girl eats dublin

Enthusiastically eating my way around Dublin and beyond.

Category: Cheap & cheerful

161 Cafe & Bistro, Upper Rathmines Road.

I was living a stone’s throw from this place for about six months before I realized that I was spending my Saturday or Sunday mornings trekking (OK, cycling ten minutes) to Ranelagh or town for brunch, when there was a gem on my doorstep. It’s now the place I go when I’m feeling unsociable and want nothing more for company than the paper. The only reason I haven’t featured it in my brunch posts before now is that there are less than twenty seats in the place. Now that I am writing about it, I’ll bleedin’ kill yis all if I can’t get a table the next time I’m hanging for an Eggs Benedict of a Sunday morning.

Café 161 is a tiny restaurant situated in the row of shops on the Upper Rathmines Road that also includes the wonderful Lawlor’s butchers, Connolly’s fish shop, an O’Briens and the institution that is Fothergill’s and their wonderful cakes and baked goodies. Oh, and the obligatory Tesco Express. It’s a great little cluster of specialist stores and a treat to do a little local shopping at the weekend.

cafe161

I’d originally put it down as more of an evening spot, due to their constant advertising of their early bird menu on a sandwich board outside, which I seemed to trip over every time I popped into Tesco for a pint of milk.

It took a friend’s suggestion to have brunch there one weekend to convert me, whereupon I was kicking myself under the table as soon as I had a sip of my giant cappuccino (I actually asked for a “Giant cappuccino,” don’t judge me) and clapped eyes on the fine-looking steak and eggs that I soon found in front of me. I’ve since had a few cracking brunches there – from the Eggs Benedict to the Huevos Rancheros to the French Toast (with chargrilled banana, swoon), all the brunch favourites are on the menu and all under a tenner. For me this is great value, even this far out of town, as the portions are huge. No less than three gloriously fat sausages come with the full Irish, for example, and the ingredients are all clearly of the highest quality – gorgeous yellow eggs, plump roasted tomatoes, fresh salad leaves and glistening hollandaise are all standard at 161. I’m always amazed as to the quality of the food they are turning out of the tiny kitchen here (you’ll see it for yourself as you have to pass through the kitchen to get to the loo!).

Greg, the friendly Kiwi owner, and staff, are always chatty and welcoming, but also perceptive enough to leave you alone if you just want to enjoy a solitary brunch with the paper. The pretty, duck-egg blue decor I’d admired from outside is even prettier inside, although it can feel more cramped than cosy when it’s really busy, and was uncomfortably hot when I visited during our recent heatwave. But I’ll be looking forward to some cosy winter-morning brunches when the weather gets a bit chillier and spinning into town on my bike for Sunday brunch becomes a less appealing prospect. I also really must get around to trying the early bird – €19.50 for two courses has to be a good midweek option.

161 Cafe & Bistro, 161 Upper Rathmines Rd., Dublin 6.
+353 (1) 497 8049
Website | Facebook page

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Las Tapas de Lola, Wexford Street.

I’ve had a lazy couple of weeks on the blogging front. Lots of eating out, but a lack of time to write about it has led to a mounting list of half-written posts in draft, and a gnawing sense of guilt every time I pick up a fork instead of a pen or my laptop.

I was finally spurred into action by Jay Rayner’s fantastic “20 Best Restaurants” piece in the Observer Food Monthly last weekend. Hovering in indecision/sloth as I was over which recent dining outings to review – should it be Oliveto in Dun Laoghaire; brunch at the Vintage Cocktail Club; or a very special meal at the Butcher’s Block table at Maze by Gordon Ramsay (it’s in London, so not strictly in Girl Eats Dublin’s remit, but I knew you’d forgive me), reading Jay’s brilliant feature helped me decide and just get it done already.

While I can only aspire to someday pen such a gem as “A well written menu should be a come on, a shameless flash of thigh,” I did take inspiration from Mr. Rayner’s “simple test” for inclusion in his Top 20, which was “did writing about the restaurant make me hungry?” So when I thought about the places I’ve tried over the past couple of weeks, there was one set of notes I’d been jotting that were making me consistently peckish and already impatient to return, and those were from my visit last Thursday to new Wexford Street tapas joint, Las Tapas de Lola.

jamon

Jamon, jamon! Image courtesy of Las Tapas de Lola.

When we ate here last Thursday evening, I didn’t realise it was only their second night open, so it’s probably the newest place I’ve reviewed so far. Usually I think it’s the decent thing to hold off reviewing new restaurants until they’ve had a chance to find their feet food and service-wise.

But our experience at Las Tapas de Lola was so good that I reckon they can take it, and I also reckon you need to hear about it.

Having passed by earlier that week and noticed a new restaurant on the site of what had previously been “Morrissey and Daughters” butchers (opposite Solas and right next to Against the Grain, if you know your Wexford St. pubs), the lovely tiled Spanish signage, outdoor seating and the prospect of somewhere new offering (hopefully) decent tapas in Dublin had appealed to me instantly. I’d also seen the above mouth-watering photo of ‘Jamon’ being shared by a friend on Facebook… so Spanish ham was on my mind.

