FENNEL: DISCIPLINED PANACHE IN DRUMCONDRA
Phone: 01 704 4005
Irish Daily Mail
18 February 2017
My father used to intrigue me when I was small by telling me how, when he was my age, “the country” started at what is now Whitehall Garda Station. The tram terminated there and you were on your own. A few miles north, Collinstown was all pasture and cattle, years before it became Dublin’s airport during the early stages of what the rest of the world referred to as The War and we called “The Emergency”.
When I was a lad in Drumcondra it seemed odd that this inner suburb of the capital still had a few proper country houses, some of them rather grand like Drumcondra House, which had become All Hallows, and Belvedere House (nothing to do with the school) which had become St Patrick’s Training College, now part of DCU. And then there were places like Hampstead, and the Crofton Airport Hotel now The Regency.
When I used to wander around the abandoned gardens of this lumpen Victorian house there was still a peach tree in one of the old, partly collapsed greenhouses and the fruit was good.
I was thinking of this suburban idyll as I stood outside Fennel the other night, with four lanes of traffic whizzing by, a big bright Centra where once there was a lawn and a whole housing estate where the peaches once grew.
Fennel has some outstanding food and part of its appeal is the unlikeliness of finding it in these somewhat unprepossessing precincts. If you’re interested in food and refuse to be distracted by such trivia as postal district or décor, you will love Fennel for the disciplined panache of Peter Clifford’s cooking.
This place was originally a restaurant that is mourned by few and remembered by fewer. This time round, however, it may become a landmark unless young Mr Clifford, who is only 25, is not snatched away for something higher profile. Incidentally he is the son of the great Michael Clifford who taught Marco Pierre White a lot of what he knows and who died, far too young, when Peter was only 14 but already following in his footsteps.
I’ve followed Peter’s career with interest and I’ve seen his cooking develop from the all bells and whistles stage in which he (understandably) wanted to show us what he could do but didn’t quite know when to stop, to now where he combines great skill and creativity with a kind of controlled exuberance.
The only reminder of his earlier unbridled enthusiasm on this outing was in a pleasant dish of beetroot, both red and golden, with smoked eel that looked as if it had been involved in a very violent and bloody incident at high velocity.
If that was the ying, then the yang was our other starter of raw scallop, truffles, hazelnuts and blood orange. It was sensational, the thin slices of scallop briney and sea-tasting, the blood orange sharp yet sweet, the truffles, most of which had been transformed into a shiny, black purée of the most divine intensity, playing a blinder in a rather unexpected context. The chef who can create this unexpected combination and make it ambrosial is one to watch.
Roasted quail, cooked á point to rosy juiciness while crisped outside was partnered with blood orange again (and why not as these have such a short season?) which cut the richness of the bird but also the sticky, almost fatty gameyness of dollops of fresh blood pudding, clearly made in the kitchen. This is no ordinary cooking. And it’s no ordinary “fine dining”, if you will forgive me using that horrible phrase.
We were told that it would be a sin not to have the turbot as it involved a chunk of a very large, and therefore well flavoured, specimen and so it proved. With sea lettuce – tasting both green and of the sea in the same way as perhaps an oyster does – and roasted celeriac better than any other I’ve had, truffle and shrimp, it sounds complicated but it had an elegance and a completeness that was classical.
Unusually for a chef of his calibre, Peter Clifford can turn his hand every effectively to pastry (as desserts are called in the restaurant business) and his passionfruit parfait with coconut was a triumph both in taste and in jewel-like presentation. A combination of pistachio, blood orange (again!) yoghurt and rose was a hauntingly lovely as it sounds.
With aperitifs, a bottle of red wine, coffees and mineral water, the bill for this exceptional meal came to just over €150.