As I mentioned some time ago in the course of my extraordinarily popular Lucky’s review, I have been resident in the Liberties for well over a decade now. Although the singular charms of this salty old ‘hood are not always immediately apparent to the naked eye, I have learned to accentuate the positive. There is much to like. It is, for example, very close to other places. One thing that is lamentably lacking is a solid neighbourhood restaurant, a restaurant that you can use. It would be a place that opens early to serve good coffee, perhaps with some pastries from the peerless Scéal Bakery. There might be some sandwiches stuffed with cuts of roasted meats for lunch, soups based on good stocks, maybe some well-turned omelettes. At dinner they will cook a decent burger to order, with some big-shouldered braises for the interminable Winter months. Variety Jones does none of those things. What it does do is cook frequently thrilling, inventive food that is worth travelling for.
Opened just before Christmas by chef Keelan Higgs (ex Luna & Locks) and his brother Aaron (F.O.H), this is not a restaurant that I could ever have imagined materialising on my doorstep. Located on a stretch of Thomas St trafficked mostly by grim-faced Guinness tourists and unfortunates waiting for benzos at the bus stop, it was a bold move to set up shop here and I applaud them. I’m familiar with with the room, it was once home to a joint called Just Off Francis that tried and sadly failed to be that neighbourhood place. I still recall Frank’s Reubens with much fondness. It’s always been a difficult space, a corridor with ideas above its station, tapering through a row of two-tops before opening up to the rear. The team have done a great job with what I suspect was a limited budget. It feels intimate and not a little romantic, with a bijou marble-topped bar next to the open kitchen at the back.
On a recent Thursday night my current wife and I are joined by Mr Pharmacist, an actual druggist, and his wife, an actual artist. The room is full and humming. I pause to greet another critic as I walk to our table. He’s grimacing at his plate – I get the impression that we may be disagreeing on this one. We are seated at an elevated table (which I generally hate) next to that bar but it’s comfortable and feels like a snug. Anyway, the focus here is on the food, not the fripperies. This is a restaurant that exists at the convergence of a number of trends, with large-format sharing dishes, open-fire cookery and a natural wine programme being the most obvious. The (laudably) concise menu might seem oddly structured at first but the emphasis on sharing makes perfect sense as the meal unfolds.
We start with the snacks and enjoy pristine oysters with an urgent Vietnamese dressing. Jerusalem Artichoke skins are less successful but not unpleasant. From the starters, Hearth Grilled Vegetables are just that, with some carrots, radishes and beets sharing a plate with some fresh curds. I would like a deeper kiss of smoke from that hearth, as you might find in Clanbrassil House. It is the arrival of the second starter however that widens eyes around the table. Grilled cauliflower, burnt yeast, trout might just sound like a collection of things but boy, do they enjoy each other’s company! That burnt yeast, a slick of beige emulsion across the plate is a flavour epiphany, bursting with umami and tang, elevating the vegetable and the pink petals of fish flesh to the sublime. Orbs of roe pop on the tongue for a briny coup de gras. This is really quite something.
Of the two pastas we share a bowl of Comté Ravioli in a turbid mushroom ‘broth’. It is rich (perhaps too rich for one) and brilliantly executed. There are just two mains, both served ‘Family Style’ for sharing. A beautifully cooked thick tranche of Brill, served with a mussel and cockle sauce and paired with ramekins of smoked eel and potato ‘salad’ will live with me for some time. Venison loin served with a profusion of mushrooms and incredible salt-baked celeriac silences the table yet again. At €50 and €60 respectively, these are generous sharing plates and examples of masterful, assured cooking.
The solitary dessert, a Jamaica Cake with caramelised pineapple and coconut cream makes a mockery of the concept of choice. We get the last portion and stare at the clean plate moments later.
“I’ve been sniffy about the modish ‘natural wine thing’ for some time, filing it under acquired taste, along with fisting and balut”
Special mention must go to sommellier Vanda Ivančić for her wine programme. I’ve been sniffy about the modish ‘natural wine thing’ for some time, filing it under acquired taste, along with fisting and balut. Her pairings from a fully minimal intervention list have gone a long way to convincing me that not all such wines need to taste of cider or a befouled barnyard. It’s not quite a Pauline conversion but one couldn’t ask for a more enthusiastic, informed and charming guide. Who knew that the vignerons of Chateaux Margaux, Haut-Brion, Cheval Blanc and Mouton-Rothschild had been doing it wrong for so long. There’s a genuine feeling here of worthwhile endeavour, that you as a patron are a part of it, or perhaps in on it. So here we are. A destination restaurant in The Liberties. Whatever next?
Words: Conor Stevens
Photos: Killian Broderick
78 Thomas St