In certain academic circles and university departments in the (nineteen) nineties it became almost required to reduce the human condition to one of consumption. We were Pac-Men (and later Miss Pac-Men) gormlessly gobbling dots of worth or non-worth at every turn. Tenured heads spun with the possibilities of Post-Structuralism, and over stimulated tutors tip-toed through the minefields of Marxist critical theory. Minds were blown, melons twisted and for many callow undergraduates, prospects of gainful employment doomed. Heady days. I was visited by this wistful reminiscence as I contemplated paying a visit to Margadh, a wine bar (another nineties notion) in an art gallery from the folks behind Howth’s rightly beloved Mamó. There’s another Margadh just down the street from the parent restaurant. Keep ‘em coming I say.
However you feel about the idea of consuming art, the intersection of art (in the gallery sense) and food has never been a particularly interesting place to be. Dull, sterile, canteens peddling sweaty muffins or openings featuring crap hors d’oeuvres ferried on trays by resentful kids in poorly ironed shirts. It’s called passed food because you should generally take a hard pass when offered. My editor had suggested a revival of my feted Double Take® series where I would choose two comparable places and consider their relative merits (or otherwise), side-by-side. I’m glad I demurred. Margadh has raised the bar for the consumption of culturally adjacent calories. The other (unnamed) institution would have won the art but lost the dinner. It would have been like comparing Titians with NFTs. Or something.
The room is light and airy, on the first day of Summer, if a little featureless. It’s something of a blank canvas and that’s okay; the long, glass-fronted space affords a very pleasant view of the Georgian splendour of Ely Place. It feels tucked away, apart. The only traffic we will see consists of a sauntering fox and a man taking a selfie outside the Singaporean consulate opposite. Uh huh. It strikes me that this quiet dead end has doubtless witnessed decades of nocturnal knee-tremblers. We’re joined by a pair of old friends, so we have what passes for a double date where everyone’s middle aged and wed-locked. The other couple consists of a music critic and a psychotherapist. So Kanye, tell me about your Mother?
At this point the realisation dawns that we are the only diners in the room. It’s an uncommonly sunny evening and most folks are standing outside pubs turning pink. Occupying the only table in a restaurant, or rather realising that your group will be the only one occupying any of the restaurant’s tables at a particular sitting, can provoke mixed reactions. The effervescent chatter can turn flat, replaced by the fingering of flatware. One of the pleasures of dining in bustling restaurants is their ability to deceive us that we are magically folded into the mix, our voices harmonising magically with the hum. We become invisible. This, of course, is a nonsense. Although stiff pre-prandial drinks can help one to care less – every other diner notices your arrival, spots the almost stumble, the inelegant shuffle into the two-top that you’re twenty minutes late for. Everyone’s watching. Everyone’s judging. Whatever. We make our peace with being an installation in the centre of the room and have at it.
At €38 Euros the (‘convivial’) tasting menu here represents one of the best deals in the city although you can also order à la carte, if you like. We start with good sourdough, good olives and good almonds. I’d be happy for every meal to start the same way. If you’re ‘doing small plates’ it seems obligatory to include a croquette – the cheese and onions ones here, with tarragon aioli are paragons of the form. Deeply savoury, crisp and light. You’ve probably seen the anchovies in your social (force) feeds already and that’s no mistake. They’re as art-directed as they are delicious. These are Cantabrian specimens, fat and firm and glossy, arrayed on palisade planks of toast slicked with a preserved lemon aioli. Other fingers of toast are soldiers. These ones are special forces. Get them if you drop by for a glass of something post art-consumption. Or go here to specifically to eat them, have a glass of wine and eighty-six the art altogether. It will probably just repeat on you anyway. Slices of Skeaghanore duck with Thai slaw in baby gem cups take us away from the Iberian/Italian slant of the rest of the menu but eat perfectly well nevertheless.
There were no formal wine pairings, but we are guided through these courses with excellent recommendations from their (daily changing) by-the-glass list. A couple of Portuguese whites were particularly interesting. Fresh burrata sits in a verdant puddle of herb oil, joined by asparagus, garden peas and the bosky perfume of Summer truffles, it is the very essence of the season.
Killian Durkin’s execution of the pasta dishes at Mamó are always outstanding and this carries through to a knockout plate of Tagliolini in a rich fennel sausage ragù. It will calm the nerves of those types who worry about small plates lacking ballast. We finish by dredging warm madeleines though the darkness of a chocolate crème brûlée and we feel pretty good about ourselves. The service is that type of unobtrusive attentiveness that you get from industry veterans. Relaxed, knowledgeable and warm without becoming too chummy, they judge the level of interaction that the table wants and work accordingly, just as it is at the Howth flagship. There’s no alchemy at work here, just top-drawer ingredients treated with the respect that allows them to shine. The only magic trick is the way that each course disappears. The DNA of the parent restaurant is apparent. I enjoyed a stellar dinner there just days after their re-opening and I’m gratified that the kid’s turning out similarly unaffected and confident plates. It’s in the genes.
Words: Conor Stevens
Photos: Killian Broderick
Margadh @ RHA Gallery
15 Ely Place