TOFU TO CONJURE WITH ON BAGGOT STREET
AND THE SIR WALTER RALEIGH OF ITALY
7 Upper Baggot Street
Phone: 01 563 8000
Irish Daily Mail
25 February 2016
I sometimes wonder about our national love affair with the potato, on this occasion prompted by my purchase of a bag of British Queens (for planting), an unusual name for one of Ireland’s favourite spuds. I gather that our consumption is going down as other refined carbohydrates vie for our attention: pasta and rice.
I’ve just returned from a week in London during which I ate in several up-and-coming restaurants and I now realise that I encountered not a single piece of potato-derived item in all that time. My first dose of spud came at the end of the trip when I arrived in Fishguard for the ferry and stopped off for the very good haddock and chips you can get about half-way up the main street (and for some excellent Welsh farmhouse cheeses from the deli across the road).
Anyway, on my travels I learned – and I must be a little mysterious here – of a plan on the part of a chef from one of London’s coolest restaurants to elevate the art of the dumpling to dizzying heights in, of all places, Dublin. Knowing the kind of food this chap has been dealing with in his current berth, I can’t wait.
Now, we’re talking oriental dumplings, not the kind of heavy but rather wonderful Euro-dumplings favoured by our grannies and for which there are good recipes in books like Full and Plenty by Maura Laverty. The Irish dumpling was usually a combination of flour and suet, a kind of artificial potato for soaking up the gravy of the casserole in which they were cooked.
Oriental dumplings are quite a different affair and, in European terms, are much more akin to, say, ravioli. It’s worth recalling that pasta originated in China and was brought to Italy by Marco Polo in the 13th century; he was, in a sense, Italy’s Sir Walter Raleigh.
You get a dough or pasta enclosing some combination of meat and vegetable or just meat) and they come swimming in a broth or just as they are, ready to be dunked in stuff like soya sauce or anointed with black rice vinegar.
I can’t get enough of them and even make a rather lightweight version at home when I have too much time of on my hands.
It was the allure of dumplings that drew me to Zakura one cold, dark evening. Zakura does pan-Japanese food (in a way that few restaurants do in Japan where they tend to specialise), but it’s always busy and I’d heard good things. There’s one on Wexford Street too.
On a Tuesday evening, it was packed and I could see why. There’s good value for money here and the food is deftly done, from perfectly trimmed tuna sashimi (slices of raw fish served with cucumber and carrot with pickled ginger) to prawn and chive filled ebi gyoza, a form of dumpling which the Japanese brought back from their rather unwelcome trip to China in 1937.
I love this kind of food for its lightness, for the smallness of the portions, for the way you can order in wild, eclectic swoops. And then order again. And sometimes again.
Could one portion of shichimi squid ever be enough? Well, so widely did we cast the net on this occasion that it was but what a lovely dish: tender squid tossed in flour flavoured with Japanese spices and fried quickly to crisp perfection. This came with a tangy vinegar based dip.
Agedashi tofu was, perhaps, the dish of the evening, two ingots of bean curd, bordering on flavourless in themselves but a fabulously slippery, silky vehicle for ginger, scallion and the peppery daikon radish that formed a tart sauce. Skewers of marinated and grilled kushiyaki beef were tender, sweetish and savoury at the same time and a bowl of edamame or soya beans, steamed in their pods and generously salted was the kind of thing – in almost the same way as popcorn – that you can sit and eat all night.
I was going to say that there’s nothing outstanding about Zakura – I’m sure the one in Wexford Street is just the same, and Eatokyo on Wellington Quay is perhaps a smidgin ahead on refinement, while Taste at Rustic is the best Japanese restaurant in Ireland – but that would miss the point.
I’m old enough to be still amazed that Dublin now has this much Japanese food on offer and to be glad at the sight of lots of – admittedly mainly rather young – Dubs tucking into stuff that their mums and dads have probably never seen let alone had to spell.
With mineral water and a couple of beers each, the bill came to a very reasonable €65.50.