As winter approaches we talk seasonal bites, artisan suppliers and the secret to a mean cocktail with Erik Robson of ely.
You’ve established a great reputation for food over the years, much of it based on ingredients sourced from local artisan food producers. How do you find them?
Sometimes food provenance gets paid lip service to, but we’ve been lucky that we have our own family farm in the Burren, the source of our organic beef and pork since 1999. We’re an open door for artisan producers; it’s part of our DNA now, but being in the city-centre means that sometimes we can be a little bit removed from them. Networking and word of mouth are a great source of exciting new suppliers, and only this week we found new producers of heritage potatoes and Irish garlic through the Boyne Valley Food Series, a network of local growers passionate about what they do. As a result of the recession people are thinking more laterally now, and it’s very satisfying to see local supermarkets, restaurants and cafes working together, supporting their neighbours.
The drinks menu at ely Wine Bar recently expanded to include cocktails. What do you think makes a good cocktail?
We find the drier style of cocktails more food friendly, so we look for more classic flavours, with less fruits and sugars. We’re seeing some great examples of Irish artisan spirits at the moment, including Bertha’s Revenge, a Waterford gin made from distilled whey, which gives it a slightly creamier flavour. We were also excited to see the arrival of Poacher’s Well, a really good Irish tonic water. On the whiskey scene Teelings are leading the charge, and Mitchell’s Green Spot and Yellow Spot are extremely good too.
We have a tagline that asks the question, “What makes for a mean cocktail?” and the answer is “Don’t be mean!” So good ingredients obviously, and if it’s a gin with plenty of botanicals maybe don’t use a tonic that’s also big on botanicals, making sure not to murder it with a tonic water that’s also competing for your attention.
Wine has always been your passion, and you’ve recently won another award. How do you keep up the standards?
Every time we get the recognition that an award brings we feel pressure to raise the bar, so we’re always looking for winemakers that excite us, for example using indigenous grapes that may have been forgotten about. We look for older vintages too. We change our list twice a year and we’re around long enough that we’ve seen all the trends. We’re currently trying to find an alternative to the ubiquitous New Zealand Sauvignion Blanc and we think we’ve found a nice one from South Africa. The Spanish whites are also very exciting and I can see Eastern European wines starting to make in-roads over the next couple of years, as Slovakian wines begin to make their mark.
You have two very distinctive venues in Ely Place and the IFSC. What’s the secret to the ambience in both?
ely Wine Bar on Ely Place is more intimate as a wine bar, and ely Bar and Brasserie in the IFSC has a larger capacity, with the waterside terrace and the vaults downstairs, and it’s fully licensed which allows us to do a terrific selection of craft beers. We’ve never been preachy about drink or food, so when Ian does his tastings the wines are presented in a very relaxed way. We keep an open house; the team imparts their knowledge in a relaxed manner and we’ve got great customers who bring their own ambience. When somebody walks in and asks for a table for one, it’s never a problem. I like to think that nobody’s in a hurry, including ourselves.
Do you think the tastes of the Dublin diner have changed much since you first opened your doors in 1999?
When we started we were probably a bit ahead of our time, we’ve always offered interesting bar bites and sharing plates and we’ve always had a huge percentage of walk-in trade. One night recently we had less than thirty people booked and we actually looked after 90. Our customers tend to come out that little bit later now and they’re happy to have a number of smaller plates, rather than the old verbal contract for a three-course dinner at 8 o’clock on a Saturday night. We have people choosing three or four starters from the bar bite menu, or a dish from the a la carte and there’s more grazing and ad hoc dining now.
Seasonality gives you a great opportunity to look down the tracks and experiment a bit. What can diners look forward to enjoying this season?
This time of year oysters are very popular and we have hand cut beef carpaccio from our own farm. Purple flowering broccoli, celeriac and beets are obviously big now, earthy flavours are back again and the more flavour-some selection of dishes gives Ryan and the guys in the kitchen more of a free hand. We’re also doing “Tongue and Cheek” croquettes with great bursts of flavour and cuttlefish dropped in oil, a calamari-like dish, where every so often you get this secret ingredient of a pickled mussel bursting through to tempt the taste buds. They make for great bar bites. Wild venison will come in for the winter and we’re also hoping to work with a producer of rabbit in the Boyne Valley.
We’re always trying to see how we can do things differently. I think sometimes it’s easy for all of us, myself included, to be lazy and just go for a steak, but if we can find ingredients like rabbit or different game and remind people that it’s there they’ll go for it. As they say, the proof is in the pudding so we’d encourage people to drop in and experience ely for themselves!
ely Wine Bar, 22 Ely Place Dublin 2 Tel: (01) 676 8986
ely Bar and Brasserie CHQ, IFSC, Dublin 1 Tel: (01) 672 0010
Words: Martina Murray