If I’m not mistaken I first heard of Note (Bar, Bistro, Bureau) about a year ago. I recall thinking that Fenian Street was a pioneering location for a wine bar. It’s an area I associate with Trinity’s back gate, the so-called science-end where many of college’s dorkiest and least Dublin types would be voided from the corpus of the campus at day’s end. The same types who have subsequently inherited the earth.
I then ‘found myself there’ a few days before the Christmas after one of those festive lunches that unchecked, strain towards New Year’s. I saluted young chef Essa Fakhry (or someone) on my way out and made a mental note to come back when he’d established himself in the kitchen. He’d been one of those ‘ones to watch’ for a while and I liked the cut of his jib during a stint at Amy Austin. By which I mean I liked the food he sent out.
Full kitchen service appears to have begun in early Summer and with it a torrent of overwhelmingly positive reviews. Noted Englishman Jay Rayner himself even filed copy. The person charged with keeping me from social media told of myriad ‘events’ and cross-pollinations with other kitchens. Shit was blowing up. This is where it’s at – at the bleeding edge young cooks are endlessly collaborating, popping up like modish whack-a-moles in the food ventures of fellow travellers. It’s all happening.
Painted black from the ground to the eaves, the three-storey building doesn’t so much sit on Fenian Street as loom forbiddingly across it. It looks like a chess piece threatening to advance upon the Ginger Man across the way or maybe the result of a teenage nihilist’s tantrum. I wear black on the outside, cause black is how I feed on the inside. I like it.
The room feels as if it could have been dismantled in Clerkenwell and reassembled, tasteful trope by trope. The furniture ticks the pared-back mid-century box that first time buyers these days like to fill their own suburban boxes with. Good luck to them, many may find themselves to be last time buyers. There’s an abundance of terrazzo and good wood, a couple of noteworthy pieces on the walls.
The lighting’s soft enough to turn the menu into guesswork. It really is a handsome room and one I look forward to seeing in daylight someday. We are a party of four but one of our number is delayed on her way from the airport (the glamour!). We’ve been pre-warned that we have the table for two hours (my fault for making a 7.30 booking) so we press ahead with starters. In hindsight, I now feel like I shouldn’t have opened with ‘I’m really not a fan of natural wines’ when the question of further drinks was raised by our server. It elicited the kind of side-eye that normally greets the audible breaking of wind.
The collection of starters, small plates (whatever we’re calling them right now) that hit the table are all winners and perfectly represent the mode and ambition of the kitchen. Scallop Aguachile (a brisker Mexican ceviche) with cucumber and jalapeño is tart and electrifying. We almost take the pattern off the hickey plate spooning up the liquor.
There’s also a light flaky crumpet generously filled with crab meat and liberally doused in a rich spiced hollandaise. It’s a knockout although ‘Crab Crumpet’ sounds like something that Victorians might have visited brothels for.
The quail sitting proudly on a plate save for a wedge of roasted lime sparked another London food memory – of being served a fat, burnished grouse with just a ramekin of pickled cherries at St John Bread & Wine. Quail is no grouse but with its punchy salsa matcha it’s another great starter.
My query as to the provenance of the eel on the mains prompts a trip to the kitchen and yields a not very convincing France?, articulated with the ascending terminal of a built-in question mark. Hmm. It wouldn’t make a lot of sense for a restaurant such as this to blithely feature a critically endangered species on the menu. Perhaps she meant farmed in France?. Whatever, the moment passed and I passed on what I’m sure was some great Smoked Eel Macaroni.
Monkfish with the silkiest of Mousseline potatoes and a Vin Jaune Beurre Blanc steers us away from Mexico and toward a masterclass in classical French technique. It’s the work of a skilled saucier and one of the best fish preparations I’ve eaten in some time. The salt-aging of a beautifully cooked tranche of duck breast serves to intensify its gaminess, while pickled shiitakes and whorls of kohlrabi counterpoint the richness. There are just two sides, some baby potatoes sitting in a pool of moreish garlic ‘velvetine’ and a head of Butterhead dressed in a vinaigrette. Perfectly good.
We finish with an expertly made Corn Cake with Corn Ice Cream. Corny in the best possible way. Trenchermen may find the portions wanting. I’m not one of them but with mains all touching €30 (and certainly requiring those sides), questions may be asked.
Katie Seward, the architect of the wine programme is a respected figure and I have no doubt that she knows her subject. When that subject is Natural Wine, however, it poses a problem for me. I just can’t get down with it and it’s not for the lack of trying. If I want to drink something with the flavour profile of cider then I’ll order cider. I don’t ever want the bang of barnyard that Brett yeasts bring to anything.
Call me old fashioned.
The ‘movement’ is already betraying signs of the rigid dogmatism that it purported to rebel against in the wine world. If skin-contact Kool Aid is a thing, then they’re drinking it. Can’t we just drink and let drink? Note is not really a Bistro and having a physical ‘bar’ doesn’t make it a Bar either. The ‘Bureau’ part is just confounding. I guess ‘Shop’ just sounds too basic. It is clearly, though, a very good restaurant and a stylish one to boot. Book early and often if you want them (or whatever spot you favour) to weather the coming storm of rising costs and dwindling staff availability facing restaurants (Apocalypse Chow).
All that I ask is for a spirit of ecumenism when it comes to the wine. Both doctrines can co-exist. We all worship at the same altar. Would you not, in the name of god, just offer up a few unnatural bottles for the faithless?
Words: Conor Stevens
26 Fenian St