing some D-list Irish celebrity spotting, is going to prevent my blood from boiling over.

Such was my experience at Dublin stalwart Unicorn on Merrion Row, last Friday night.

A group of six lovely ladies of varying vintage, including my Mum and I, were on a pre-Christmas night out which had been organised with great care by one of the group. We met in the Shelbourne for drinks, which although still clearly a pick-up joint for the over-40’s (hey, I may need it in a few years), is always a festive spot for a drink and a people-watch at this time of year. After a quick gin & tonic and a gossip, we chattered our way across the road and down the lane to the Unicorn.

I’ve been in the Unicorn quite a few times in the past, mostly for work-related lunches and dinners back in my advertising days, and remembered loving the buzzy atmosphere and the amazing antipasti lunch buffet. So I was looking forward to the chance to review an old favourite, rather than new, for the blog. A night out in Dublin with the Mammy was a nice novelty too.

It still feels like a special occasion when you enter the Unicorn. The bar in front, the buzz of conversation and clinking glasses and our white-clothed corner table with comfy sofas and a tall candelabra in the centre, all whetted our appetite for a top-class evening ahead. But, after saying only a couple of posts ago that I was unlikely to ever use this blog to have a pop at Dublin restaurants, unfortunately that didn’t altogether turn out to be the case.

Now, I’m no restaurateur, but I’m going to go out on a limb and advise that if you have a set starter menu consisting of four items, one of which is a soup, two of which are pasta-based, and the fourth of which is a delicious-sounding scallops & ham-hock dish, you might need to make sure you have enough of the flipping things to last you through a busy Friday night’s dinner service. None of us liked the sound of cauliflower soup; and carb-avoiders like myself were ruling out mushroom pastilla or tortelloni, so we were all ready to order scallops to start us off. Apologies, said our very jovial waiter, we’ve run out of scallops. Hot-smoked salmon, served cold, was our option instead. We felt a bit forced into it, even though it tasted good (albeit flavoured with a tinge of disgruntlement).

Moving onto the main courses, things were looking up. Roast loin of venison for a couple of us, and grilled medallions of beef for my Mum, were solid, stylishly presented dishes enjoyed by most of us who stole bites of them around the table. However, what was admittedly a lovely fresh piece of fish in my ‘Pan-fried cod with red pepper puree and wilted spinach’ main course, was spoiled by the fact that it was floating in a puddle of what, if I was feeling charitable, I’d call jus. But, as there’s no place for charity on a €49 set menu, I’ll call it what it was – which was essentially fishy water. This rendered the potato fondant underneath the piece of cod soggy, and pretty much inedible. I washed it down with a delicious glass of Nautilus Sauvignon Blanc, and buttoned my lip so as not to spoil our night by complaining.

Given there was no option not to have dessert (which I know sounds like a brilliant excuse to indulge), I felt I surely couldn’t miss by ordering tiramisu in a reputable Italian restaurant.

I was wrong.

In its’ favour, the tiramisu arrived attractively served in a kilner jar, looking creamy and with the right amount of layers within. But as we greedily dug in, expecting it to be a highlight of our meal, we found no discernable trace of any alcoholic ingredients whatsoever. My Mum, who is known for her particularly potent tiramisu, was sure she’d do a better job.

As a compensation for complaining about the earlier disappointment with the starter menu, and because one of the main course choices had also been declared off, one of the group was “allowed” to have a cheese board for dessert with no extra charge, and a very good selection of cheese, grapes and home-made biscotti was shared around the table. We were also sent an extra glass of wine at the end of the meal for those of us drinking white. Hmm, for a price tag of not much less than €100 a head with wine, we’d just have preferred if what we had wanted had been available in the first place.

So, a disappointing experience of the Unicorn, but thanks to the lovely company, an enjoyable night all in all. Well-heeled Dubliners will continue to flock here, as it’s a social scene in itself, but I think there’s much better value, food and fun to be found elsewhere these days.

Lunch at Thornton’s, St. Stephen’s Green.

petits fours

The old interweb is a magic thing, sometimes. In one evening a few weeks ago, while catching up on some work and watching Masterchef Ireland, just by keeping one eye on Twitter and posting a few tweets, I’d:

a) won dinner for two at Fade Street Social

and

b) made a date with a long-lost friend to reunite over a fancy lunch together at the Greenhouse, whose chef Mickael Viljanen was featured on the programme that same evening.