Thankfully, my partner in crime for the evening was also willing to try some tapas, so we stuck our heads into Las Tapas de Lola in the hope of snagging a table. As the roomy, dark green-tiled interior was already full (a good sign!), we took advantage of the first remotely balmy evening this chilly April had seen and sat on the “terrace”, a reclaimed square of Wexford Street footpath which has been attractively fenced off, heated and filled with greenery, cushioned benches and wooden tables.

We didn’t get too ambitious with our choice of tapas – I was curious to see if Las Tapas de Lola could deliver on the basics before trying anything more adventurous, so we chose Albondigas (meatballs), Calamares a la Andaluza (fried squid rings with aioli), Lentejas (Lentils, chorizo, Spanish black pudding and bacon), some bread and olives. The small basket of bread that arrived was enough to tempt a seasoned bread-avoider like myself into “just a taste.” OK, OK, we had two baskets of the stuff. It was fresh, crusty and delicious, perfect for mopping up the remnants of the little taster dish of “Lentejas” we received, compliments of the house.

Images credit: Las Tapas de Lola on Facebook.

Images credit: Las Tapas de Lola on Facebook.

This perfectly whetted our appetite for the tapas, which arrived quickly and with a minimum of fuss, on suitably small plates (Pet Peeve: giant “Irish Tapas” portions, Market Bar take note) served by the friendly Irish and Spanish staff.

My favourite dish was the calamari, thinly sliced squid rings with just the right level of crisp coating and accompanied by an innocent-looking, but garlic-laden, portion of fresh aioli. The meatballs were proper Spanish pork meatballs – totally tasty and a far cry from the mini-beef burgers that regularly pose as “albondigas” on many Irish tapas menus. The tomato sauce that they were cooked in safely saw off the last of our bread basket. Two glasses of a really lovely Spanish white – a Sauvignon/Viura blend (Castilla Leon, Lanzos 2012) could have easily turned into two more, had we not had a gig we were already running late for over the road in Whelan’s.

The drinks menu also includes a selection of aperitivos (Sangria, anyone?), and a full range of Spanish beers, spirits, after-dinner drinks and coffees.

The bill for this pleasant hour or so’s dining came to a very reasonable €34.

It feels like there’s a good team behind Las Tapas de Lola. They’re set up for something great here and I’ve got a feeling it’s going to become a popular spot in this end of town. I’m looking forward to coming back to try some more of their tapas and drinks selection. Now here’s hoping we get the weather for Tinto de Veranos and Cafe Cortados on the terrace this summer!

Las Tapas de Lola, Wexford Street, Dublin 2.

Check out their Facebook page for lovely photos and updates.

Tel: +353 (1) 42 44 100

Pho Viet, Parnell Street.

pho viet interior

In one of my very first posts, I mentioned how much I’ve missed Vietnamese food since leaving London. Having discovered this light, healthy and usually cheap variety of Asian cuisine not long after I first arrived there, going for a big feed of Vietnamese food soon became one of my favourite ways to treat myself.

During the week, while I was still getting to know the city, and at weekends when I didn’t have visitors from home to entertain, I would head into Soho or east to the Kingsland Road to seek out Cay Tre, Song Que, the Viet Grill… or somewhere new. And near work in Clerkenwell and at home in west London, I was just around the corner from a branch of Pho, a great London chain which put a bit of a swankier (but no less affordable) veneer on the Vietnamese classics. Summer rolls will always remind me of (guess?) summer in London, light salads of chicken, cashew nuts and minty goodness were perfect for a healthy lunch, and my beloved ‘Bun’ noodles were kept for treat days, where the still-healthy bowl of rice noodles and fresh veggies would be topped with chicken or prawns, chili sauce and (ah, heaven) a single crispy spring roll.

It all made stuffing your face feel relatively virtuous.

Since moving back, I’ve found plenty of new places to eat and love in Dublin, but most work trips or weekends in London since have involved me seeking out my much-missed Vietnamese fix along the way.

So I got very excited when I started to hear murmurings about a couple of new Vietnamese cafes opening up in Dublin. Pho Viet on Parnell Street has received a few great reviews, so it has been lurking near the top of my restaurants-to-visit list for the last couple of months. The name sounds exotic, but google it and you’ll find that calling a Vietnamese restaurant Pho Viet is akin to calling your Irish child Sean Murphy. You’ll find hundreds of eateries of the same name around the world.

Anyway, as they say, it does what it says on the tin (and also on their fancy sign outside), i.e. “Noodles from Vietnam” and I practically took the stairs two at a time in excitement on the very cold night that my friend Nicola and I chose recently to try Pho Viet before catching a gig in the Academy.

Inside, there’s brand spanking new decor and everything is box-fresh including the carpets. It’s brightly lit and spread over two floors (or maybe three?), the downstairs feeling more like a cafe with its window onto Parnell Street, and upstairs a bit more restaurant-y. We were the only punters upstairs, the other massive table consisting of the staff of my local teppanyaki restaurant and what looked like their various families. We took this as a good sign.

While we browsed our menus, Nicola taught me the correct pronunciation of Pho, which is less rhyming with “Fo’Sho,” as I’d been pronouncing it to date, and more in the region of “Fuuuuhhhh.” You know, rhymes with “Duh.”

