Joy of simple pleasures
The Camden Kitchen, 3 Camden Market, Grantham Street, Dublin 8. Telephone: 01 476 0125
There's always a bit of a buzz when somewhere new opens and, these days, it's a rarer event than it used to be. Despite a pretty hostile environment at the moment for the catering industry, there are still brave folk who decide to open their doors to feed the public.
New restaurants are immediately filled by the optimists, the diners who see each new enterprise as a possibility of finding the perfect meal. For epicureans, this is like the Arthurian Grail; it's an unceasing quest and every new restaurant is a possible repository of the gastronomic grail. And so, questing, we go to see if we can find that elusive prandial perfection.
This year there was some excitement when the Camden Kitchen opened, because it was headed up by Padraic Hayden. If you haven't heard of him, you'll certainly have heard of the places where he's worked -- Luttrellstown Castle, L'Ecrivain, One Pico and, most recently, the Dylan Hotel. I've never eaten in Luttrellstown, but I've had very good meals in the other three places. The point is that Hayden comes with a lot of experience in excellent kitchens, and in the Camden Kitchen he uses that experience to create a bistro menu.
The idea is a good one and I've spoken to several chefs who thought the way to deal with the current difficult market is to move away from the glitzy, foamy, fancy presentations toward a more simple cuisine, based on quality ingredients and careful preparation. Certainly it's closer to the kind of food you could eat every day.
So I arranged to meet a lunching companion at half past noon. I arrived a little early, got a table for two and looked around me. The interior is simply decorated, the walls soothing shades of mushroom, the tables and chairs functional and spare. I sat looking out at the room on a well-sprung banquette.
At the appointed time I phoned to ask where my lunch companion was. "Oh, I can't make it," came the reply. I hung up, thinking it might have been politer to let me know before I got there and also that, if I were to be lunching alone, I could have bought a newspaper and had a crossword for company. I was staring glumly into space when a voice interrupted my reveries.
"Hi Paolo, can I join you?" It was Trevor White, author, foodie and ex-editor/proprietor of The Dubliner. You couldn't have wished for a more entertaining companion.
It seems Trevor's office is nearby and he'd discovered The Camden Kitchen earlier in the week. "This is my third visit this week," he told me. When you hear that, coming from the man who compiled The Dubliner 100 Best Restaurants for many years, it makes for a serious recommendation.
The menu looked good -- bistro dishes, but with a little extra. There were 11 items on the lunch menu plus a couple of specials on a board. They're not broken down into starters and main courses, but some are more obviously starters than others. I liked the look of the gazpacho with Kalamata olive oil, the goat's cheese croquettes, the pan-fried mackerel with couscous and the free-range chicken leg. Everything on the menu was less than €12, except for the charcuterie plate, which was priced at €14.
To start, Trevor ordered the gazpacho and I chose the ham-hock terrine from the specials board. Next, Trevor chose the merguez sausages served on a baguette and I chose the chicken leg.
There's a short but well-chosen wine list with nothing over €36, which matches well with the bistro prices. Unusually, every wine on the list is available by the glass and there are a couple of beers as well. We decided on a glass each of an Alsatian Pinot Noir, surprisingly lush for such a northern red, which was priced at €8 a glass. We also ordered two large bottles of sparkling water, at €3.80 each.
When the starters arrived I could smell the ripe tomatoes of Trevor's gazpacho from across the table, and Trevor pronounced it excellent. I had two small tians of terrine on my plate, which came with toasted sourdough bread -- a fine combination. These were both well- made dishes that fitted exactly with the Camden Kitchen's averred intention of providing simple and carefully prepared dishes. I was beginning to see why Trevor was making a habit of lunching here.
The main courses arrived and Trevor explained to me that the merguez sausages were made locally by a halal butcher. These sausages are a North African speciality made of minced lamb and lamb intestines for the casing, so they satisfy both the Muslim and the Jewish food codes. They are red and spicy, and the colour comes from the paprika and chilli powder in them. Trevor handed me one to try and it was very good, the spices balancing the heat of the chilli well.
What made me enjoy my main course was that the chicken leg in front of me tasted the way chicken used to taste. I find the standard supermarket bird has almost no taste at all, which seems to please a lot of people, but not me. I suspect the bird on my plate had really done a bit of free-ranging, as the leg was longer than normal, a sign that the bird had not been confined to a cage for the 40 days of its life. It came with whipped potatoes and some green beans.
Over a good espresso we talked of how big industry is taking over our food chain. It's a shame, we're gradually giving up control over what we eat to large international food businesses. That's why I think food like we'd eaten in the Camden Kitchen is something to think about. It makes use of skills that we ought to acquire and use in home cooking.
If restaurants can move towards real, uncomplicated food with good base ingredients, then we should do the same at home.
The bill came to €61.60 without service charge.
ON A BUDGET
The lunch menu certainly satisfies a budget. With no main course costing more than €12 and some filling starters at less than €10, you can eat well, have a glass of wine and get change from €20.
ON A BLOWOUT
The dinner menu is a little pricier than the lunch menu, but it’s still reasonable. No starter is more than €10 and no main course more than €20. Some dishes are the same as on the lunch menu, but there are various others. email: firstname.lastname@example.org
VALUE FOR MONEY 8/10