Wednesday, 23 October 2013
Cheese and Biscuits on tour: Dublin
Apologies for the spate of non-London posts - it just so happens I've had cause to travel about a bit recently, and being the hopeless restaurant spod that I am, even before I have a hotel and flights booked I have decided where I'm going to have dinner. In Paris, Septime and Chateaubriand were "must-visit" restaurants, internationally important and cutting-edge, which no self-respecting blogger could ignore. But for a weekend in Dublin arranged around a friend's wedding, I wanted something simpler, less likely to take up the short time I had there, and - let's face it - cheaper.
In the end, the decision was more or less made for me. Full disclosure time - both the hotel I stayed in (The Clarence), the Liquor Rooms and the Bison Bar are all owned by the same people (not Bono any more thank heavens), who very generously offered to put me up and generally lavish me with the kind of hospitality that everyone in Dublin seems determined to give in spades. Key to my getting involved with these guys in the first place was reading up on the Bison Bar, billed (by themselves, admittedly) as "Ireland's first authentic Texas BBQ" and receiving some pretty positive reviews. Given that there isn't really anywhere even in London yet doing authentic US BBQ (yes I know Pitt Cue are good but it's very much their take on BBQ, not I'm led to believe quite what you'd get in Austin, TX) this was going to be a reason in itself.
But first things first, and late on Friday after a typically traumatic Ryanair flight we were relieved to slip into the velvety red bosom of the Liquor Rooms, underneath the Clarence. Part Parisian boudoir, part bedouin tent, with a number of dark low-ceiling rooms containing cosy snugs and two large marble-clad bars, it's an undeniably classy place, everyone - staff and customers, present company excepted - pleasant and well-dressed. Our spot, in a little cubby-hole created by an extension of the bar, was so comfortable we could have spent the night there, and in fact very nearly did.
Fortunately, it's not all show. The drinks, firstly, were all of very high quality - a martini ice cold, a sidecar expertly balanced. There's an extensive list of house cocktails which I'm sure are all good but once we realised our barman could do the classics so well we hardly felt the need to experiment.
With such lovely surroundings and accomplished drinks, the Liquor Rooms could have just kept the bar snacks to packets of crisps and it would have still been worth spending the evening there. Plenty of otherwise decent bars in London have no kitchen to speak of, or if they do seem content to charge way over the odds for reheated spring rolls or microwaved nachos. So the Liquor Rooms' achievement on the food is all the more impressive - everything we tried wasn't just better than it needed to be for a late-night bar, but genuinely enjoyable, from a generous portion of antipasti containing some nice soft cheeses and folds of Italian hams, to a huge bowl of chicken wings crisped up with a soy dressing. Best of all were some huge chilli/garlic prawns that were cooked to juicy, springy perfection - I'm so used to plasticky, overcooked prawns I'd almost forgotten how good they could be when handled by someone who knows what they're doing. Bar food done well.
I'm acutely aware this post already sounds dangerously advertorial - I almost wish there had been something wrong with the Liquor Rooms so I can salvage some veneer of objectivity. But I'm sure my experience would have been just as positive had I been footing the bill myself, and if I'm ever in Dublin again I'll be back. Given its obvious popularity, plenty of others feel the same.
A mistake a lot of American theme restaurants make is to fill up the walls with Route 66 road signs and quirky neon beer branding and hope the result doesn't look too much like a branch of TGI Friday's (it always does). Bison Bar have, to their credit, kept much of the format of the pub that presumably used to occupy the space, including the handsome old oak bar, and added only select touches of Americana - some imposing taxidermy, and a few amusing saddle-stools. The most atmospheric touch is the all-pervading cloud of smoke emanating from the real smoking cabinets in the kitchen and wafting down the street, which gets you into the mood for a plate of ribs and brisket before you've even stepped through the front door.
Now, I've never been to Texas, so I can't comment on authenticity. Someone once told me that you never have fries with proper Southern BBQ so on this front already more Dublin than Dallas. All I can tell you is that everything, from the beautifully moist smoked chicken, to the grease-less onion rings, to the lean, rich sausage, to the aforementioned fries, was right up there with the best BBQ food I've had the pleasure to eat in my life. Whoever is in charge of the kitchen has clearly both been to a Texas BBQ joint and - crucially - has learned the best way of recreating the experience back home using similar equipment.
Everything was worth the asking price and then some, but I have to put in a special word for the brisket, which was thick and fatty with a fantastic pink crust that made you wish it lasted forever. I have tried the sad, grey slabs of leather that certain London restaurants like to call brisket but this was another species entirely, enough to convert even the most ardent BBQ sceptic. It was so good, in fact, that I wish they'd not put quite as much BBQ sauce on it in my sandwich, as I'd like more of the beef flavour to shine through, but this is a very minor niggle. Coleslaw, smoked beans, dipping sauces, everything else was devoured with pleasure.
Next to the near-faultless food offering was a decent craft beer selection (I had one flavoured with seaweed out of sheer curiosity, though perhaps fortunately I couldn't really taste it) and a short cocktail list - they do a mean whisk(e)y sour. And even the desserts weren't an afterthought - peach cobbler contained a lovely fresh biscuit and I'm still kicking myself I ran out of time the next day to return for the chocolate fudge brownie.
So yes, as freebies go, this weekend was a bit of a success. Accepting such a comprehensive set of comped meals, not to mention a two-night stay in one of the best hotels in town, sounds like the greatest of all blagger perks and of course I'm very grateful for everyone involved for sorting it out. There's nothing more satisfying than being able to report back on a happy experience to those who have gone out of their way to create one, but equally there's nothing more terrifying than the prospect of being the bearer of bad news when things go wrong, so I'm delighted this weekend worked out the way it did. Anyway, navel-gazing aside there's really only one thing you need to know - if you go to the Liquor Rooms or the Bison Bar, you will enjoy yourself.
One last thing and I'll finish, I promise. The wedding, on the Saturday (Congratulations Sarah and Gareth), took place in an idyllic old pub in a ludicrously picturesque spot ten minutes out of Dublin city centre called Strawberry Bed. A welcome of prosecco and Guinness and live Irish music led on to a short, touching ceremony in an upstairs room lit by candles. The wedding banquet, so often a distressing affair involving boiled vegetables and grey roast beef, was here a starter of crab and lobster salad with fresh baked bread, and a main of monkfish fillet wrapped in pancetta. Based on their ability to feed 60 or so people this well in one go, I'm guessing the Angler's Rest would feed an individual in the restaurant downstairs very well indeed. We ate, we laughed, we drank, we got drunk on Mini Guinness (Tia Maria and Baileys), we danced, I don't remember getting home. It doesn't really get much better than that. If this is Ireland, consider me sold.
I was a guest of the the Liquor Rooms, the Bison Bar, and
The Clarence Hotel, 6 – 8 Wellington Quay, Dublin 2, Ireland
Great Christmas packages now available!
For the best rates please see www.theclarence.ie
Bookings and enquiries: Tel + 353 1 4070800 or Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Liquor Rooms 9/10
The Bison Bar 9/10