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Elizabeth Field in Dublin

All the best places to eat, shop and stay in Ireland. A local guide to local places.

Many Irish food lovers will regret that Elizabeth Field, whose writing on Irish food proved to be so enlightening and enlivening when she lived in the city, has returned to the 'States to be a happy bunny, thanks to having Barack and Bo in the White House in place of the former criminally-inclined occupants.
Happily, Elizabeth was in Dublin for a few days a couple of weeks ago and managed to catch up on a few places for the Bridgestone guides.
Any wannabee food critics out there? This is how you do it...

GREEN NINETEEN

Green 19 is exactly what Dublin needs: a lively, smart, hip-but-family-friendly restaurant with great prices. The abbreviated menu offers just a handful of crowd-pleasing choices including club sandwiches, Caesar salads, burgers, fish and chips, pot roasted chicken and vegetables, Irish bangers and mash, etc. The great thing is that all the hearty and well-prepared mains are priced at a wonderfully recession-busting €10.
We started with a salad of fresh, seasonal greens and a saucer-sized meaty, wine-and cream-napped roasted portobello mushroom served on a thick slab of toasted focaccia – easily substantial enough to constitute a light lunch dish. The burger, made from organic Irish beef, comes with pickles, onions and homemade ketchup, while the lightly battered haddock is fresh and delicate. The homemade chips are addictively thin, crispy and greaseless. We ordered a glass each of a Chilean cabernet and a Rioja – perfectly serviceable “hamburger wines.”
It’s easy to choose desserts because only two (at €5 each) are offered: a sweet (to me, overly sweet) and moist apple crumble with a minty, lime-laced, pale green mojito ice cream, and a deeply satisfying warm chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream.
Quibbles? I ordered my burger medium-rare, and it arrived well-done. (I would have liked to savour that organic Irish beef, which is a treat compared to American meat.) Other than that, this buzzy, two-floor eatery makes the case for simple, well-prepared food at excellent prices – a winning formula in modern Dublin.


THE MERMAID CAFÉ

With its soft lighting and flickering candles, tall windows facing onto Dame Street, subtle nautical-style décor and cool background music (Joni Mitchell, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Terence Blanchard, etc.), the Mermaid is arguably one of Dublin’s most atmospheric restaurants. Its core values – presenting timeless, elevated comfort food in a great setting – are uncontested.
However, confirming some of the feelings I experienced when living in Dublin for six years, the Mermaid is sadly uneven.
On our recent visit, there were some stand-out dishes, including a starter of succulent seared foie gras, pan-roasted potato and duck cake, and baby onion jus, and a truly fabulous dessert of pecan pie, piled high with nuts, sticky with treacle, and served with a large scoop of maple ice cream to complete the burnt-sugar theme.
But Bruce’s apple and celeriac soup was overpowered with coriander, drowning out rather than enhancing the understated flavours of apple and celeriac. His pan-roasted sea bream had seen better days – the fish was limp and moving toward off-tasting. My hake was slightly better, though not spectacular, although the accompanying buttery poached spring onion bulbs and steamed asparagus were delicate and evocative of spring. Joanna’s pan-roasted chicken with mash was comforting and homely, but her starter salad of buffalo mozzarella and raw carrots was nondescript. Our two other desserts – a moist apple cobbler and a blood orange tiramisu – an interesting take on the classic Italian sweet – were pleasant, but nothing stellar.
I suppose that if money grew on trees (or one was on a perpetual expense account), the Mermaid could get by on its atmosphere alone. But the chances are too high of ordering something not-so-great to justify its hefty price of roughly €60 per person (with wine). These lean times demand a greater attention to detail and consistency in order to make the diner feel that s/he is getting her money’s worth.




THE CAKE CAFÉ

Accessible by walking through the Daintree paper shop, and following a flagstone pathway to its cheery, sunny interior, this utterly delightful café has a kind of “Secret Garden” quality to it. (In fact, I ran into one of my oldest Dublin friends here – someone who I hadn’t seen in 4 years – what a nice surprise.)
With its tempting countertop displays of cakes, brownies and whimsical lavender-iced cupcakes, it combines the homeliness of a village bakeshop with more sophisticated café-style fare. (There are 21 types of exotic tea, a decent little wine list, and hot chocolate made from Valhrona chocolate – how decadent is that!)
We satisfied both breakfast and lunch cravings with a bowl of homemade granola served with fresh fruit and Killowen natural yoghurt, and homemade lemonade (Joanna); an earthy parsnip and celery soup and a buttery sautéed leek and goat cheese tart with a glass of Macon-Lugny (Bruce), and a bowl of genuine Irish oatmeal with cream and cinnamon-laced pear compote, and two cups of very good cappuccino (myself). We couldn’t resist taking away a few iced cookies and chocolate brownies to eat later in the afternoon.
Baked goods depend on the finest ingredients, and the café uses free-range eggs, butter, cream, etc., sourced from small Irish producers. You can really taste the difference. The café draws a mixed crowd of mothers and tots, arty types, city professionals and chattering friends of all ages. Prices are very fair. What an original addition to Dublin in the age of Starbucks!


TOWN BAR & GRILL

We ended our Bridgestone marathon on a delicious note. Based on our lunch at Town Bar & Grill, I’d venture to say this may be one of Dublin’s top restaurants.
I was worried at first that the atmosphere might be snooty or intimidating, but it was nothing of the kind. The basement location is elegant in a non-fussy way: natural and white-washed brick walls, mushroom-coloured ceiling, wide rice-paper hanging lamps, and white linens. Our waiter couldn’t have been more helpful in describing the specials, and a simple glass of the house wine, a fruili, took us nicely through the entire meal.
My starter was spectacular: a beautiful presentation of fat green and white grilled asparagus spears gilded with a light lemony hollandaise sauce, and topped with a slice of prosciutto and a perfectly poached, farm-fresh egg. A few mache leaves were a lovely garnish.
Bruce’s red pepper and tomato soup did what most versions of this dish do not: taste like summer in the sun, exuberantly celebrating the sweet full warmth of roasted red peppers with back notes of tomatoes. And all this on a cold March day.
My grilled sea bream was crisp and golden on the outside, sweet and flaky within. It was perfectly complemented by a sauté of smoky-woodsy oyster mushrooms and pancetta, and a mild cauliflower puree. Bruce’s spaghetti verde with garlic greens, peas and shaved black truffle could have used a bit more seasoning to enliven the flavours, but it was a lovely delicate dish. And dear Joanna, bless her heart, ordered the char-grilled Hereford rib eye steak – a massive slab of beef that despite being cooked well-done as she prefers it, was meltingly tender. It came with a sage and mustard mash – a nice savoury complement to the buttery beef.
We finished up with a refined version of apple and pear crumble with cinnamon ice cream, and a delicious baked custard tart, reminiscent of crème brulee in a buttery pastry shell, with a tart-sweet winterberry compote. All in all an exquisite meal, and at €23.95 for a two-course meal and €27.50 for three courses (with tea or coffee) an absolute steal. I hope I get to eat here again.

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