If I might re-purpose Chandler’s alcohol analogy – restaurant reviews are like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that, you take the girl’s clothes off. I’ve lately come to the conclusion that the key to maintaining that magic and intimacy is delayed gratification, that a little restraint renders the relationship more meaningful, makes the inevitable union more special. As I say ad nauseum, I’m quite happy to bring up the rear when it comes to considering the merits of a restaurant. Just like relationships, these places need to bed-in, to relax into a position that aligns the pertinent parts for both giver and receiver. One needs to take some time to understand how the other wants it. Restaurants may put out on the first night, but critics should really get to know themselves a little first before attempting to nail them. Not for me the premature ejaculation (or expostulation) that too often results from a hasty assignation. I’ve been saving myself for this one.
Uno Mas is a Spanish restaurant in much the same way that its (much garlanded) sire Etto is an Italian one. Each is ostensibly so. You won’t find red gingham tablecloths in the former, just as you will need to bring your own castanets to the latter. They are both actually modern Irish restaurants that speak with ‘foreign’ inflections. Their mother tongues are romance languages and their menus are love-letters to cuisines that encourage gustatory infidelity. Honesty is prioritised over authenticity. Owners Simon Barrett and Liz Matthews would seem to know what you want, and Chef Paul McNamara knows how to cook, so after some eight months of rough trade on Aungier Street, is the desire to please still there?
On a close, late July evening we are joined by Clara and Greg, another husband and wife creative team, combining design, illustration and photography. It is also rumoured that the latter can play the drums like two jack-rabbits banging. When we arrive, they have already ordered a dish of almonds along with excellent Verdial olives and bread from Rossa Crowe’s Le Levain bakery. There is no better way to begin here. This young pair have taste to go with their talent. I’ve heard many people (both critics and civilians) carp about paying for bread service in restaurants but this is a hang-up that has no place in the context of modern dining. When the product that hits the table is at this level, it is churlish, if not downright ignorant. I knew Rossa as a pup when he was slinging cheese in the Temple Bar Food Market and I well recall his decision to follow his vocation and re-locate to France to serve his apprenticeship. We should all be grateful that he did, because Le Levain undoubtedly helped usher in a golden-crusted age for the baking of real bread in this city. I’m not sure we would be graced with the pan-theon of options we now enjoy, like Tartine, Scéal, and Bread 41, were it not for his dedication to the craft. The bottle of Hojiblanca oil left on the table is verdant with that polite kick, at the back of the throat, that denotes quality.
We order our first bottle of well-priced rosé (Marc Isart, Clarete, ‘La Maldicion’) at €34 and press on with some stellar padrons that carry heavy smoke with their inherent fruitiness. Veal Carpaccio with broad beans, anchovy and manchego brings all of those things together without one element elbowing the other out of frame. Even better is a crudo of Yellowfin with the crunch of radish and comfort of gobbets of avocado creme. Everyone is pointing tines at the same time. Don’t expect to see these on the menu when you next visit, La Donna É Mobile, or however that goes in Madrid. I’m very tempted to order a plate of Jamon Iberico Paleta (from the front leg) but that’s not a test of the kitchen, however much I want it. Unaware, or uncaring of such concerns, our guests go right ahead and summon the obligatory sharing steak, in this case a salt-aged Delmonico (generally a thick-cut rib-eye), served with beef dripping potatoes and béarnaise. This is a throw-back to the Etto menu and at €68 can stand with the best in the city. You get deeply flavoured, assiduously cooked flesh, a textbook rendition of that master sauce and possibly the finest, craggiest roast/deep-fried potatoes available to man. Nevertheless, you don’t want to order it, as the folks at the stoves can do much better if you give them the opportunity.
If you didn’t catch the tired Rigoletto reference, the menu changes regularly, but on this night I very much wanted to order a dish of grilled whole slipsole (that’s an industry term for a juvenile black sole) with white asparagus, cockles and sherry butter, simply because it sounded like the most Spanish thing I’ve ever heard. It was eighty-sixed on the night, so I had to suffer a faultless plate of Hake with taramasalata, courgette and tomato. It was really quite something, a masterclass in fish timing, the rest balancing salinity and acidity. A rare breed Pork Chop (breed unspecified) was cooked perfectly medium-rare (as specified) and joined by an incredible hunk of deeply sanguine morcilla, finished with expression-altering gooseberries. Nobody is taking me up on the invitation to complain. The impression is that of a place completely at ease with itself. There is no fluttering of lashes or hitching up of skirts. You just sit down and ninety minutes later you want to move in and split the bills. The service manifests as unobtrusive, knowledgeable and easy. It is immediately apparent that our server understands the composition of each dish and is happy to share. This is relatively rare.
I don’t have much of a sweet tooth but there is one particular genus of dessert that guarantees an extra twenty minutes at table for me. It encompasses such things as Creme Bruleé and Crema Catalana. It moves and soothes. The Flan de Queso here belongs within that classification and it is an exemplar of the form. Prior to partaking of it, we address it. Its quivering presence upon the plate is mesmerising. Not quite as obscenely suggestive as the Quaking Pudding I defiled at Blumenthal’s ‘boozer’, The Hind’s Head, some years ago, but just enough to make a cleric uncross his legs. It is barely sweet enough and the mouth-feel is almost maddening. Don’t consider yourself replete until it is within you but also be sure that somebody else at the table orders the Dark Chocolate Ganache with Olive Oil. We finish with a round of 12-year-old Amontillado Sherry (El Maestro Sierra) and life seems just dandy. Todo está bien. So, one of the best restaurants in the city has begat another and it’s not a lucky accident, it’s in the genes. Long may the line continue and may all your children be your own.
Words: Conor Stevens
Photos: Killian Broderick
6 Aungier St