A TINY BASEMENT RESTAURANT ON THE NORTH DUBLIN QUAYS THAT CONTAINS A PORTAL TO ANOTHER WORLD
13 Bachelor’s Walk
Phone: 01 873 5300
Irish Daily Mail
5 November 2016
I have great respect for the Italians’ missionary spirit. I mean, if you were born and brought up in a sunny land where lemons grow outside and everybody thinks very hard about food pretty well all the time and where even the meanest little coffee shop does amazing things, why on earth would you move to Ireland?
Ireland, for all its virtues, a land of drizzle and sliced pan, of too many pints, of toasted sandwiches and flow-wrapped muffins, where people excitedly queue for American chain hamburgers.
Well, you see what I mean? It’s something that always strikes me when I descend the steep steps of a particular basement on Bachelor’s Walk, a few steps away from the squalor of O’Connell Street and prepare for the seductive embrace of what must be the capital’s smallest serious restaurant, Terra Madre.
The guys here are true missionaries, hand-selling delicacies from their native land that even some of the best-travelled Dubliners have quite possibly never heard of. They receive several deliveries a week direct from Italy – mainly the south as far as I can gather – and they support small producers and specialists.
And yes, it’s seasonal too, to the extent that their website, beautifully designed as it is, contains no menus whatsoever. They change too often, from day to day and sometimes, it appears, from hour to hour.
I suppose it’s blasphemous to mention printed, laminated, wipe-clean menus in this context but I just want to say that Terra Madre and its whole attitude is the polar opposite of such things.
This is one of the true attractions here: you will never tire of what’s on offer because you will never get the chance. I know of one lawyer who refuses to eat anywhere else apart, reluctantly, from home.
Everything about Terra Madre is simple. It’s a no frills place with the kind of bare tables and mismatched chairs that were de rigeur when the gastropub first surfaced in London. The menu is short, printed on thin paper, often a bit crumpled. The wine list is considerably longer and even more crumpled.
At the back there is a door, or perhaps a portal to another universe. Anyway, from this emerges the food and our first shared dish was of ambrosial pancetta, not the salty stuff you cook with but wafer thin slices like prosicutto di Parma but much fattier.
Slices of pancetta had covered the plate which – clever this – had been heated beforehand so that the cured meat and its abundant, sweet fat started to melt, to become almost ethereal. And each wafer of pancetta had been lightly anointed with a Sicilian onion marmelade which made the dish, scattered with tiny, salty olives, even more than the sum of its parts.
To be honest, we could have sat there and eaten plateful after plateful.
Our other shared starter was the creamiest, most decadent burrata that I’ve tasted for years, perhaps ever. Burrata is a kind of turbocharged buffalo mozzarella, in the usual ball but, on the inside, pure cream. Its richness was cut with tiny portions of anchovy, pickled aspragus, sundried tomato and pesto.
Octopus had been cooked long and slowly in a very light tomato sauce with, I’m guessing, some red wine, until very tender, with black chickpeas, nutty and savoury. This deep, earthy, intense stew was served with thin slices of crisped sourdough bread with which the juices could be soaked up.
It was the very definition of the unexpected on an Autumn evening in Dublin, a true taste of the south of Italy with no nods to the local taste (or lack of it). This was, quite simply, the taste of authenticity.
Much the same could be said for our other main course, gnocchi with rabbit. Again, long and slow cooking was the secret here and the meat had virtually disintengrated and merged with the sauce – again there was tomato and red wine – to produce an intensely flavoured, very slightly gamey, thick amalgam of deliciousness.
Its intense savouriness was enhanced even further by grated Parmesan and, I should add, the gnocchi themselves had the requisite resistance to the teeth. Flabby gnocchi are horrible.
A shared rich, creamy pannacotta served with bittersweet cherries in their own syrup was, once again, a very authentic way to go.
We could easily have got out for under €100 but accidentally bought a dearer wine than usual (it’s that kind of place – plenty of tasting samples when you’re trying to choose) and our decadent dinner came to over €120.
Worth every penny, of course.