Well, we found that we weren’t the only ones with that bright idea, as the Greenhouse’s phone was inundated the next day, so they couldn’t give us a reservation for the only day that suited us. But by that stage, I’d booked my Friday off, and our plan was afoot, so we simply decided to find another fine-dining venue with an affordable lunchtime option. After a recommendation from a friend, Thornton’s was booked  – well, if you’re going posh, you might as well go Michelin-star posh.

I had a little thrill of excitement (sad, I’m fully aware) all that week as I looked forward to my indulgent Friday afternoon off. The chance to dress up just for lunch; a reunion, a gossip, a glass of wine or two while everyone else is at work…the ingredients of a dream afternoon.

When I arrived at Thornton’s, on the first floor of the Fitzwilliam Hotel, the first thing that struck me was the warmth. As my heels sank into the carpet, I was greeted by name, relieved of my coat and guided to my table, immediately feeling a sense of occasion as I looked around the dining room and out over a wintry St. Stephen’s Green. At 1.30 on a Friday, the restaurant was full, and when Dara arrived we excitedly surveyed the other tables, the room and the menu all at the same time, wondering who in Dublin these days can afford to do this on a regular basis.

In the spacious room, I was taken by the position of the seats at the tables. Even though the round tables (which can probably seat from two to four people) are set quite far apart from each other, the chairs at each are positioned so that you’re always sitting slightly at an angle to the diners at the tables nearby. So the overall effect is that we were all part of one big lunch group, giving a cosy feeling while maintaining each table’s privacy. I loved it.

Right after we’d ordered from the lunch menu (three starters, three mains, three dessert options), we were presented with an amuse-bouche of brill. This was a tiny, crisp ball of delicious white fish sitting atop what I’ll slightly ignorantly describe as “some class of foam” – I didn’t catch our lovely French server’s description. This led perfectly into our chosen starter of scallops with truffle foam, two beautiful meaty scallops surrounded by a yellow foam and two flakes of truffle.

Scallops with truffle foam.

Hovering between the three main course options on offer, I eventually chose venison with potato fondant, chanterelles and Valrhona chocolate sauce. It would be easy to gently mock, as we did when our mains first arrived to the table, the size of the portions, but this would miss the fact that this is food ultimately filling to the senses, if not the hungriest of bellies. Beautifully medium-rare, the venison was drizzled with the bitter chocolate sauce (or more precisely, gravy – but who would eat chocolate gravy), surrounded by tiny chanterelle mushrooms, with a miniature stack of fondant potato sitting nearby on the plate. Exactly the sort of dish that you might pay a fortune for in equivalent surroundings at a later time of day, and we relished every bite.

After passing on dessert (two courses is €35, with dessert bringing the price per person up to €45), when our coffees arrived we decided we needed something sweet to go with them, so we ordered some petits fours.

The little tray that subsequently arrived represented for me, the best value of the day – five perfectly crafted miniature desserts added only €4 extra to the bill. I could have sworn I saw our waitress hiding a giggle at us trying to hack a teeny-weeny raspberry tart in two with a dessert knife as we attempted to divide them up equitably…

For two set lunches, with the addition of two coffees; a single glass of a fantastic Ribera del Duero (€12); and the petits fours, our bill came to €94 for this slice of Michelin-worthy Irish cooking.

No doubt, this is how the other half live, and I’m sure it will be a while before I can afford to return to Thornton’s for dinner. But Thornton’s seems to appreciate and respect that for most of its customers these days, a visit here probably does represent a special treat. The atmosphere is formal, yet warm – it feels like a special occasion, but you don’t feel guilty if you laugh out loud, and the staff strike the perfect balance of being attentive and available, appearing to smoothly top up our water or dust crumbs from the pristine white tablecloth, and then blending into the background.

As we sat finishing our coffee, we couldn’t help but be delighted when Kevin Thornton, having spent time chatting to two besuited business types in the corner, came over to our table, introduced himself and chatted with us for a few minutes about our lunch and our plans for the rest of the afternon. We were impressed to see him do the same with most of the other tables, too.

Thornton’s are now into their Christmas season, where the set lunch price rises to €47. Book it for a special occasion if you have one, or wait ’til the New Year and invent one – they’re the best kind.

Thornton’s Restaurant, 1st Floor, The Fitzwilliam Hotel, 128 St. Stephen’s Green. +353-1-4787008