When news of Allta’s impending opening began to filter through last Summer you could almost hear the sound of many thighs being rhythmically rubbed by Dublin’s gastro-locusts, such were the levels of anticipation. Indeed, not since the imminent arrival of near neighbours The Scurvy from exotic London town had so many seemed quite so frothy in their knife and fork excitements. A kitchen dream team of Hugh Higgins (ex-Luna), Niall Davidson (Nuala) and Loam’s Christine Walsh were rumoured to be curing and extruding at a top secret ‘black site’ in Nevada or Terenure. The focus is said to be on sustainable (Irish) and low intervention ingredients.
No sweat. Fast forward some six months and I’m enjoying walking to a restaurant in a neighbourhood blessedly devoid of the gurning goons whose omnipresence has soured me on the Wexford/Camden Street strip. People go about their business around here with a measure of decorum. Must be something to do with the high numbers of politicians and freemasons knocking around.
Sitting patiently on the corner of sedate Setanta Place and South Frederick Street, the room is spare and elegant, bisected by a long high table (with half reserved for walk-ins) and features giant exotic palms and an even bigger mural of an oysterman. The tables are formed from native Irish elm and those areola-pink side plates (by Fermoyle Pottery in Kerry) are just so artfully misshapen. I want to be irritated by the relentless good taste on display but can’t quite manage it. This is a very attractive dining room. It’s cooler than the other side of the pillow. Mindful of this, (I was here previously for the soft open) we enlist the company of our dear friend and talented illustrator-designer Santa Clara along with her podcaster, photographer, film-maker, percussionist and Burning Man enthusiast husband, Gragor.
The place feels pretty festive for just the second week of pitiless January, so much so that one of the other tables has apparently consumed one of our chairs. Grag has the manners and bearing to stand tall with me as I await a seat at the table.
The menu is as clipped, concise and modish as Louise Brooks’ bob. The bread, from Scéal Bakery is good, the Shitake Miso Butter is good too. Like, “let’s go somewhere a little more private” good. The umami accelerator is floored with some zeal. It’s a good way to start. A good way to continue is by ordering a plate of top-drawer house-made charcuterie. I’ll just repeat that – house made charcuterie. All three are the match of anything you will find in France or Italy. I’m telling you this. The little dish of pickled mushrooms is a nice touch.
Tempura’d pieces of ray wing (here called Skate) are beautifully cooked but I don’t enjoy picking the quills of cartilage from my mouth. Others might grin and grind.
At around ten fifteen the lights go down and the music volume, just perceptibly, goes up. Perhaps it’s a mark of the quality of the Toby Hatchett sound system that the music manages to make itself felt without ever feeling too loud. I like to be heard at the table. Chef, TV personality and sex predator Mario Batali’s predilection for blaring soft rock at his legendary Greenwich Village restaurant Babbo was always a point of annoyance for me. They won’t be blaring soft rock where he’s going. Or serving those exquisite Mint Love Letters with spicy Lamb Sausage. No Siree Bob. Plops of mush on plastic trays and sodomy will be the order of the day. Nevertheless. I have too long to consider this during an extended longueur in service. When our (hitherto diligent) server comes back to our table bearing plates of Chicken Scarpinocc, I barely recognise her. My fingernails feel appreciably longer. The ‘little shoes’ of pasta, rich with chicken liver paté however, are worth the wait.
While Allta currently serves some of the finest pasta dishes in the city, it does not identify as an Italian restaurant. It’s more fluid than that. The grilled maitake broth which supports bobbing Smoked Gubbeen Cappelletti for example, has a Japanese restraint about it. Another pasta, BBQ Lamb and seaweed Pappardelle displays an altogether more exuberant flavour profile. A silky tangle of lamb shoulder has all of that smoke, that kiss of the grill that was missing from so many dishes at Mr S. The pappardelle is the finest, most delicate I’ve ever encountered and the cáis na tíre sauce brings white cheddar popcorn to mind, in a good way. It is an arresting plate of food.
The Crab Bigoli has become something of a signature dish and deservedly so. The fat coils of freshly extruded noodles come topped with a cured egg yolk before being anointed tableside with a profound shellfish sauce poured from a crab carapace. It is one of the most exciting dishes in the city. A stunner.
I would be remiss not to draw attention to the wine list, this is after all a wine bar. I would, though, like sometimes if such bars featured an actual bar. A surface for the elbows denied a place at the dinner table. This is a serious full-service restaurant with a requirement to max-out the ticket price of every cover they get. This is how wages are paid and rents are met. That said, I don’t know how welcome you and your crew would be if you arrived to merely slake a thirst at peak hours. This is something that needs to be worked out as you go. Said list is rife with pet-nat and skin-contact wines and more shades of orange than the ‘glorious’ twelfth. We restrict ourselves to some old fashioned fizz and multiple flasks of very serviceable Christophe Coquard Beaujolais.
I’m not quite sure who the audience is for Allta, these small plates can stack up expensively real quick, but this place is above the heads of the expense account crowd. The young things won’t appreciate the Neil Young soundtrack and the service is a bit too louche for the olds. I plan to enjoy it while I can. It’s a knockout.
30 Frederick St Sth
Words: Conor Stevens
Photos: Killian Broderick