I tend to approach new restaurants in the same way I do new music. Too much hype brings out my inner snob, leading to me avoiding said place like the plague until the buzz has blown over and a recommendation from an actual friend draws me to cautiously try it out. Sometimes I’m converted, other times I get to revert to smug muso mode and declare it’s all an overblown rip-off of someone else’s genius.
So I took my time paying a visit to Asador, the new “barbeque grill” restaurant on Haddington Road just off Baggot Street, since it opened in November. There was a flurry of social media promotion and reviews from the critics within days of opening, which I’m never inclined to trust. No doubt this was a PR strategy designed to capitalise on the pre-Christmas lunch and dinner trade, and it certainly made me aware of the place, but it went on the long list to try once the buzz had died down. The restaurant is also in a premises on a slightly awkward corner of Haddington Road, which used to be a Thai restaurant called Mange Tu that I occasionally had lunch in when I worked off Baggot Street. I never liked the room, which for some reason always felt like eating lunch in a Snap Printing shop. Maybe it was the prominent emergency exit, or the office blinds. Anyway.
I’d volunteered to organise a Saturday-night dinner for some old school friends and assorted other halves, and with a few week’s notice, we thought of Asador as a potential option for some tasty food, drinks and general good times. It got the thumbs up due to its out-of-town location (handy for parking) and the predominantly meat-based offering scored it extra points with the menfolk. We were initially ten when I called to book, and I was told that for groups of ten or more they offered a set menu. They were a bit vague on how compulsory or not the set menu was, and it wasn’t available on their website for us to check out, so I provisionally made the booking and said I’d check with the group and call back if there was any issue with us going with a set menu. Now, as regular readers will know, I’m not a big fan of set menus, and the prospect was even less appealing in a restaurant like Asador where the main attraction is getting to go straight for the grilled stuff, without faffing around with starters or dessert.
So when the week before our night out, I called Asador to reduce our group booking to eight people, I was happy that this would then mean we wouldn’t have to go for a group menu. But, the nice lady informed me that it was actually “groups of eight or more” that now fell under their set menu policy, and not ten as I’d been previously advised. Sigh. I explained that two of the group wouldn’t be eating meat, so therefore a set menu wouldn’t be suitable for them. So after two more phone calls, I received a special dispensation that two people could have the a-la-carte menu, with the rest of us getting the set menu.
Now, I’ll admit to being completely ignorant about the background workings of a restaurant kitchen, but it seemed possibly even more inefficient to me to force six people onto a 3-course set menu (plus the time it takes to serve drinks, teas and coffees) when you are asking them to order and consume it all within a 2-hour window. But I didn’t push it any further, confirmed the booking and we all began looking forward to our night out.
Decor-wise, Asador has made the best of this L-shaped room, which has all but lost its Snap Printing ambience (although that emergency exit is still smack bang in the middle). It’s sleek, bright, and boasts plenty of cream leather and wooden surfaces, as well as the booths from the Mange Tu days.“Theatre is our signature” says the website, but unfortunately our table right inside the door prevented us from seeing any of the theatrics around the grill, as we were overlooking the side of the bar, the table next to us and the restaurant’s waiting area. I had to peer into the kitchen on my way back from the loo (anyone considering a visit would be wise to request a booth or table in the main restaurant area, well away from the front door).
After we’d been seated, there were some rumblings around the table at the fairly limited choice offered by the set menu, which disappointingly for a grill restaurant, had only one steak option on the main course list. I’d been checking out the menu online and loving the sound of the Cote de Bouef for 2 (€55) and the Chargrilled Monkfish (€25), neither of which were featured on the set menu, not surprisingly. And a couple of us really didn’t want to indulge in dessert (I know, I know, our bodies are temples), but there was no 2-course set menu option.
So, I approached the front desk to ask the (admittedly very friendly) hostesses if there was any option for the other six of us to go for the a-la-carte menu, or at the very least if they could offer us an option on the menu which didn’t include dessert, as many restaurants do for set menus or early birds. The hostess said she’d have to go and ask the chef, and went off to the kitchen while I returned to the table, hopeful that we’d be “allowed” to order off the a-la-carte menu without too much fuss.
We were a little gobsmacked to get the very polite response back that unfortunately the chef said we had to stick with the set menu for the rest of the group, and that of course we weren’t obliged to have dessert if we would prefer not to, but it would be the same cost for the set menu without dessert as it was a three course fixed price! Really kind of ridiculous to say “you can pay for dessert and just not eat it,” but at that stage time was ticking on and we were all starving, so we buttoned our lips and made our choices from the set menu.
Thankfully, the experience improved from there once the waiters expertly took over and the wine and food started arriving to the table.
I loved the potted crab starter with cornichons and sourdough toast (or Hipster Toast as I like to call it), although it was a little tricky to scoop out of its trendy little kilner jar. Other starters around the table included some very sticky barbequed chicken wings and a good Gambas Pil-Pil, served Spanish-style in a terracotta tapas dish. Having come determined to have steak, from the set menu my only option was rib-eye, which is served (as are all Asador’s steaks) with your choice of sauces – I went for their smoked Bearnaise and also sampled some other people’s Cafe de Paris (how retro) and Chimichurri, both freshly made and pretty tasty with the barbequed meat. Strangely enough, my rib-eye didn’t taste particularly barbequed, unlike at my favourite meat joint Hawskmoor in London, where you can properly taste the charcoal off the steak (in a good way), but was a delicious piece of meat nonetheless and came covered in a topping of crispy fried onions.
The Asador burger was superb, and those of us on the set menu spent a large part of the meal looking enviously at the non-meat eaters’ Mixed Seafood Platter (€55 between two) which was a plentiful, fresh, selection of squid, hake, cod, mackerel and prawns, cooked very simply on the grill.
An Argentinian Malbec, Trivento “Tribu” Reserve (about €34), was perfect with our mixed range of dishes, and some really great coffees rounded off our meal after desserts, which we decided we might as well sample if we were paying for. In fairness, they were beautifully crafted, from a ‘deconstructed’ Banoffee to the selection of house ice-creams. Oddly, there are no desserts listed on their website, so I can’t remember the rest.
Finally, the service overall deserves a mention. Our waiter was a total professional and there was an army of smartly-uniformed staff constantly bustling around the restaurant, from the front desk to the bar to the kitchen, which is refreshing to see in a time when many restaurants have stripped their staff numbers down to the bare minimum. There was also an enthusiastic bartender shaking his cocktail-maker for all it was worth most of the evening, and his efforts were not in vain as I would return just for his “Cosmo Winter Berry,” (€11).
So, despite the initial hiccups, we enjoyed the evening at Asador, though did it live up to the dreaded hype?
I’d have to say no – hype is a dangerous thing. I’ll probably go back in a smaller group, to try the more tempting dishes on the menu and maybe sample the cocktails again. Brunch at the weekend also sounds like an interesting option.
Asador, Haddington Road, Dublin 2.
Set menu about €37 pp for 3 courses plus tea/coffee – check with restaurant before booking as the price isn’t on their website.