Words: Aoife McElwain // Photos: Mark Duggan
I’m sitting with an old school friend in a small, buzzing room on Merrion Row that used to be home to a steamy Govinda’s. I can’t speak because of the buttery, silky spinach ricotta dumplings I’m having a moment with (they’re swimming in sage butter!) and my chum is making light work of a juicy venison chop on the bone and slathered in marjoram butter. We can’t even speak to each other, the food is that good.
We had been so looking forward to eating at Etto on Merrion Row, and not only because of the rave reviews that were beginning to flow in. It would also be a chance to see some old friends. When we arrived in Etto’s small but perfectly formed rooms (a dining room at front and a bar at back) we were greeted by front of house Liz Matthews who was a few years younger than us in school. “We’re out of the pork belly and smoked eel croquettes already tonight, I’m afraid,” she explained. “But Barry has kept you a ‘njuda scotch egg especially.”
“Barry” is Etto’s Head Chef Barry Fitzgerald. He went to the boys school around the corner from our girls school. Back then, his talent for cooking had already begun to emerge. There was the time the news of his epic victory in a class sandwich making competition (that he had organised) reached us. “I put a lot more effort in than anyone else and needless to say I was victorious,” Barry reminisced with us. Barry pursued his passion and, after a stint in Mint in Ranelagh, he moved to London and worked with Arbutus Co, St John’s and The Harwood Arms. Not too shabby a kitchen resumé.
Etto is the brainchild of Barry, Liz and Liz’s partner Simon Barrett (another old school friend of Barry’s). “We set out to have a fun, informal wine bar and restaurant that serves interesting wines and delicious, honest and approachable food with a keen eye to provinence.”
We scoop up creamy taramasalata (it’s not fluorescent pink) with perfectly crunchy carrots (€6) before we each down a single oyster encrusted in a super lemon granita (€2.50). The aforementioned ‘nduja (an Italian chorizo-style sausage) scotch egg (€3.50) is smokey and robust with a lovely wobbly egg yolk revealing itself upon being sliced. And these are just the nibbles to start. We order four small plates to share rather than choosing from the large plates (on average around €18 each). We have some grilled broccoli and lardo di Colonnato (€4.50) for a side. That’s broccoli covered in pig fat basically – is there any other way to eat broccoli?
The venison tartare (€10) is laced with pearls of creamy mustard and works wonders on toasted sourdough. I already told you how totally fecking amazing our spinach and ricotta dumplings (€10) and grilled venison chops (€10) were. The squid with white beans, ‘nduja and green sauce (€9) was the only dish we didn’t absolutely love. It practically punched us in the face with flavour but there was perhaps a tad too much going on, making it difficult to properly grasp the dish. I mean, we still ate every last bit of it, obviously. It was a meal we had to stretch to find fault with.
The desserts were the cherry on top or, in this case, the prunes on top. Soaked in red wine and spices, this wintery fruit was working it with a dollop of creamy mascarpone (€7). A sticky date ice cream with walnut toast and lemon curd (€7) was a total winner. Our bill, which included two coffees and a glass of wine came to €75.50.
Etto’s phone has been ringing off the hook since they opened in October and you absolutely have to book for a dinner table. The bar at the back, however, do take walk-ins. I would need another half a page to talk through the wine selection at Etto – there are some beautifully intriguing bottles stacked up behind that bar. I was eyeing up the Blaufrankisch Austrian red (€39.50 a bottle) which is a mad special wine that I don’t think I’ve ever seen on anything other than a fine dining menu.
And that’s the beauty of Etto. Its laid-back, accessible atmosphere gives way to really clever food and wine. They know what they’re at.
There are so many great things about getting older but one of my favourites is seeing friends develop into who they’re supposed to be. Our time at Etto was probably more nostalgic than most people might experience it but you don’t have to have gone to school with half of the staff to recognise mature talent. It’s exciting.
18 Merrion Row