I know, I know, it’s been ages since I last posted, and I fear that my finger has slipped well and truly off the pulse. I know this, because it wasn’t me who found out about hot new pop-up restaurant, Salt Lick, even though it’s been on the go for a while and reviewed by much more active food bloggers than me. It took an invitation from my clearly much more clued-in friend Liza for me to go and try out this Friday & Saturday night-only eatery, which for 2 nights a week has been transforming the interior of Hobart’s cafe in the centre of Ranelagh. I loved the concept of a different theme every month – Liza had previously visited during “Taco month” and in June, it was “Tea and toast,” an intriguing theme which apparently involved “things on toast” washed down by Earl Grey martinis, if you don’t mind. But it was the winning combination of July being Japanese month, and the phrase “BYOC” that finally convinced me to pay Salt Lick a visit.
What’s BYOC, you ask? Well, in the absence of a booze licence, the clever chaps behind Salt Lick have gone one better on the recession-friendly BYO theme made popular by restaurants like Little Jerusalem and Musashi. Not content with showing off their creative cookery skills, they’ve also got a resident mixologist, so BYOC = Bring your own Cocktails. Oh yes. You bring the spirits, they make the cocktails and charge a small fee for the other ingredients. The cocktails also change with the monthly theme, and a quick check of Salt Lick’s Facebook page informed me that vodka was the spirit of choice for their Japanese-themed cocktails. Rocking up to a restaurant on a Friday night with a half-full bottle of vodka rooted out from the back of your drinks cupboard stashed in your handbag, only adds to the fun.
When I arrived at 8pm, on time for once, the place was almost full and already buzzing. Hobart’s has been re-fitted with booths for all but one of the tables, which lends itself well to it moonlighting as a restaurant on weekends, and Salt Lick have added their own branding to the windows and tables. While I waited for Liza and Nicola to arrive, I decided to get the ball rolling with a drink and guiltily dug out my vodka bottle, handed it to the waitress and ordered a Wasabi Martini (€4). It was a risky choice for me, as my opinion on wasabi is best expressed by the definition I once heard from a long-forgotten source of “having your sinuses violated by a Dyno-Rod.” But hey, for €4 I decided I could afford the risk. The other cocktail option was a Lychee & Grapefruit punch, which you can have in a jug for €12, or a half-carafe for €7, and the drinks menu (see photo at the top) helpfully explains just how many cocktails your chosen quantity of BYO vodka will run to. They’ll also mix you up a whiskey-based cocktail or a Moscow Mule, or you can bring wine or beer if the cocktails aren’t your thing.
If anything, the first one tasted a bit too sweet and with too little of wasabi, but on our second round we requested less sugar, and with a bit more bite they were so drinkable, we never got to try the punch at all.
The set menu is €25 for two courses, or €30 for three, and ordering offers no decision-making dilemmas, as there are only two options per course – vegetarian and non-veggie, with both being variations on the same.
We ordered one veggie starter option and two standard starters so that we’d get to sample everything. The Vegetarian Starter Plate consisted of garlic & soy grilled aubergine, tempura courgette & pickled mushroom, and the “Izakaya plate” of Tempura chicken, pickled mushrooms & crispy silken tofu, came with with a smoked garlic & wasabi dipping sauce.
The presentation was superb, although the food was a little hard to see in the dark surroundings (atmosphere, yeah?) and the tempura batter was crisp perfection. It was actually the veggie starter that won over for me – the courgette tempura and grilled aubergine on the vegetarian plate were amazing. There was something about the tempura chicken that was a little too “chicken nugget” for me, but the silken tofu was melt-in-the-mouth and the pickled mushrooms that featured on both starter dishes could single-handedly earn fungus a place on any Michelin-star menu.
Ramen was the order of the day for our main courses, and we all went for the pork ramen, which came with a giant side order each of “Karashi fries.” I have no idea what Karashi is, but I will guess it’s the Japanese for “Crispy, delicious and OMG someone please take them away from me before I eat them all.”
The huge bowls of ramen contained generous portions of shredded pork shoulder, a perfectly poached egg, nori seaweed, fish cake, and spring onion. Oh, and lots of noodles, although I barely had room for noodles by the time I’d slurped up all of the other ingredients. None of us managed to empty our bowls. Funnily enough, we had no similar problem emptying the wasabi martini glasses…
We ordered one dessert in the interest of sampling, a Lemon Posset with sake, served with homemade Peanut Brittle. It was a huge portion, plenty for all three of us to have a piece of brittle each, which we dipped into the very runny posset. Almost completely liquid in texture, we guessed this was possibly due to the sake causing it not to set fully. But sweet, delicious, and probably totally unnecessary it was in any case.
The place was full all night, with great tunes played throughout and no pressure from the very friendly staff to move along so that they could squeeze in more sittings. Sure, where would you want to be going on a rainy Friday night, when you can drink €4 cocktails and chair-dance to Hall & Oates at your table?
Once we’d finished our drinks and decided on where the next stage of our Friday night would take us, we asked for the bill and got a bit of a shock when it arrived. Yes, it’s technically cheap and cheerful at €30 a head for amazingly creative food and BYO, but a word of warning – if you insist on ordering thirteen wasabi martinis, this *may* bump up your bill ever so slightly.
Although, given those thirteen martinis had been stretched out of one half-litre of vodka, we reckoned we’d done pretty well.
So, get your skates on if you fancy Turning Japanese before the menu changes again – only two weekends left in July.
*Correction: since publishing this post, the guys at Salt Lick have contacted me to say that Japanese month has unfortunately ended its run, but they’ll be open for business with a brand new menu from next weekend. Theme to be revealed this week!*
Salt Lick (in Hobart’s), Ranelagh, Dublin 6.