Pickle: 'The spice of life and the best Indian food I've eaten in Ireland'
Pickle, 43 Camden Street, Dublin 2
Pickle is Sunil Ghai's first standalone restaurant. Located at the Bleeding Horse end of Camden Street, it could not be more different to the plushly draped Ananda in Dundrum Town Centre that was his base for most of the last decade.
Ghai came to Ireland 15 years ago to work for the Jaipur group of restaurants that includes Jaipur in Dalkey and Chakra in Greystones, as well as Ananda. Moving in succession from one restaurant in the group to the next, his food became ever more sophisticated, a world away from the standard curry-house fare that most of us expect from Indian restaurants. By the time that he arrived at Ananda, Ghai's food was a showcase for the French techniques and plating skills that he had learned during his training with Oberoi in India, combined always with exquisite Indian spicing. It's the kind of food that is seen in high-end Indian restaurants such as Benares in London, and its most well-known exponent is Atul Kochar, who was involved in setting up Ananda.
The chattering classes thought that Ghai was in line for a Michelin star last year. (Atul Kochar was awarded Michelin stars at both Tamarind and Benares.) But there was to be no star at Ananda - it appears more difficult for ethnic restaurants than others to achieve that accolade - and perhaps he was fed up waiting for one, because before the year was out he had made plans to move on. And now, with his business partner, Benny Jacob, who had been in charge of front of house at Ananda, he has Pickle.
The décor is simple: wooden floors, modest tables and chairs, Indian movie and travel posters on the walls, home-style crockery. On the Wednesday night that we visit, without a booking, the place is jammed, but they squeeze us in. There's a good buzz in the room, which is long and narrow, with the open kitchen at the very back beside a raised area of tables. It feels more in keeping with the mood of the moment than luxe Ananda, yet with none of the theme park Raj-pastiche of Gymkhana in London (where Ghai's brother happens to be the executive chef, and which has a star) but with which there are similarities in terms of the food offering.
The menu makes it clear that it's not just in physical terms that Ghai has moved on from Ananda. The chef has made a conscious return to his roots, with a range of dishes focused on regional cuisine, and most coming from the North of India. Ghai is a native of Gwalior, and grew up in a home where his mother had the honour of being the pickle-maker for the household. He chose the name for his restaurant as a tribute to her, a conscious nod of respect to age, experience and authenticity. The cheapest thing on the menu at Pickle is the home-made pickle, priced at €1, and you should be sure to order it. On the night of our visit it was a little pot of heritage tomato pickle: dry, complex, tangy and mouth-puckeringly delicious.
But I'm getting ahead of myself, because the pickle came later on in our meal. We began with simple street food-inspired potato cakes filled with asafoetida, served with lentils infused with raw mango and a sour-sweet trio of chutneys. We ate curried scallops - just two - served with a green tomato chutney and a riff on Bombay mix, made out of spiced puffed rice that Ghai should produce commercially. We shared tandoori lamb chops - pink and lovely - with ginger and fennel, smoked aubergine and strawberry green chilly chutney, and full-flavoured jumbo prawns with Kashmiri chilly, lime and butter milk with a gutsy bang of charcoal. Our favourite plate was a goat mince curry with shallots, garlic and black cardamom (at Gymkhana you can pay a supplement and have a similar dish with added pearls of goat brain, and if you go there I would recommend that you do), served with a light and puffy pao bread. Black kali dal was intensely good and comforting, while warm spinach with fennel was extra-garlicky. We almost didn't order the bread basket, and that would have been a mistake. To finish, the kulfi falooda: rose-flavoured Indian ice -cream with caramelised pistachios and saffron-soaked vermicelli that we enjoyed more than we'd expected to.
At the next table a couple of young doctors were discussing rotations. One told the other that she'd been trying to get a table for weeks...and went on to order Pickle's version of chicken korma, a dish that I'm pretty sure Ghai would prefer not to have on the menu.
This is multi-layered, mindful modern food full of bright, vibrant flavours that is deliberately lighter than the interpretation of Indian food that we have been used to getting in Ireland. I'd like to see better information on sourcing (the menu says only that meats are sourced locally and halal certified), and a more-considered wine list.
Our bill for two, with two large bottles of water, a couple of soft drinks and two glasses of Veramonte Reserve Pinot Noir 2014 from Chile, came to €119.50 before service.
On a budget
Pickle serves an 'Express Lunch' from 12 noon until 3pm. A Gwalior tiffin box, featuring cottage cheese, lentils, rice, naan, pickle, vegetables and a samosa costs €11.
On a blowout
Crispy prawns followed by lobster poached in turmeric and ginger, with masala duck egg bhurji, a couple of vegetable dishes, bread, condiments, and dessert for two would run to €138 before wine or service.
The high point
The best Indian food I've eaten in Ireland.
The low point
Seeing the unadventurous food choices being made at other tables.
7/10 value for money
Whispers from the gastronomicon
The Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen are lists of the conventional foods that are the least and most sprayed with pesticides, and therefore the least and most likely to contain pesticide residues. The list comes from the US, but even though spraying practices there differ from those in Europe, we can assume that a European list would be broadly similar. Top of the 2016 clean list are avocados, sweetcorn, pineapple, cabbage and peas, while top of the dirty list - and therefore the foods that it's most important to eat organic - are strawberries, apples, nectarines, peaches, celery and grapes.