18 Merrion Row
Dublin 2
Phone: 01 678 8872

Irish Daily Mail
5 May 2018

Twitter can sometimes be quite useful. I opined the other day that we restaurant critics are too obsessed with the new and that we should, at least occasionally, have a look at well-established places. They may be doing worse, or better, or the same. Some basket cases may now have an archangel in charge of the kitchen, others may have carved out a niche for themselves by being consistently terrible.

Anyway, the response on Twitter was remarkable. The “likes” went into the hundreds and a lot of people replied saying, in effect, “yes, please!”

So, I am duty bound to oblige and I find myself this week ignoring a handful of new or relatively new restaurants in favour of a place that I was going to call the chefs’ restaurant. You see there are chefs and chefs, and it should be stressed that Etto is the really good chefs’ restaurant. A restaurant where the people who push the boundaries in the kitchen like to go and let their hair down.

This little place on Merrion Row attracts a lot of people who know their stracciatella from their bottarga, if you see what I mean. And if you don’t (I keep forgetting what stracciatella is, to be honest), but just recognise good, careful, confident cooking with no silly showing off, I expect you will love it.

It’s all about the what’s on the plate and what’s on the wine list. Otherwise, Etto is, if not Spartan, pretty low on frills. It’s serious about what it does and avoids distractions.

At least, that’s how I saw it. So, I went back, almost four years after first eating there, to see how it was getting on. I’ve been back several times in the meantime, but off duty.

To start, there were croquettes of hake and morcilla, the Spanish blood pudding which added a subtle earthiness and savouriness to the flesh of the fish. They came with a punchy garlic mayonnaise.

And there was pig’s trotter, or crubeen, completely deconstructed and formed into something between a pâté and a thinly sliced salame, fabulously savoury, properly rich, rather like a kind of super-refined brawn. Paper-thin discs of this were served with peppery nasturtium leaves (which, incidentally, taste of capers), soft-yolked quail eggs, crisp batons of apple and little dollops of violet mustard. This was no random assembly; it was a composition, and it sang.

Shoulder of lamb was given a thoroughly Mediterranean treatment as befits a restaurant that takes much of its inspiration from Italy, but not from the Italian staples that are perhaps over-familiar in Ireland. Nor does Etto shy away from cherry-picking other traditional cuisines to create its own, frankly, unique approach to food.

Take the other main course, for example: this was a risotto made, not from the usual Arborio or carnaroli rice, but from spelt. This delivered a distinctive if slight chewiness quite different from al dente rice, and a subtle flavour best described as nutty. It was generously flavoured with wild garlic, topped with fresh morel mushrooms, just in season, asparagus likewise and, in a really inspired move, little pieces of Taleggio cheese which had just melted.

This is one of the best things I’ve eaten in quite a while and all the better for being somewhat unexpected. But that’s the Etto way: keep it relatively straightforward but bend the rules a bit and cultivate the element of surprise.

We shared a tall salad of discs of kohl rabi and blue radish: an exercise in crispness, pepperiness and the right amount of tartness.

One of us finished with a little espresso cup of arrestingly rich chocolate mousse topped with bitter-sweet-and-sour preserved Amarena cherries, the maraschino’s louche siblings. The other concluded proceedings with a slice of Shepherd’s Store, a semi-hard sheep’s cheese from the people who make Cashel Blue: salty, creamy and slightly tart. A square of membrillo, the Spanish quince paste was a perfect foil.

With three glasses of outstanding wines and two bottles of mineral water, the bill came to the bargain price of €117.