Competition is good for restaurants and it’s good for the people who patronise them too. A good part of this, obviously, is price competition but another is the natural rivalry that occurs when you have an increasing number of places closely situated and competing for covers. If you can’t be the best then you certainly want to be better than the other guy. The crews in restaurant kitchens are not referred to as brigades for nothing. They want to win.
To look at Del Fino in this context, open now for a couple of months, you need to consider a couple of near neighbours on a strip featuring increasingly sophisticated dining options. Right next door you’ve got Hang Dai, a fuck-off fiesta of eclectic Chinese food that is absolutely firing on all cylinders (they worked to get there). Just down the street is Delahunt, the much loved Las Tapas de Lola and a solid weeknight option in the form of the Whitefriar Grill.
You would expect anyone opening in these environs to be swinging for the fences from the get-go. Head chef Alan O’Reilly is well respected in the industry, having helmed several successful suburban places like Alexis in Dún Laoghaire and Wildside Café in Cabinteely. I have never been to Cabinteely. This venture came heavily hyped in certain corners of the internet and I approached with hope in my heart.
I was joined by my two (much older) sisters and while sorrows were not quite being drowned, there may have been some water-boarding on the night. Mildly concerned that my palate had perhaps been momentarily eroded by the relentless waves of Nero d’Avola that had crashed upon it, I decided to make a return visit. I invited a couple of old friends and seasoned gourmands to keep me honest.
Del Fino sounds like an Italian restaurant although there does seem to be a little confusion about how the joint wishes to describe itself – “1930’s New York Italian” is gamely offered by one staff member. When I point out that Romesco has nothing to do with NY, Italy or indeed the 1930s, another staff member stares at the wall behind my head as if looking for an unseen clue before proffering ‘Mediterranean’. He intones the word with a heavily implied question mark. Thanks for playing.
From the snacks, Kimchi Deviled (sic) Eggs with Chicken Skin display scant evidence of those things, apart from the eggs. Also, Kimchi? Pork croquettes are not quite apologetic enough to merit my forgiveness. Potato beignets are an interesting thing to eat with a drink and they carry the the tang of fermentation promised by the menu description. They are crisp, light and moreish. I don’t understand why the accompanying romesco would be served fridge-cold though. ‘Wafu’ Beef is better, some thick slices of rare fillet with pickled pine nuts and a Japanese vinaigrette. Another curious Eastern peregrination.
Italian restaurants of this nature live or die on the quality of their pasta dishes. On the evidence of two visits the pastas here currently inhabit a purgatorial limbo. Gnocchi are gummy, the tomato sauce (what little there is) insipid. Also – let me know that the dumplings as pan fried before I order. Braised Rabbit Papparadelle features tough nuggets of meat and chronically over-cooked noodles. Fazzoletti with Porcini is much better.
The glossy, rich sauce surrounding the (dry) Short Rib from the mains could almost pass for salted caramel, it is over-reduced and overly sweet, the advertised Cavolo Nero also manifests as spinach on the plate. Perhaps this particular spinach identifies as black kale. This is not a problem, availability varies, just let me know when I order, or when it hits the table. The same sweetness and dryness issues occur with a dish of Pork Shank ‘Osso Bucco’. A special of Hake with Cannellini Beans and N’Duja eats well on one night, less so on another. All desserts are €6.50 – even with the omission of the word ‘each’ I would decline the generosity. Our ‘Chocolate Dome’ is a Tunnock’s Tea Cake in drag. Glasses of (comped) Marsala go some way to easing its unwelcome transit.
The kitchen, while clearly competent, has some way to go to reach the level of Terre Madre or the frequently sublime heights of (the unrelated) Rosa Madre. There is dire need for some focus and that needs to begin with clarity of concept. I want this restaurant to do well and I need it to do better. Service is extremely amiable, eager to please and just well-drilled enough for the informality of the operation. Prices are relatively moderate, I’ll leave it to you to consider value. When you are left with the feeling that you could have knocked out better iterations of certain dishes in your own kitchen it’s difficult not to grouse as you produce the credit card.
I was about to write that this place might pass muster as a suburban joint for the time-poor (or cooking averse) or for rugrat addled parents but that shouldn’t be the case either. We need to expect more to get more from places where we pay to sit down to eat. If you think that I sound uncharacteristically sanguine then perhaps my appetite for writing about places that display such curious lack of purpose is waning, (this is why I spared you the Crow Street whinge). My bile reserves may be running low.
Nobody can be expected to enjoy many more of these missives from the hype/deflation continuum. It is my fervent hope that January will bring somewhere good enough to sustain my interest over a thousand words, or awful enough to sustain yours. Merry Christmas nevertheless. Eat well and drink deep.
Words: Conor Stevens
Photo: Killian Broderick
21 Camden St