Gastro: Long Overdue – Library St.

Posted 2 weeks ago in Food & Drink Features


Slumped in the back of a cab in a state of replete stupefaction I wondered why it had taken me almost three years to pay a visit to Library St, on the magazine’s dime or my own? Could it be that it had been recommended by somebody I dislike or whose opinion I don’t care for? This is no way to live I think. I need better reasons to be undone by my own spite. I had good times in the room before Allta began its wanderings. It’s a good room. Setanta Place is a pleasant location. It’s five minutes from my desk. So why had I denied myself this quasi-religious experience?

Most confoundingly I knew that the head chef came with a serious pedigree. Kevin Burke first blipped on my radar after he returned from London to cook with the Allta team following stints in Jason Atherton’s Pollen St Social and The Ninth, where he garnered a Michelin star within a year of heading up the kitchen. He also cut his teeth cooking here in Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud and classical French technique (and a certain gallic uprightness) certainly underpins his menu at Library St. Reviewing my notes a day or two later I begin to realise that there’s so much to say about his (and his team’s) food that I might need to curb the digressions that have made me such a darling in food-writing award circles. I’ll try to focus on what the kitchen sent out.

I’ll get this out of the way – the signature snack of choux pastry piped with horseradish cream didn’t do much for me. I’m putting this at the top because everything that follows is basically PR for the restaurant. Resembling a lilliputian savoury cannolo, it’s just a perfectly fine thing to eat with a glass of something. Much better is a little bowl of Cured Red Mullet. Thumbnail sized pieces of fish have been firmed-up, torched and crowned with dainty triangles of radish. They sit in a refreshing pink liquor dotted with (I think) drops of tomato oil. It really is quite transporting. Which brings us to the Testa di Porchetta. Restaurants don’t need to make charcuterie so when you see house charcuterie on a menu you know that you’re dealing with a chef with a little something extra and one who probably does this for pleasure.

As the name suggests Testa di Porchetta involves the laborious boning-out and skilful re-assemblage of a pig’s head. It is also one of the relatively rare cooked charcuterie preparations. On the plate it presents a series of delicious concentric circles – the textured line of the ear wrapping around the tongue, giving way to the fatty jowl. Everything but the oink. The resulting gossamer slices are meltingly compelling, pure porcine joy.

I tagged along with the photographer a few days later principally because I wanted to talk pig-faces with the man who made it. I learn that not every head is worthy of the treatment. A ‘good head’ (uh huh), in case you’ve ever wondered is “not too big, not too small” and “doesn’t look as if it has been beaten up”. He closes with the telling comment “I don’t let anyone else make it”. All I can do is nod gravely in appreciation.

Confit Rabbit Ravioli is I suppose a kind of riff on Tortellini in Brodo but infinitely better. Perfect dumplings are stuffed with a delicate rabbit forcemeat and bob in a dark, complex consommé. You get the bosky, earthy tone of morels, the musk of wild garlic and finally a golden cured egg-yolk that spills to enrich the entirety. It’s a sensational starter.

There’s a quote on the back of the menu that refers to Libraries as ‘raucous clubhouses for free speech controversy and community’ and it seems to have gone to the heads of an overstimulated group at the long table that bisects the room. One dullard is actually roaring every vacuous syllable at the top of his voice despite every other diner pausing to stare at him. This night out syndrome seems to be happening more and more often in restaurants. These are doubtless the same types who stand with their backs to the stage at gigs and have the chats. Whatever, it’s not the fault of the restaurant. They might consider another library-adjacent quote for the menu mind.

Minor digression. Dinner wins out over the din when the next dish of Quail with Tzatziki hits the table. The diminutive birds have been tunnel-boned, glazed with an off-sweet coating and roasted to a perfect rose-pink. Tzatziki-dressed radicchio balances the plate. An ‘accidental quail kebab’ Burke deadpans.

The main event is a Tranche of Turbot sauced in two ways, something I’ve never had before and will possibly never forget. The first of those sauces is a jus gras – a classical French accompaniment to this fish that involves the roasting and pressing of whole organic Irish chickens and proceeds to many more steps after that. It’s mouth-coating but not sticky and profoundly intense. On the other side of the beautifully cooked fish is a pool of frothy béarnaise. That’s an aerated brown-butter béarnaise to be clear. It seems odd to think that something as rich as béarnaise could temper the jus gras but the acidity does just that, along with the sharpness of some wilted sorrel. If a dish can be both thrillingly modern and classically respectful then this is it.

As we’re splitting a main we pair it with a couple of sides. Fondant potatoes are fat cylinders of pommes de terre that have been roasted to a deep mahogany on each end before being cooked in garlic and thyme-scented stock and butter. It’s arguably the most decadent thing you can do to a lowly spud, almost an act of transubstantiation. These are probably the best I’ve ever eaten. I joked with the chef that his cabbage side-dish practically has its own social media presence but it’s easy to see why. It sits unapologetically at a confluence of recent trends – char-grilling brassicas, kimchi and dukkah. Egypt just sidles over to Korea on the dancefloor and moments later they’re getting into an Uber together. It’s the only Shoreditch-maximalist item on the menu and a two-punch knockout. Dessert brought a bowl of gently scented sheep’s milk yoghurt with a Wonka-esque cherry sherbet that reminded me of Jolly Ranchers in the best way.

Service is young and frequently impassioned about the food. Our server also tells us (unbidden) about how great a place it is to work. In my experience restaurants that are great places to work tend to be great places to eat too. The Sommelier Anne Marie handles the wine-programme with ease and wit. This is cooking of the very highest order, a cook at the very summit of his powers and a kitchen that’s ticking like a metronome. The food is not showy or modish, it is just assured and absolutely in the service of the constituent parts. As Burke tells me more than once ‘it’s all about balance’.

For me this is ‘fine dining’ without the faff and fuss and I can’t help but think that Dublin’s gain is London’s loss. You don’t like me? Fine. Don’t care for my opinion? Sure. Do yourself a favour and don’t let either of those things get in the way of you experiencing some of the most thrilling and satisfying food in the city right now.

Words: Conor Stevens

Photographs: Killian Broderick

Library St

101 Setanta Place

Dublin 2


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