Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Restaurant Review: Etto, Merrion Row, Dublin 2.

This is not a restaurant review blog.... for a few reasons. Mostly, because there are lots already out there and I don't think the world needs another one. Also, I have a lot of friends in the industry and I work with several restaurants, so in order to maintain those relationships, I think it's wise to leave the reviewing to others.

On that basis, this may well be my one and only review. I don't work with Etto, nor do I know the guys behind it so my opinions are 100% impartial and written purely as a punter. This restaurant is by no means perfect but gets so many things right that I feel compelled to share my views.

You've probably gathered at this stage that I like place, so I'll get the negatives out of the way first before I start eulogising about the food. 

They were not blessed with much space so the seating area is tight. I'm short and weigh less than ten stone yet still find it difficult to squeeze between the tables. I can imagine they've encountered some issues with more generously proportioned people. The tight space and hard surfaces also make it quite noisy which means that you have to talk loudly to be heard. With neighbours in such close proximity, this makes intimate conversation a no-no ( I heard way too much about a fellow diner's medical issues recently). 

So why do I like this restaurant so much? Mainly because I always leave there happier than when I arrived. This is my acid test for any restaurant. 

The menu changes regularly and they offer a set lunch at€20/€25 for 2/3 courses or an a la carte option of small plates and larger main courses. This will prove considerably more expensive than the set menu option but value has two elements; price and quality. The ingredients on the ALC are notably higher end. 

On the most recent visit we both chose the set lunch despite being tempted by the squab on the other side of the page. Nevertheless, the set lunch is so appealing that there are no losers in the menu roulette game here. I chose a vegetarian starter of beetroot agnolotti with goat's curd and cavalo nero. The pasta was silky with just enough density to hold the sweet, earthy beetroot filling. Toasted walnuts added texture and feather light, micro planed Parmigiano Reggiano combined with the fresh curd to add a salty tang. The cabbage added both flavour and nice hit of iron to give the dish more substance. A really well thought out, well executed dish in keeping with the excellent vegetarian offerings the always seem to have here.

A bad photo of a great dish. Beetroot agnolotti.

The other starter was that Piedmontese classic, vitello tonnato. I find this dish always tastes better than it sounds. Wafer thin slices of veal in a creamy tuna mayonnaise with capers. I told you. Thankfully, it's a delicious dish and this version was no exception. The capers were deep fried which transforms them into crispy taste explosions but also makes them less acidic. A minor gripe would be that the dish needed more acidity and fresh capers would have provided it. 

Vitello Tonnato. 
By now the space had filled but service from the three FOH staff never missed a beat. They've clearly figured out the flow of the room and glided around without a hint of stress, even when clearly busy. They were well versed and interested enough to answer any questions from their guests and seemed to really enjoy their work. 

Main courses were pork and hake. Pork came in the form of a thick organic chop which had been griddled on the outside and was perfectly medium rare in the middle. I've huge admiration for restaurants with the courage to serve pork pink as I know from experience how challenging it can be. The quality of the pork was superb and a punchy romesco sauce, which managed to be both rustic and refined at the same time, elevated the dish way beyond the sum of it's parts. Some beans and greens balanced the dish and roasting juices added meaty savour.

Organic pork chop with romesco sauce.
The hake dish summed up on a plate what this restaurant is all about. The fish was clearly spanking fresh and cooked just at the point, giving a buttery crust on the outside and translucent, barely cooked flakes in the centre. Sounds simple, but I encounter perfectly cooked fish rarely enough for it to stick in my mind when I find it. The bold accompanying flavours of brown shrimp and a velvety purée of trompette mushroom & truffle transformed the dish into a show stopper. Without question this dish was firmly 1* Michelin standard.

Hake with new potatoes, brown shrimp & trompettes.

The wine list here deserves special mention. Unsurprisingly it leans heavily toward Italy but the rest of the old world, especially Spain, is also well represented. Some very classy European wine makers are listed and while this is inevitably reflected in the pricing, there are some real gems if you know what you're looking for. 

As it was lunch time, we stuck to glasses from the short list on the board. It was a limited choice and my garnacha from northern Spain wouldn't have been my first choice with the pork but stood up well to the robust flavours. As I had some left, I chose the cheese of the day instead of dessert. 

Clonmore is a firm goats milk cheese from Cork and had a mild flavour that would have benefited from not being in the fridge. Truth be told, we'd have just as easily skipped dessert although the delicious warm greengages with toasted almond ice cream were comforting and moreish. A couple of short, perfectly extracted espressi rounded off a memorable lunch. 

I note that Etto won "Best Casual Dining" at the Food & Wine Awards recently. I'm not sure that this category does justice to what these guys are doing. The staff and setting may be casual and relaxed but make no mistake about it, this is a serious restaurant. I mentioned in a blog post recently about the rise in "casual fine dining" in London. I predict that we will see a lot more of it here over the next few years and restaurants like Etto & Forest Avenue are leading the charge. I know that there is Michelin pedigree in the kitchen at Etto and this clearly shines through in some of the dishes. It may be too soon for them this year, but they could be an outside bet for a star in the future. For me, their food is certainly worth a special journey. You heard it here first!

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