Dublin's Hidden Gems
When the Zomato website – the sceptical person’s Trip Advisor, as some like to call it – asked me to nominate my hidden gems amongst the restaurants of Dublin, it occurred to me that there are quite a few. (You can click on the highlighted restaurant names for details of what to expect).
Of course, it depends on one’s definition. Things can be hidden in plain sight; Dawson Street, for example, in the heart of Dublin 2, is not a place in which you would think of concealing anything. It’s busy, it’s in the heart of things and yet… and yet here we find one of Dublin’s most overlooked restaurants.
Close to the wonderful and rightly lauded The Greenhouse stands Conor Dempsey’s Amuse, small and perfectly formed, a seductive synthesis of Japanese, European and downright very modern cooking. Round the corner, on St Stephen’s Green we find – or would if we knew where to look we would – Restaurant Forty One where Graham Neville cooks some of the most refined and classically based food in the city. Being in a private members’ club keeps it a bit under wraps but do bear in mind that mere mortals are admitted too.
A short stroll along Baggot Street and sharp turn left takes us to the hidden – indeed buried – subterannean joys of The Cellar Restaurant at the Merrion Hotel where Ed Cooney cooks exceptionally precise, ingredient-driven modern food in an understated way in an understated environment. I can’t understand why it isn’t always packed.
These are terrific restaurants that are hidden, so to speak, in plain sight. There are others which seem to have gone to great lengths to avoid the limelight.
Take Osteria Lucio, for example. This lovely joint venture between Ross Lewis of Chapter One and Luciano Tona is somewhat beyond the city centre, down a narrow street, under a railway bridge. A favourite lunch spot, the kitchen really lets rip in the evenings with their particular brand of spezzatura, i.e. making it look easy, the Italian way. Brilliant raw materials, not mucked about. Dinner is the time to go for the full force of the place.
Terra Madre is so well concealed, on the busy north quays, that I actually walked past it half a dozen times when I was actually looking for it. Tiny, brilliantly ramshackle, it’s a different side of Italian cuisine, but equally distant from the all too familiar trattoria schtick.
Further up the quays and a sharp right into Queen Street takes us to a brilliantly simple, utterly joyful little restaurant called The Fish Shop. A handful of tables, dishes that can be numbered on the fingers of one hand, very focused, very wonderful. Be prepared to queue.
It grew out of a shed at the back of the Blackrock Market (fans who claim to have known the first incarnation are a bit like those who claimed to have been in the GPO in 1916) where another unlikely temple to culinary heroism can be found in deep cover.
Canteen at the Market is an extraordinary little restaurant with a no-choice menu, Michelin star stuff at modest prices in an equally modest environment. They also have one of the most stripped down, cutest and atmospheric wine bars in the city.
The suburbs provide good cover for great restaurants. In the vast expanses of bland, neighbourhood eating establishments you might never be noticed unless, of course, you’re as quietly radical as Bistro One in Foxrock. Hidden, literally, above a terrace of shops in this prosperous suburb, it’s one of my favourite places to eat (the lunch offers outstanding value).
Hiding in an affluent suburb is one thing; China Sichuan is in an area where offices, warehouses and light industry prevail, deep in the southside suburbs and close to the M50 motorway. Kevin Hui’s exceptionally elegant restauant is a magnet for anyone who takes Sichuanese cooking seriously and for people who have no clue about such things but who are wowed by the service, the prettiness of the presentation and the kaleidoscopic flavours.
I suppose Mulberry Garden is a contender for the title of most hidden restaurant in Dublin. It’s down a lane beside Ross O’Carroll-Kelly’s favourite boozer, Kiely’s, in Donnybrook. Not only that, it’s further concealed behind a high garden gate. The menu, changing every day in response to what’s fresh and good, is reassuringly tight, the cooking is deft and precise and the service is delightful. It took me years to find it (or, rather, to get round to going there) and I’m so glad I did.
Suesey Street is hidden in a different kind of way and not because it’s in a basement. I don’t quite know what it is – perhaps a combination of the name (which refers to the nomenclature for Leeson Street) and the signage, but the immensely sophisticated and cleverly judged cooking here – very modern but without the silly stuff.
The other unmissable but often overlooked basement gem in this immediate area is, of course, Olivier Meissonave’s Dax, fifteen years old now and as consistent as ever, as French as the boss’s accent but with some great Irish produce given classical treatment. Warm, comforting and somewhat club-like.
Up north, less than a mile away, the streetscape is rather different. Less Georgian, more shops that unblock mobile phones and sell ethnic hair products, colourful and a bit rough. Talbot Street is the unlikely home of two rather delightful restaurants.
101 Talbot has been there for years, tucked away upstairs, doing chunky, flavourful food with a small list of equally chunky wines. The cooking is eclectic, generous, unpretentious, welcoming.
Down the street towards the less fashionable end (if you can imagine such a thing) is Le Bon Crubeen. It looks like a pub and is part of a hotel, but don’t be deterred. There’s good bistro food here at very decent prices and a wildly eclectic clientele.
A little further north and to the east is the somewhat mouldering Georgian splendour of Parnell Square which is home to the wonderful Lane Gallery, the head office of the Sinn Féin cult, a moving crib and Michelin-starred Chapter One (which could never be described as hidden since the Michelin inspector found his way over O’Connell Bridge at last).
But there is a hidden gem in a basement here: The Hot Stove, one of Dublin’s best kept secrets where Joy Beattie cooks food of exceptional excellence: modern but based firmly on classical tradition, sophisticated but simple in the sense that there are never redundant flourishes. It needs to be so much better known.
Heading much further north from here we reach the leafy purlieus of Glasnevin. The leafiest bit is the National Botanic Gardens to which I pay a regular visit. Next door, just up the hill, is The Washerwoman, which has been described by some other critics as a good neighbourhood restaurant. I’d describe it as a very good and lovely restaurant, regardless of location. The food is very much driven by the raw materials and the cooking is homely in the best sense of the word (and involves a lot of stuff that most of us would never dream of attempting at home).
If you head east from here through the inner suburbs of north Dublin you will eventually come to Clontarf on the coast and the very lovely The Pigeon House (named and themed, in terms of interior design, after Dublin’s first power station across the bay). It’s very cool, very modern and so is Brian Walsh’s cooking but the overall feel of the place is very relaxed and laid-back. Again, it’s much more than a “neighbourhood restaurant” but it’s easy to miss and that would be a shame.
Of course the risk in writing what purports to be a guide to Dublin’s hidden gems is that, as sure as night follows day, I’ll miss one. Or two.
So, stand by for a mea culpa and the odd addendum.