O’Connells in Donnybrook
135 Morehampton Road
Phone: 01 269 6116
Irish Daily Mail
11 April 2015
It’s interesting that one of the best value restaurants in the country should be situated in the heart of the capital’s most expensive postal districts. This is the kernel of Dublin 4, a stroll away from the embassy belt, home of Irish rugby, within spitting distance (if you will forgive the phrase) of a lot of expensive private schools. It’s establishment Ireland with knobs on.
The demographic round these parts is well-heeled (but generally value-conscious and far from flash) and, naturally, more advanced in years than otherwise. Put it like this, Donnybrook doesn’t really do starter homes.
As a result, the customer base at O’Connells tends to be older than the average. The food may be right on trend (but never self-consciously so) without being flippantly fashionable but the average customer is heading for retirement or comfortably over that line.
The night we dined there, two impeccably behaved little boys were doing their damndest to bring down the average age and even we, in a very slight way, may have helped but there is a sense that it is a haunt of people d’un certain age.
It doesn’t bother me and I don’t mention this in any ageist way but rather to avoid any suggestion that the clientele might be young and funky and likely to take you clubbing.
The food is right on trend thanks to being all about provenance and quality, uncomplicated cooking and some delightfully retro elements. The menu is actually remarkably clever in being most things to most people without sacrificing anything at all. Its creator, Tom O’Connell, brother of Rory O’Connell and Darina Allen, clearly has his share of the family genius.
The restaurant itself was once Madigan’s, a pub with a magenetic attraction for alickadoos and the more louche elements in RTÉ. Now it’s an elegant dining room, relaxed and busy without being noisy.
The menu and wine list come together on a large card, Paris bistro fashion, and it reads well. Phrases like Goatsbridge, Crowe’s Farm, Skeaghanore, Cullohill, Bill Casey, Arun Kapil and Lambay Island are strewn throughout. This is clearly a menu that is all about raw materials and, to be frank, most menus are about what comes out of the big food service trucks from Pallas Foods and Musgrave’s and that ilk.
O’Connells is different.
And there’s another reassuring name in one of our starters. Toonsbridge mozzarella, made from buffalo milk in North Cork, is partnered with blood oranges, watercress and roasted hazelnuts, the dressing sweetened with honey from the Galtee mountains. Simple, cleverly judged, fresh, delightful, this salad sets the tone.
The onion bhajia extends the tone to underline its occasional eclecticism. Strands of onion in crisp, spiced batter were offset by a tart tomato and chilli sauce. It’s a simple dish but streets ahead of the heavy, often greasy take on it that too many “Indian” restaurants do.
In a clever move, O’Connells offer an unusual cut of steak, the rump end of sirloin, so that they can do it for €19.95. I’d argue that it has more flavour, perhaps, than the posher end because this was as good a steak as you will find anywhere. It came with horseradish cream and filament-like straw potatoes which, unlike the average chip in the average restaurant, were clearly made on the premises.
A schnitzel of free-range pork from Crowe’s Farm in Tipperary was a trot down memory lane for me because my mother used to cook this (with inferior pork) and even did it with the “salsa” (not her word) that accompanied this version. Tomato and onion were fortified with tangy little capers in O’Connell’s version. Red cabbage was a strange bedfellow on paper but, as so often happens, worked well on the plate.
Creamy, buttery mashed potato and crunchy, perfectly cooked savoy cabbage, also delightfully buttery, took up the rear so to speak. Cabbage is such an abused vegetable that most people who don’t grow and cook their own have little idea of how good it can when treated with the gentleness that it deserves.
Pudding would have been unthinkable, despite their delightfully traditional and occasionally retro allure. The bill, including a bottle of Corbieres came to €70, an exceptionally reasonable price for cooking of this quality and ingredients of this calibre. Service was delightful and we left feeling younger than we had come in.
That’s a bonus that very few restaurants can offer. I’ll be back to this fount of youth for refuelling soon.