Note Dublin, 26 Fenian Street, Dublin D02 FX09. Snacks and small plates €4-€13, larger plates €17-€32, desserts €7-€9, wines from €30
One of the things I like about going to restaurants is the opportunity to choose stuff: not just the venue, or the time you’ll visit, but the things you’re going to eat once you get there. Early on in my search to find the place in Dublin that captures what’s going on there right now, to surf the butter-crested wave of culinary nowness, I realised that my expectations needed to be managed. Blimey, the Dublin restaurant scene is complicated.
My requests to local friends for the vital intelligence revealed two things. First, you might be able to choose where you’re going, but your choices might end there. This is because tasting menus are so very much the thing right now. It’s all long lists of snacks and whimsy, of tuna crudo, sea buckthorn koshu and rare breed pork with barbecued leek, black walnut and komatsuna. And ouch, the prices, says the battle-hardened Londoner. At Liath it’s €180 a head. At Forest Avenue it’s €98. At Allta it’s €95. There’s Variety Jones at €80 and Mae at a mere €68. Bastible, the last place I reviewed in Dublin, has also now dumped its à la carte option in favour of tasting menus (€75). Clearly, in a time of staff shortages, tasting menus are easier for kitchens to manage. They can also be great for diners if you crave a special occasion full of pomp and waiterly frottage. But what if you don’t want 14 poised, but surprisingly rigid courses? What if you just want, y’know, dinner?
The second point is that you must plan ahead. A month out, almost everything was fully booked. Lisa Cope edits allthefood.ie and is one of the most clued-up people in the city. “There are not enough good restaurants for the population who want to visit them,” she told me. “So the same 30 are perennially booked up weeks in advance.” The big ticket in Dublin is Chapter One, now under chef Mickael Viljanen. It’s proper hot, with bookings only opening two months ahead. At 9.29am on the designated day I stood by with athletic fingers, toned by 35 years of high-altitude professional typing, ready to go. I still couldn’t get a bloody table. (Under a pseudonym natch. I’m convinced the name “George Clooney” is a great cover.) They all went in 45 seconds. I was put on the waiting list. And now I’m just whinging.
Two days before my Dublin trip, Mr Clooney (no, not really) got a call from Chapter One, offering him a table. But by then I had bagged a spot at Note, a new wine bar and brasserie. In truth, my heart really wasn’t in the whole performative tasting menu thing. I am very happy I found my way to Note. It is indeed the answer to “Where should I eat in Dublin right now?” Note is a vibrant and eclectic wine bar where most of the cooking is both bold and satisfying. On a summer’s evening, the clean-lined wedge of a dining room is suffused with light, and there’s a (self) satisfied bubble of chatter; the sense that you’ve found your way to the right place. It’s the kind of ineffably cool joint where they can serve some of the food on truly terrible floral plates, of the sort your aunty who smelled funny kept for best in 1973. And yet somehow it makes sense. Then again, when the grim design is hidden by a mess of sauce gribiche piled with slivers of deep-fried salty pig’s ear, both crisp and chewy at the same time, who cares what you find when you get down to the glaze?
The booze is overseen by Katie Seward who has worked in various places including Brawn in London. See how these reviews all join up? This means we must be alert to the risk of honking, farmyardy “natural” wines with the ripe tang of festering bum. I express my terror to Seward who sees us right: a bright dry rosé, the pleasing colour of cough mixture is followed by a brisk white from Piedmont. As ever in Dublin, be prepared for your eyes to water, and your wallet to clench, courtesy of punishing taxes. There’s nothing below €30 and very little below €40. Ours was €58, which is apparently pretty standard for a Dublin restaurant.
Alongside those piggy ears we have anchovy toasts, the bread sponge-sodden with the best Irish butter and flecked with green herbs, into which the anchovies have crumbled. From the (chunkily priced) list of larger dishes come slabs of beautifully pink lamb, with asparagus, freshly podded peas and a limpid, lip-smacking broth. Domes of pig cheek braised until ready to fall apart with the nudge of a fork, are partnered with the sweetness of long-roasted onion and the bitterness of endive. A massive bloom of butterhead lettuce is drenched lavishly in a salty vinaigrette.
Was it all perfect? Well no. The €32 for the lamb dish is sell-a-kidney pricing, but in the weird way of now it didn’t feel completely absurd. The €13 charged for an underwhelming salad of tomatoes in a chilled cucumber broth massively lacking in acidity, really did. And then there’s the small matter of all the dishes we ordered getting to the table. Or not. While the people who served us were utterly charming and languidly gorgeous, a notebook and pen might have helped with the fundamentals of the job. I nudge on the absent anchovy toast when the mains start arriving. It turns out that the order hadn’t been put through. It would have been a crying shame to miss it. The stone bass ceviche with lime, oregano and jalapeño sounded delicious. Perhaps it was. We never found out because that order also never found its way to the kitchen, let alone out again.
Dublin restaurants, like those elsewhere, are finding it hard to get the staff. For much of the time recently, gifted head chef Essa Fakhry has been working with just one other person. That may explain why dessert is either an affogato – a scoop of ice-cream with a glug of sweet espresso chucked over it – or a chocolate mousse with cherries and a landslide of cherry foam. They are, as is too often the case right now, things that read like thoughtful desserts without necessarily being thoughtful desserts. But while the creaky bits of the experience must be recorded, I still very much liked Note. It has a bright-eyed enthusiasm that is infectious. They want you to have a good time. As a result, we did.
Restaurateur George Pell, one of the owners of London’s famed L’Escargot, is to launch a new restaurant this August in Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast. The launch of The Suffolk follows a successful L’Escargot Sur-Mer pop up over the past couple of years. The restored 17th-century inn will house a 60-cover restaurant plus a rooftop terrace and (eventually) six bedrooms. The opening menu includes deep fried oyster sandwiches, lobster sliders, omelette Arnold Bennett and roasted langoustines with aioli (the-suffolk.co.uk).
Akwasi Brenya-Mensa, the restaurateur behind the forthcoming Tatale, a pan-African restaurant opening later this year at the Africa Centre in London’s Covent Garden, has announced a crowdfunding campaign. He’s aiming to raise £50,000, not just for the launch costs of the new restaurant but also to fund ‘further concepts that celebrate Black and diaspora identities’ and to ‘expand the reach of African cuisines’. Those who help fund the project will be offered a selection of rewards including vouchers for Tatale and cookery classes. Get more information on the crowdfunder here.
Ever growing chain Honest Burger is to end its six month ‘V Honest’ experiment, in which a standard branch near London’s Leicester Square went entirely vegan with the promise of ‘an innovative, completely new menu of plant-based burgers, sauces and sides’. This month it will return to serving the meat-based burgers for which it’s known, alongside a shorter selection of vegetarian and vegan choices (honestburgers.co.uk).
Email Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1