I’m here by default to a certain extent. I’ve been drumming my fingers awaiting of couple of big openings (not as sexy as it sounds but equally frustrating) and nothing seems to be happening. So, staggering under the weight of my tumid expectations and at the suggestion of my current and forever wife, I make a booking for the restaurant space that was once home to Jacob’s Ladder. It has been a long time since I darkened this doorway (3,877 days at the time of writing), having just uttered marriage vows in the Church of St Nicholas of Myra Without on Francis Street. Time is, indeed, a thief. The Pig’s Ear has been occupying the space since chef Stephen McAllister set it up and has retained a Bib Gourmand (I believe) since 2007. The main dining room on the second floor is unchanged, quite lovely, elegantly proportioned and graced with large sash windows overlooking the Trinity (our alma mater) cricket pitch. That’s principally why we chose it back in the day. That and the fact that the then chef allowed us to supply our own wines and wild bass. It has apparently been smartened up (along with the private rooms on the upper floors) in the interim, but is now beginning to show some signs of wear. It is commented that this is definitely a daytime room and I very much agree. The lighting above our table is as harsh and unforgiving as me on a Monday.
As my legion of regular reader and well-wisher will be aware, I have rarely encountered a tartare that I couldn’t get along with. The version here, of Kilkenny Rose Veal, is excellent, with the iodine tang of the meat playing nicely off the acidity of pickled onions. As with a Dexter Beef tartare I enjoyed last week at Etto, Jerusalem artichoke chips add some textural contrast. Less sucessful is a Terrine of Pork and Guinea Fowl with Mead. Discounting the bird, a quiet flavoured thing, this should be porcine porno, a roll in the barnyard hay, slippery, salty and giving of itself. This one just doesn’t put out. It’s underpowered, under-seasoned and underwhelming. Also – stop putting Mead in things, or even mentioning Mead, there’s a reason why it didn’t set the world on fire as a drink option. It is of interest only to types who have just kissed the fucking Blarney Stone. It’s inclusion as an ingredient might be telling as to the target audience for this place. Every day coaches disgorge clots of easily-led tourists along this strip – hungry for a taste of some kind of imagined Irishness, or maybe just plain hungry. They accounted for at least half of the covers on the evening of my visit. Soup is, to me, a civilised, if slightly fusty way of beginning a meal. There’s something mildly Edwardian about it.. the Leek & Potato soup here (with Eel and Dillisk butter) pulled off a neat trick of managing to not taste of any of its constituent parts. It tasted merely (and not altogether unpleasantly), of soup. They could advertise it on the menu by hue rather than ingredients – ‘I’ll have the beige soup please’. Soup is not alchemy and the margins are generous. Do better. Earl Gray Cured Salmon with Trout Roe is both of those things joining a couple of others on a plate. It’s fine.
The appearance of Shepherd’s pie on the menu presents me with another fait accompli but for a very different reason to the tartare. It conjures grim mental spectres. I’ve experienced PTSD-like symptoms since ordering it in The Ivy some time back. It haunts me to this day. In one nightmare, the dish is consuming me, so far, so Freudian. In another, altogether more troubling visitation, Nell McCafferty materialises at the foot of my marital bad and crys tears of industrially produced gravy. This gig doesn’t even cover a therapy session. Mercifully, the dish here, featuring Texel Lamb is textbook and probably the best thing we eat all night. It is rich, rib-sticking, hoggety in strength, with peas that pop sweetly between the molars. One of our party repeatedly burns her mouth on forkfuls in her greedy haste. I briefly consider having one sent over to Dawson St. We continue to see-saw through the mains with a fish dish showcasing a beautifully cooked pice of cod that has been seasoned to the point of baccala, some wooly-textured chicken that has evidently been cooked sous-vide and finished with a blowtorch. Beef cheek is a hard-working muscle owing to a cow’s habit of near-constant mastication. These animals have little else to do but chew and poo. Consequentially, this cut requires patient cooking to break it down. The approach here was perhaps a little too patient, with the flesh dry and a little mealy. The mahogany-dark gravy was good. The description also featured tongue on the website but this was eighty-sixed on the night I visited. Maybe this is why the dish didn’t really speak to me. Desserts are uniformly good with the highlight being a playfully deconstructed Black Forest.
So, to the service. Well I’ll begin by saying that it wasn’t entirely inattentive – it’s not a big room, there’s not really anywhere to hide. It was though the very definition of haphazard. I’m not going to lay the blame at the feet of the well intentioned young man assigned to our table, he confessed early on that this was his first week. I was once that soldier. Nevertheless, while he is finding his way around the menu (and the very basics of service) he should be shadowed by somebody who knows the ropes. He received very little support from the floor manager and his understandable nervousness wasn’t helped by the air of general disinterest from more experienced staff. We were barely acknowledged when we joined the pair already at our table. Front of house seemed to be out back somewhere. There is some solid cooking happening here, but not quite enough consistency to justify the enthusiasm of the pricing. With starters sniffing around €13 and mains touching thirty quid (that’s almost Luna money and definitely Etto), Dubliners need a more compelling argument than this to open their wallets and a warmer welcome to become regulars. I can’t speak for the tourists.
Words: Conor Stevens
Photo: Killian Broderick
The Pig’s Ear
4 Nassau St