I had resisted the lure of Mr Sabongi’s restaurants for quite some time, even though The Seafood Café sits right behind my office in Temple Bar. The reason for this abstinence is now lost to me but it may have had something to do with Twitter, or poke. Whatever, I now feel like I need to make up for lost time. The Seafood Café has been open for about eighteen months in the ground floor of an apartment building on Sprangers Yard that housed my current wife long before that title applied. I can only presume that these were halcyon days indeed. The concept is a simple and elegant one – to source the best, sustainable seafood the island has to offer and do as little as possible with it. This to me is the very essence of good fish cookery – respect the catch and employ restraint in its preparation. On the eve of the national holiday with driving rain doing its best to wash the fools from the surrounding streets we are joined by an old friend and set upon an immediate round of negronis.
We enjoy those strong, dry drinks (despite the hideous tankards) while reading a menu that promises much. This single sheet of paper reads like a wish list for those drawn to the delights of fish, shellfish and crustacea. It offers a vulgarity of choice and feels (I imagine) like walking into a swingers party and wishing for another pair of hands, or a supernumerary orifice. You want oysters? There are five (Irish) varieties to choose from which you can have au naturel, blowtorched or grilled with spinach in the manner of a New York plutocrat. There are lobsters languishing on ice waiting to be grilled or thermidored. You could enjoy the singular pleasure of deconstructing a whole brown crab, wheedling the sweet meat from every corner of the carapace. You could also wind up with a serious bill. We split a half dozen Flaggy Shore’s from Clare and they are as tumid and smacking of ozone as they should be. A well-executed Crab Scotch Egg is perfectly good but there are better choices on offer. Crispy Baja Tacos is not one of them.
The true joy of this place and its raison d’etre is the wet counter. It is laden with the best the market had to offer that day and you can simply point to the fish that speaks to you (not literally) and have it sent to the plancha that serves to cook most dishes here. You will struggle to find clearer-eyed specimens on any wet-fish display in town (apart, perhaps, from the maniacally curated selection as you enter Rosa Madre around the corner). A whole mackerel, that most modest (and satisfying) of fishes is a masterclass in flat-plate cookery and is served with a loose ‘salsa verde’ given texture with an abundance of green olives. A thick tranche of brill, turbot’s slightly less attractive sister, comes from the plancha dressed with clams and chorizo butter. It is another triumph of light-handed simplicity. A perfectly cooked (and fresh) ray wing was served with a peppercorn sauce that had no right sharing real estate on the same plate. Except it did. The rich piquancy of the steakhouse stalwart matched the flavour profile of that potent flesh beautifully. I’ll be replicating this one at home. I mention freshness in this case because it is important. Actual Dubliners of a certain age will be familiar with the ‘Pissy Ray’ hawked by Rothmans-wielding crones on Moore Street in antediluvian times. The reason it made your mouth itch was because (brown) ray (raja miraletus) is a sub-species of shark and shark produces ammonia as it decays. You’ll find no such itch here.
The Bouillabaisse is not unimpressive and clearly based on a decent stock. The chef had not been niggardly with the seafood either, as is generally the case in all but the best regional French restaurants. It just fell short of the version that left me slack-jawed almost exactly a year ago at Bresson. While I’m at it – that restaurant’s notable absence from the insufferable best-of lists makes a nonsense of such things. Michael’s out in Mount Merrion meanwhile continues to groan under the weightlessness of the garlands bestowed upon it. Nevertheless – I have also heard very good things about their fish-cookery from people who actually know shit from shinola. While that Bouillabaisse might not be the best in town, I enjoyed a fish soup on another visit that might well be. It was a bowl from whose russet depths I was loath to be saved.
The dish has cast a Proustian spell over me since spending a Summer in Paris in the apartment of a certain Swiss Miss. We seemed to subsist on cans of fish soup and stale baguettes for months. Bottles of rough Gamay de Touraine for a few Francs… the rest of our meagre stipend went on weed and prophylactics. But oh, that soup on that sunny day with the light streaming in through those tall windows. It had the profound, concentrated power that comes only from extracting every atom of piscine puissance from the chitinous coverings of things that crawl and scrabble on the sea-floor. If that sounds like too much to you then it probably is.
This is as close to the experience of eating in Barcelona’s Boqueria market as you’ll find in dank Dublin and the chances of being pick-pocketed outside are substantially lower too. It is a frequently charming place that offers some measure of agency back to its patrons and choice is, of course, a beautiful thing. On a night when the streets are rife with falling-over festive fuck-wits, it’s interesting to think that within a stone’s through of one another, we have in The Seafood Café, Rosa Madre and The Chameleon, three compelling reasons to think of Temple Bar as a destination that can feed rather than merely water.
Words: Conor Stevens
Photos: Killian Broderick
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