What does the term ‘neighbourhood restaurant’ mean to you? What do you expect from such a place? Is there a defining set of characteristics or a formal mode of taxonomy? Are there certain menu items that spring to mind? Is dry-aged monkfish in a smoked mussel and caviar sauce one of them? If the answer is ‘yes’ then you may be a resident, or (better yet) a native, of Rathgar, that genteel south Dublin ‘enclave’ of well heeled ‘elites’. This is the cohort – rife with West-Brits and blueshirts, that will be first against the wall when the heroes of our populist-nativist left ride into power. Or rather, they would have been, had those deadly arms caches not been mystically disappeared by one of those fenian-friendly priests who would be periodically wheeled onto the set of The Late Late Show in pre TikTok times. Give our teddy’s head back! This outburst is connected to a triggering event that I’ll get to momentarily.
A neighbourhood restaurant to me connotes simplicity, utility and maybe even economy. It’s not a night out, the occasion is that you simply can’t be bothered to cook. Maybe it’s different for the good burghers of Rathgar. I should need only to look into my heart as I’m actually from there. Of there perhaps. Well, I was born in a hospital there, now long gone. The downward trajectory continues apace. I make a point of not reading the other critics before I’ve filed my copy on a new restaurant and am in fact increasingly inclined to make it policy not to do so afterwards. Nevertheless, I’m aware by internet osmosis that the place has essentially opened to ovations. I’m considering this in the cab when our guests message to tell us that the table will be delayed by a half hour. Not the end of the world but not what you want when your booking was for 9.15 on a Wednesday. Orwell Road is the third opening from the Bereen brothers (Charlotte Quay & the late Coppinger Row) and its arrival has clearly been enthusiastically received. I pop my head in the door at around 9.20 and it appears that ours is not the only table running late. A grim-faced woman taps me on the shoulder to inform that “we were here before you”. I tell her I believe her. The very pleasant lady running FOH is calm personified, however, and directs us to the 108 to wait it out, perhaps because of that pub’s similarly informative name. Or maybe because proximity.
This is where we meet Josh from Rhode Island. It appears that he’s had about 10 pints of (Martin Mc)Guinness at this point. He’s been exploring his heritage on the premises since 2pm. When I convince him that I’m not English (huh?) he informs us that he’s travelling to Ty-Rone next morning ‘to make donations’, attempting to wink with both eyes at once to make sure we get it. Up the ‘Ra!. I’d ask you to join us for dinner, but, you know.
A small, tall, room with just 26 covers or so, the restaurant feels bijou but perfectly proportioned. I imagine there’s just enough room to make a scene or swing a cat. The Dorothy Parker anecdote about the confines of the office she first shared comes to mind – an inch shorter and it would have been adultery. The egg-shell blue walls are buffed to a slick sheen and there are handsome hand-tufted wall panels from celebrated Wexford rug-makers Ceadogán. There’s a short counter with four stools next to the pass if you like to look down on your fellow diners. It feels like a sophisticated place to be. Josh would have loved it. Chef Dan Hannigan (L’Ecrivain, Mister S, etc.) has put together a menu that frequently thrills and only occasionally oversteps.
From the snacks a dainty little Mackerel Tart brings a dice of just cured fish in a crisp filo case. The first bite brings the fresh citrus of ponzu, the second a sting of chilli heat. There is no third bite. Superb. Almost perfectly spherical croquettes of Andarl Pork clearly taste of quality pig but need to be lubricated with more of the animal’s fat to mitigate the mealiness. A near miss.
A starter simply titled Chicken & Scallops might just top my dishes of the year list. Perfectly cooked queen scallops sit in an intense jus and are scattered with crunchy (dehydrated) shards of chicken skin that a New York jew might call gribenes. Finally, perched on a saucer atop the scallops is a de-boned chicken wing stuffed with a mince of its own herbed flesh. Take my money!
Another starter of Dry-Aged Shortrib comes with a natty Beef Fat Brioche to mop up its profoundly savoury sauce. It’s a pity however that the meat clings grudgingly to those ribs. With the timing right this dish should become a signature. Only one dish fails to come off and that’s the aforementioned Dry-Aged Monkfish. The ageing was not mentioned on the menu or by our server, I had to ask. There’s nothing new about the technique, of course, it’s just having a moment thanks to the folks at Saltwater (who supply this place). It produces a firm textural quality that’s well, neither fish nor flesh and one that just doesn’t work with a rich cream sauce punched up with about a tablespoon of roe. The smoked mussels also felt too strident for me. I salute the ambition nevertheless. Rump of Lamb is perfectly executed and served with a neat riff on the Caesar Salad.
The kitchen doesn’t seem to have quite worked out the rhythm of the room yet. Our sides arrive at a point when there’s little left to set them next to. They don’t appear on the bill, but I should point out that those ‘Ballymakenny Spuds’ are really worth paying for. They are long planks of very good (deeply burnished) chips. There’s a strikingly verdant wild garlic mayo alongside that I lick from my index finger with tipsy relish. Don’t let that put you off. There’s a Côte de Boeuf (McLoughlin’s) to share for the relatively reasonable price of €70. That’s ashtray money for folks ‘round these parts. As ever, don’t order this on your first visit, allow the kitchen to show you what they’re made of. Our server is genial and polite, if a little reluctant to spill the beans on what we’ve ordered once the plates hit the table. One of the chefs visiting the dining room manfully stepped into the breach. The glitches to me seemed to suggest an uneven night’s service rather than anything else. Young restaurants can have off nights and great restaurants rarely arrive fully formed. I think that Orwell Road has the potential to be the Bereens’ best yet. The name might say neighbourhood, but down the road this one is bound to be a destination.
8 Orwell Road
Words: Conor Stevens
Photos: Sean Breithaupt