It’s just before Christmas and the table before me is laden down with bowls of spiced and roasted chickpeas, plates of turmeric pickled cauliflower and carrots, and rolls of homemade bread laced with spicy ‘nduja sausage. There are chicory and radish crudités served alongside bitter dandelion leaves. Their purpose is to be dipped into a small copper pot full of bagna cáuda, a ridiculously delicious hot garlic and anchovy dip, sort of like fondue, but better. I’m with twelve food-loving colleagues and we’re celebrating the season with the evening dinner experience at one of the city’s most stubbornly original eating houses, Assassination Custard.
When Ken Doherty and Gwen McGrath opened this tiny lunchtime restaurant across the road from Kevin Street Garda Station in October 2015, they had just six seats. They have now expanded to eight seats. Which begs the question, is it possible for a casual lunchtime restaurant with so few seats to survive?
Doherty, originally from Dublin, studied Arts in UCC and lived in Cork City for five years. He worked as a chef at Dennis Cotter’s Cafe Paradiso, which perhaps explains Doherty’s adept respect for vegetables at Assassination Custard. He also wrote a food column for The Irish Examiner for a number of years. McGrath also studied in Cork and her background is in Industrial Design.
The name Assassination Custard is in reference to a cake reportedly made by James Joyce and Nora Barnacle, made for their friend Samuel Beckett who was in hospital in Paris after being stabbed by a pimp. They called the cake an ‘assassination custard.’
Another interesting quirk about Assassination Custard is their opening hours, which are Monday to Friday, noon to 3pm. They are specifically designed around Doherty and McGrath’s two daughters, who are six and a half and three years old. “It’s more cost effective to only open when they’re at school and creche rather than paying for a child-minder,” Doherty tells me.
Doherty admits to me that their model has been a challenge at times, in that it’s simply quite hard for them to make any money. But still, he and McGrath have never compromised on their vision of celebrating seasonal ingredients through their Italian-ish small plates. Because of the minute size of the space, it means that Doherty personally selects every ingredient that he cooks.
He goes to the McNally Family Farm stall in Temple Bar Food Market on a Saturday to select items of their marvellous produce for the week to come.
“I like bitter tastes, like dandelion leaves,” says Doherty. “Bitterness is not something you normally see celebrated on menus.” While at the Food Market, he gets meat from the brilliant Broughgammon Farm, a family farm in County Antrim with a keen eye to sustainability. He has a close relationship with Ennis Butchers in Rialto as well as Hogan’s Butcher on Camden Street. You will never see a delivery van from a large, generic food supplier pulled up outside of Assassination Custard.
The menus are hand written in blue biro on the back of small brown paper bags. Every time I’ve visited and eaten here, the little menu on the brown paper bag has opened up a whole new avenue of flavour for me. It’s either introduced me to a new ingredient or cooking method or food pairing, so that when I leave I’m thinking about how to recreate something or other at home. It might be a bowl of stinco (the Italian word for ham hock) with gremolata (€7), or small plates of artichoke, radish, walnuts and pomegranate (€5) or a saucer of endive paired with tahini and zhoug (€6). Doherty makes a strong case for offal, too, with dishes like goat kidney served on toast with a dollop of quince aioli.
There are certainly Italian influences on display but Doherty also folds in Middle Eastern and Indian flavours, such as the zhoug and the collard thoran, a Keralan stir fry. On the counter are jars of their wondrously piquant piccalilli (€5.50 for a large jar), ready for you to take them home. The daily cake, such as a recent blood orange bundt cake, are baked in-house and go down well with their dark roasted coffee from Two Fifty Square across the canal in Rathmines.
At the beginning of this year, they received a massive boost when they were selected as one of John and Sally McKenna’s Top 100. “That brought a lot of new visitors in to see us and it has been fantastic. It’s helped spread the word about our private parties in the evening.”
Which brings me back to the pre-Christmas supper experience. The space holds eight to ten people, but we comfortably squeezed twelve in. Doherty and McGrath are open to catering for small supper parties mid-week and on weekends. Since their McKenna’s shout out, their private party service has been booked up right until the early summer.
Assassination Custard, like the writers who inspired its name, is one of those rare things: a true original.
To find out about Assassination Custard’s supper parties, contact Doherty and McGrath on 087-9971513 between 12pm and 3pm Monday to Friday.
17 Kevin Street Cross
Words: Aoife McElwain
Photos: Killian Broderick