Paolo Tullio: Sink your claws into a real catch
As we stumble from one fiscal crisis to another, it's surprising to me that there are still brave souls who are prepared to take the risk of opening new restaurants, though it's arguable that it's not as crazy as it looks at first sight.
Landlords have grudgingly become more realistic in their expectations when it comes to rent, and suppliers are cutting their margins to the bone. That's a combination that gives restaurants a chance of success, even in a restricted market.
It's been a long time since a new restaurant opened in Blackrock, Co Dublin, but now there's a new Ouzo's. You may recognise that name. It began life in Baggot Street, then moved to Ranelagh, then to Dalkey, and now there's a second one in Blackrock. Part of Ouzo's success is due to a novel approach to obtaining sea food -- they own a fishing boat. Catching their own fish, and specifically lobster, means that Ouzo's has been able to offer customers lobster at affordable prices, a strategy that is still in operation.
It had been snowing heavily when I went to pick up Marian Kenny, and the roads around Dalkey and Sandycove were effectively a skating rink, with cars sliding all around the roads. Bizarrely, when we got to Blackrock there wasn't a scrap of snow to be seen, as though the snow falls had simply passed Blackrock by.
Ouzo's is where The Mad Hatter used to be, at the top of the Main Street, and it's been quite extensively re-modelled inside. The most striking new feature is a three-storey atrium rising right up to the roof, giving a great sense of space and light. There's a full bar downstairs and a few tables, but the main dining room is upstairs. We took a booth and studied the menu, which was familiar enough, as it's pretty much the same menu as you'll find in the Dalkey Ouzo's.
As is increasingly the case, the menu is thorough in listing all the suppliers and all the meat is traceable. There was plenty of choice: there was an early-bird menu for €21.95 and the 'crab and lobster feast' menu, which gives you a starter choice of chowder, crab claws, calamari or portobello mushrooms with crab meat, and main-course choices of a lobster and crab salad, a seafood bake, and a 10oz steak or lobster -- and all for €24.95.
We decided to go à la carte, and Marian began with the portobello mushrooms with spinach and Gruyère and I chose the salt and pepper calamari. We'd passed the lobster tank at the bottom of the stairs, so I'd already made up my mind for my main course and had even chosen my victim. Marian settled on the game pie.
That gave me my opening, and I was able to say to our waitress: "I'm on the fish, and my girlfriend's on the game." I won't even try to describe the unamused look on Marian's face.
The starters arrived and they looked good on the plates. The mushrooms that Marian had ordered were medium-sized flats and they were tasty, the Gruyère melted and its taste mingling well with the accompanying spinach. What made my calamari a cut above the usual was that they were tender inside the crisp batter, a result of watching the cooking process carefully.
The main courses arrived, the game pie for Marian and a mid-sized lobster for me. Now it's the tradition in Ireland to boil lobsters -- it's the way it's always been done -- but I've come to believe that there are better ways to cook it.
A few years ago, I had lobster in Ashbourne's Eatzen, a very good Chinese restaurant, and it was far more tender than is often the case. It turned out that they didn't boil the lobster, but instead grilled it.
They use a similar technique in Ouzo's. You can, of course, have it boiled, if that's your taste, but let me suggest that you try it char-grilled, which is how I had it. The result was exactly the same as it was in Eatzen -- very tender flesh. I'm now completely converted to this way of cooking it. A little jug of lemon butter added just enough zest to complement the dish.
Meanwhile, Marian was thoroughly enjoying her game pie. It came with a nicely browned short-pastry cover and was full of warm, rich winter tastes. She was enthusiastic to the point of asking what exactly was in the pie. "Well, there's pheasant, and rabbit, and goat and venis..."
"And what? Goat? I'm eating goat?" Suddenly, she could eat no more.
"You know that lamb you liked so much in Italy?" I said. "That was goat."
"You mean you lied to me?"
"Only to get you to eat it."
I tell you this story because it's so often the case that we don't try foods just because of what we imagine they might taste like. I've had the same reaction when I've given people ox tongue. They've really enjoyed it until I told them what it was, then came the gag reflex. And it's useless saying, "but you were enjoying it". The fact is that an idée fixe is hard to shift.
By the time we'd discovered the exact contents of the delicious pie we'd actually eaten quite a lot, so tempting as desserts were, we didn't have any. We finished up with a couple of espressos for me and a tea for Marian.
I like the Ouzo's formula; it's well-sourced raw ingredients cooked simply and well.
We hadn't ordered any wine, but, if you enjoy good wines, there's a page of fine wines at discounted prices. For example, Chassagne-Montrachet 2007 is €58 and a Lynch-Bages 2007 is €90, both priced at considerably less than you'd find them on most wine lists.
Our bill, including many bottles of water, was €84.05.