Refuel: Darwin's * *
80 Aungiers Street, Dublin 2 Telephone:014759881
Darwin's has been serving "evolutionary food" in Dublin these past -- oh, say -- five years. It once sat in the premises that now houses Conrad Gallagher's Salon des Saveurs, but recently moved across the road to a bigger place. In the meantime, the folks behind Darwin's have dallied with a number of cafés along the Aungier Street run. But really the restaurant has always been about steak and fish, and that is where I could begin and end this review.
The difficulty is this: occasionally restaurants fail to make an impression on you, either good or bad, and dispatch you low in mood and light of pocket. It kicked off dramatically enough, as I arrived newly shod in a pair of strappy wedges and skidded like Tonya Harding after a bottle of bourbon across the shiny wooden floor. It was a spectacular descent, and I was very glad the tardy Ui Rathaile wasn't there to witness it. The dawn of romance is no time for clumsy stumbles. So I righted myself and, with the assistance of a waitress, took my place at a two-top beneath a speaker pumping Michael Jackson. Water arrived at the same time as Ui Rathaile, whose uneventful stride across the floor unnerved me with its confidence. Start again ...
We changed tables, ordered two glasses of Menage a Trois Zinfandel/Merlot/Cab Sauv and went to the terrace so Ui Rathaile could smoke a cigarette. To avoid a scene, I clung to his arm like a woman drowning. The waitress kept an eye on me and followed us out with our wine. Darwin's is that kind of place: friendly, unpretentious, comfortable -- and unfettered by the need to be fashionable, or cool. You can fall down, mispronounce the wine, or eat steak with your fish knife and nobody will bat an eye lid.
So then, how would I describe the menu? Amenable, yes. Accessible, yes. Adventurous, no. Darwin's has spun off a family butcher business, so steak features strongly. There's a decent seafood selection too. But the starters made for a dull read: soup, pâté, antipasto, spring rolls, prawn tempura and an unseasonal sounding dish of polenta with winter vegetables.
Ui Rathaile opted for calamari. They were disappointing -- the saffron and lime dressing lacked the citrus sweetness that squid requires to shine. The squid -- mostly rings -- had all the flavour of battered elastic bands. They were greasy too, while the spidery baby squid had an overcooked, dirty quality to it.
I went against my instinct and ordered risotto, always a precarious choice, given that even Italian restaurants rarely get it right. A mound of firm nutty rice, cut with wild mushrooms and Parmesan, it came topped with a wheel of pungent, crumbling black pudding. The layers of flavour, each as strong as the next, managed to eke out a creamy, dark and genuinely happy co-existence.
The Menage a Trois was proving a little too jammy for both our tastes.
The wine list is not a strong point. Weighing up my options, I switched to a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc for my seafood grill main course. There was no debate about the quality of the fish, the monkfish was moist and meaty, the prawns sweet and plump, and the John Dory flavoursome. However, they could have been much better utilised. The accompanying lemon beurre blanc failed to deliver on citrus, and tasted as anaemic as it looked.
Ui Rathaile's char-grilled rack of lamb was causing a bit of kerfuffle on the other side of the table. "What's this?" he asked, scraping at the meat's surface with his fork. "It" turned out to be a layer of capers in what tasted like a sweet balsamic reduction. He grumbled some more about how the menu had promised mint sauce. The lamb itself was served pink, it was tender and gamey, but with a fair amount of fat.
Frustrated is how I felt leaving Darwin's. There's an admirable honesty about the place, but I firmly believe that the public wants what the public gets and Darwin's could give so much more if it let imagination take a turn in the kitchen.
TYPICAL DISH: Steak
THE DAMAGE:€98 for two starters, two mains, one side and four glasses of wine
ON THE STEREO: The King of Pop
AT THE TABLE: Couples
WHAT TO WEAR: Next
DO SAY: Evolution
DON’T SAY: Creation