We both decided that it had to be summer rolls (or on the Pho Viet menu, Vietnamese fresh spring rolls/Goi Cuon) to start, and also made the same choice of main course by going for the Pho Viet special beef noodle soup (€6.90). I was momentarily tempted by my old favourite, Bun noodles, which I was delighted to see on the menu, but already had a sneaking suspicion I’d be making a return trip to give them a try.

The service had a lovely family feel. We were served by an amusingly chatty, tall Vietnamese guy with a Dublin twang, who made us feel very welcome and was keen to engage Nicola in chat about her previous travels in Vietnam. Our table was also attended by a serious-looking young girl in school uniform (complete with a Prefect badge), who was clearly the perfectionist of the outfit and very keen to make sure our order had been taken correctly.

The summer rolls (€3) carried my high hopes along with their low price. They didn’t let me down. Substantial in size, the cold, transparent rice rolls were filled with fresh veggies, prawns and plenty of mint, and accompanied by a delicious peanut satay sauce that I was spooning out of the dish long after the summer rolls had been gobbled.

summer rolls

Our house special pho, full of beef, brisket and meatballs, arrived steaming hot and accompanied by the customary dish of fresh beansprouts and chillies for us to spoon into our bowls to adjust the taste to our liking. We noted the soup could have done with more heat – but I’m sure if we’d stopped slurping long enough to order extra chillies, they’d have brought them straight away. Note to self for next time.

We finished our feast with two cups of that amazing Vietnamese coffee, where a small steel pot of coffee slowly drips into a cup of condensed milk, carefully watched over by our waiter until it was ready to be stirred in and enjoyed in a few hot, sweet sips.

Without drinks, we paid €26 (yes, that was €13 each) and left full, happy and promising to return. Pho Viet is authentic, friendly, clean, tasty, and best of all, cheap. Hallelujah!

They’ve also just announced today that they’ve received their wine licence. Great news, but may mean the end of BYOB – so best to check if you’re planning a visit. See you there – I’ll be the solo diner happily slurping noodles in the window seat.

Pho Viet, 162 Parnell Street.

No website, but check out their Facebook Page.

Bar with No Name, Fade Street.

Last Sunday I met the lovely Jane for brunch in that bar that I quite like going to, but dread saying that I’m going to.

You know, The Secret Bar. “That-bar-above-the-French-restaurant-with-the-funny-name-y’know-beside-Hogans.” Snail Bar. No-Name Bar, or, Bar with No Name. Or the latest, “Kelly’s Bar” after the hotel under which Hogan’s, L’Gueleton and “That Bar that Makes me Sound Like a Muppet” now reside.

Yeah, that one.

This place has been doing brunch for years, between 1 and 4pm on Saturdays and Sundays, but it still feels like a well-kept secret. It’s a great low-key alternative to going to Odessa for Sunday brunch, which is (deservedly) such an institution by now that it almost feels like a cliche. If you want to go a bit more under the radar for your weekend brunch outing – like when you’re too hung over to face bumping into half of Dublin, this is the place.

Ouch, my eyes. My poor, hungover eyes.

Ouch, my eyes. My poor, hungover eyes. (Photo credit: TripAdvisor)

If you can get past the terrible art and slightly odd seating arrangements to settle at a table or sink into a sofa, you’ll find that there’s a lovely variety to this menu. You have your Eggs Benedict and other traditionals, but with a little twist here and there, like the Eggs Florentine which comes with lots of smoked salmon on Guinness Brown Bread, or Brioche French Toast with fried banana, bacon and maple syrup.

The coffee’s good, and they served it up quickly, which always scores points with me when it comes to brunch. I went for the Jack McCarthy’s black pudding salad, which came with chunks of pudding that were a little on the dry side; bacon lardons that could have been crispier; and croutons that were way too garlicky…but a perfectly runny poached egg on top redeemed an otherwise average dish. They didn’t have much in the way of veggie options, so Jane was left with goat’s cheese salad. She declared it “well-dressed but unremarkable.” Like a lot of chaps I’ve dated, then.

However, a stellar side of chips saved the day. Straight from the L’Gueleton kitchen, they were skinny, slightly soft French fries at their best, with a side of Bearnaise sauce that ensured the chips vanished way before we’d even made a dent in brunch.

Turns out, it was dessert that was the highlight of this brunch offering. Dessert would never usually feature in my brunch habits, but as Jane had run twelve miles that morning, she decided it had been earned.

Unfortunately, I had no such excuse. Fortunately, I didn’t let that stop me.

A dense, sweet chocolate marquise with delicately flavoured orange ice cream was a fresh alternative to the standard brownie, and my Banana Tarte Tatin could only have been improved by a more generously-sized scoop of the salted caramel ice cream that came on the side.

Service was on the slow side of laid-back, and the bill for two brunch dishes, one side of chips, two desserts and three coffees, came to just about €40. A decent option to try this weekend.

No Name Bar (or whatever you want to call it), Kelly’s Hotel, Fade Street, Dublin 2.

http://lgueuleton.com

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