Gastro: ‘Dinner and a Show’ – Etto


Posted 1 month ago in Restaurant Reviews

DDF apr-may-24 – Desktop

Can you feel that sap rising again? I’m not talking just about my return to reviewing duties, but to the feeling of boisterous, untrammelled vigour that signals the verdant surge of early Spring. There’s something in the air and it was in full effect during a recent visit to Etto. It’s one of those restaurants that I regularly recommend (if pressed) to other people and then forget to patronise. Maybe I need it to be recommended back to me. It’s like that old Oscar Wilde epigram about always passing good advice on because it’s never of any use to oneself. Although a visit to Etto is never ill-advised.

Behind a narrow unassuming storefront on Merrion Row it feels like a singular thing – a neighbourhood place in the city. A neighbourhood restaurant maybe for folks who live on Merrion Square and a canteen perhaps for those in and out of Government Buildings. The last time I was in here was for a lunch meeting with one of those very same party apparatchiks. Decency forbids me from going into further detail. As does the NDA. For over a decade now this is a restaurant that has just quietly gone about its business and that is the business of feeding people very well without a lot of fuss. Even the arrival of a new head chef about a year back occasioned little fanfare.

That chef is Vish Sumputh whose cooking I gushed about in these pages when he (all too briefly) took over the reins at Luna back in 2018. I lamented when it reopened under new ownership and was Luna in name only. I note that it’s now listed as temporarily closed. At nine pm on a recent Thursday the room is full to the brim with very contented-looking people, a number of whom happen to be related to me. Quite coincidentally one of my sisters is celebrating one of her daughter’s overachievements with the family. (Kudos Rach, it never hurts to have a lawyer handy.) From our perches at the counter (always preferable to a two-top in a tight room) we can see other tables celebrating in a low-key, grown-up way. They could simply be celebrating their own good taste.

The menu here used to speak with a more pronounced Italian accent but that has softened over the years, notably so under Sumputh. You might even detect a hint of French in the Mauritian native’s work. Good food is a lingua franca.

We start some very good Supplì, those Roman croquette-cousins to Sicilian arancini. These are three near-perfect orbs, burnished and crisp without, yielding with crumbling tomato-tinted rice and scamorza within. We dispatch them with the remnants of our white ports and tonics. Deep-fried food likes fizz. Also from the ‘Fried’ section we order the list of things that begins with the words “Crispy Potato, wild boar…’

At some point listing ingredients as dish descriptions ceases to be useful although this is not as egregious as the baffling lines of doggerel haiku found at some modern fine-dining spots. We’re presented with pressed planks of crisp, pecorino-seasoned potato draped with gossamer slices of boar salami, its fat gently sweating from the warmth beneath. The sweetness of onion jam keeps the saltiness in check. They could adequately be described as f***ing delicious. We also enjoyed a sublime special of pristine prawns heaped over a thick hunk of sourdough and bathed in a sauce that my brain wanted to register as bouillabaisse. 

The name Etto refers to the diminutive suffix used in a couple of the romance languages (like the een sound at the end of an Irish word) and the place seems even more compact than I remember it. You need to watch your elbows. It’s like that Dorothy Parker line about working in an office so small that a couple of inches smaller would have meant adultery. She was referring to her goilín in this instance.

After a while it’s difficult not to notice that there’s a couple at the other end of the (very small) counter who may be cheating by choice. Every time I glance up from my plate the situation seems to have escalated, the petting’s getting heavier, there’s straddling. The minutes between mains and starters could almost be described as inter-course. I keep thinking of the scene in Trains, Planes and Automobiles when John Candy nudges Steve Martin to check out the hot couple making out on the Greyhound bus and he instantly gets caught. “Why don’t you take a picture, it’ll last longer.” In case you’re interested they shared the Côte de Boeuf. A fittingly carnal choice. From what I could make out it looked like the best eighty-four bucks they ever spent.

We continue meatlessly with some risotto. That’s roast cauliflower risotto, chargrilled spring onion, taleggio, mushroom brodo and pickled shiitake mushroom to you. In the past weeks I’ve seen pieces in the both the New York Times and Observer Food Monthly drawing attention to the dire straits that Italian rice farmers in the Po Valley are facing due to climate change so ordering this felt a little like choosing to feast upon an endangered species. I reframed it in my head as a tribute to their noble struggle. I’m something of a classicist when it comes to this dish (and indeed every conceivable facet of life) so this looked like a very busy bowl of rice. But oh my! That mushroom brodo moating around its edges was bosky with dried porcini, the taleggio added savoury unctuousness and the charred green onions added punctuation to a dish that otherwise might have dragged a little. Chef Sumputh’s fine-dining instincts tend toward elaboration (he cut his teeth in Chapter One) and that’s not a flaw, I just don’t associate it with this place.

It is evident again in a dish of suckling pig that features the tenderest little loin stuffed within some of the fabulously fatty outer bits. There’s a jus that makes me want to lift the plate to my face and also – the best sausage roll you’ve ever had, served daintily on the side. I really need to stop carping about the food being too accomplished. You’ve heard people tell you to order the prunes with mascarpone. It’s another piece of advice you need to take.

Service is smoothly unobtrusive, casual and confident. The wine list is a compendium of things worth drinking. So, that’s Etto. It’s a little fancier than you remember, and yes it’s small, but size isn’t everything. It’s a perfect spot for a family celebration or as a prelude to starting one. I think next time I’ll have what they were having.

Words: Conor Stevens

Images: Killian Broderick

Etto

18 Merrion Row

Dublin 2

etto.ie

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