The Autumn leaves are turning to the colour of rust and the harvests are all but gathered. This means only one thing – I’m marking the one-year anniversary of my near death asphyxiation experience at the hands of Jamie Oliver. Or rather the fateful Halloween night when I almost choked to death on a wooly bolus of lamb in the not very good Exchequer Street restaurant that bears his name. Tempus fugit. Despite my whey-faced pledge to make something of the second life granted to me that night, here we are, talking about ‘small plates’ and memories of free chips. Little has changed either with regard to our appetite for fancy-dan wine bars. You can now find small amounts of very nice things to eat in places like Amy Austin, Frank’s, Note and A Fianco among others. You can occasionally find nice things to drink too but I’m not going to re-litigate the natural wine thing.
The Bereen brothers (Orwell Road etc) opened Row Wines in early summer, next door to the site of their former restaurant Coppinger Row. I ate a lot of dressed crab there. A kindly chef once comped me an order of French fries and made my day. As I was relating this incredible anecdote to my rapt wife who walks in but the very same (former) chef himself – Dublin’s hardest working DJ, the tireless turntablist that is Billy Scurry. If he’s not playing records where you’re at then you’re in the wrong place. On a recent Thursday night everyone in the room clearly thinks they’re exactly where they should be.
It’s a modish space designed by Luca Architects, grey and industrial, meant to evoke Tokyo’s vinyl listening bars. Hence the Scurrier of it. If you’re not familiar with the phenomenon of Toby Hatchette-face it’s the pained expression worn by someone in a bar/restaurant as someone shouts directly into their lughole in an attempt to be heard. You’ll see plenty of it in here. There are tables large and small and seating high and low. There’s a gallery wall of well-mounted black and whites. Here’s Bowie drinking a beer with Paul Simonon, Prince with an afro, Weller looking like someone’s pissed in his chips. This is brand shorthand, semaphore for this is cool, right? The place opened with young chef Paddy Maher heading up the kitchen but I believe he’s since moved on. The internet won’t tell me who his replacement is but they clearly know what they’re doing.
You’ll find the usual Gildas, Almonds and Olives on the snacks menu but the interesting stuff asks a bit more of the kitchen. Garryhinch Mushrooms arrive as a bowl of sautéed (cultivated) Oysters and Shiitakes in an XO sauce that’s been loosened with a splash of Dashi. A raw egg-yolk adds more richness. Rectangles of perfectly cooked Pork Belly are skewered and served on a turbid pool of Filipino Kare Kare sauce that is nutty and profoundly savoury. Get the Rosti – deeply burnished cubes of layered, pressed potato crowned with spoonfuls of well-dressed Kilkee crab meat. You could be churlish and say that spinning some of the brown meat into the white would level the dish up but they’re probably not breaking down live crabs in the kitchen. I don’t blame them and who wants to be churlish anyway. The wines are predominantly low intervention yada yada but you won’t need to drink the Kool-Aid here. There are plenty of options that won’t smell of barnyard or taste of mouse. We drink some Cava and some very serviceable Grüner from the by the glass list. Wine pricing is relatively restrained. There are cocktails should you need them. Four plates and four modest glasses come in at €115 with tip. It is what it is.
Bar Pez is a different kettle of fish-focused wine bar altogether. People routinely ask me to name my favourite Dublin restaurant, often I imagine just to break the uncomfortable silence in the line for the bathroom. My responses can vary but if really pressed – hand on heart, chrome to the dome – the answer is probably Fish Shop. You could think of it as a Benburb Street chipper with ideas above its station but all of those ideas are uniformly good ones. Serve the best fish and chips in Dublin (there’s no debate) in a tiny pared-back space and curate a compendious and fascinating wine list. Serve briny oysters and steaming plates of cockles while you’re at it. Nothing pleases me more than unwavering commitment to concept.
The same concision and execution is apparent in this sister/sibling venture that opened on Kevin Street in August. The approach is recognisable – find an almost too-small space on an insalubrious stretch, staff it with zealots and invite people to pay attention to the things that matter most when they go out to eat and drink. The design of Row Wines winks at you to get the message, Bar Pez blinks and stares at its shoes. The semiotics are harder to parse. From the demure net curtains to the wrap-around wood panelling, the hickey-chic feels initially disorienting. Maybe you’re in Biarritz, maybe Oviedo, it could be 1981. You sure as shit don’t feel like you’re a couple of doors down from Boojum on a dismal bank holiday Monday in Dublin.
When your eyes adjust to the almost too bright light you’ll find yourself in a brown zone of about 20 covers split between a couple of four-tops and two counter areas. Make yourself slightly comfortable at one of those and cast your gaze up to the blackboard. Under this gnomic list of things masquerading as a menu is chef Éanna McAtamney who before your eyes will calmly put together very compelling plates of food, armed only with a flat-top, a single convection ring, a fryer and a blow-torch. ‘Everything but the bread,’ he later explains. You could spend a lot of time moving through the wondrous wine list. You could also spend a lot of money. Both would be well spent. That list was just awarded the Grand Prix in the Star Wine List. That’s a serious accolade awarded by a group of serious sommeliers but if you put yourself in the hands of the folks here there’s nothing to fear. Spend what you want to spend and tell them what you like. It’s a test for them, not you. There’s a Coravin system so you might be able to enjoy a glass of something special you mightn’t otherwise consider. Do it. I did.
We had good anchovies and good sourdough over our first glasses and then a succession of much better things. ‘Mackerel’ came as a split, butterflied and torched fish settled on a potent horseradish cream and finished with a salad of pickled baby beets, lovage and red onions. Lovage is a loutish herb, it’s tough and punches up like curry and celery leaf. It brings the plate together perfectly here. ‘Fried Fish’ is just that – strips of haddock deep fried just-so. Very good but not quite up to (the highest) Fish Shop standards, the batter’s a little pallid by comparison. Maybe the oil wasn’t quite hot enough, but when it’s served with a riff on Sauce Grenobloise, those flavours infiltrating a chive oil mayonnaise, you really do begin to forget your surroundings.
You might recognise ‘Squid with Capers’ from the parent place. It’s slow cooked here until toothsome, rudely chopped and plated on a tight, shouty heap of Salsa Verde full of basil and mint. We finish with a ‘homely’ (my wife’s compliment) wedge of superb Plum Tart fragrant with frangipane and draped with a cloak of Crème fraîche. There’s a gallery wall of framed things here too and you might notice among them a little line drawing of Fergus Henderson’s famed St John restaurant in London’s Spitalfields. This is instructive. Bar Pez is aiming for the kind of difficult simplicity that he has long advocated for. It hits the target and more. It’s a bullseye.
2 Coppinger Row, Dublin 2.
Kevin St Lower, Dublin 2.
Words: Conor Stevens
Photos (Bar Pez): Killian Broderick