Restaurant review: Paolo Tullio at Matt the Thresher, Dublin 2
I've been struggling for years to understand why it is that fish is generally held in low esteem in Ireland. In continental Europe, fish is perceived as a treat, a meal fit for a celebration.
In Italy, for example, a meal based on fish and seafood in a restaurant will be significantly more expensive than a meal based on meat. When you consider that Ireland is an island in the Atlantic Ocean, the fact that there's so little emphasis on fish in our national cuisine is decidedly odd.
When I have visitors from Italy, they invariably ask me to take them to a fish restaurant, on the assumption that Dublin must be full of them. But apart from the excellent Cavistons in Glasthule and a couple in Howth, our capital is strangely devoid of fish restaurants.
Even more curious, the fish that are most commonly listed on restaurant menus -- salmon and sea bass -- are farmed fish, as are the prawns that are the other staple of menus.
Which makes you wonder where the fish from the Irish seas are going. I'm told that the answer is that continental buyers outbid Irish buyers at fish auctions, so much of the Irish catch goes to France and Spain. Beyond the farmed fish, Irish consumers only seem to have an interest in cod, a rapidly depleting resource.
So we come to a chicken and egg circularity: are there no fish restaurants because there's no interest in fish, or is there no interest in fish because there's nowhere to eat it?
Now, I'm a big fan of fish when I'm eating out. It's easy on the digestion, it's light and you can't help feeling that it's good for you. So when I heard that there was a new restaurant on Pembroke Street doing fish, I was keen to try it.
Turned out to be called Matt the Thresher, the name of a road house in Birdhill that I visited a while back on a trip to Limerick. It's the sort of name that makes you ask questions, such a who was or is this Matt, and what exactly is a thresher?
What I remember of the Birdhill visit was that Matt's was nice enough, a pleasant place to stop on a drive, but probably not a destination in itself. I didn't have high expectations for the Dublin venture.
I went there with Gavin Cullen, with whom I have many things in common, but in particular we both have partners who don't enjoy seafood. Since we both do, it was an opportunity to eat the sort of food we like, without compromising.
Matt the Thresher occupies the space that The Pembroke did, so it's just between Baggot Street and Fitzwilliam Square. It has an outdoor seating area where I met Gavin, and inside it's spacious and airy, the tables well spaced in the room.
There's a long bar counter and at the front end of the bar is a display counter of fish and seafood, the sort of display you see at the entrance of many continental fish restaurants.
We stood there for a while, looking at the live lobsters and crabs, the mussels, mackerel, hake, monkfish -- all very fresh and all very tempting.
We found a table beside a turf fire, just what you need on a cool Irish summer evening, and read the menu. Fish dominates on the menu, not surprisingly as the head chef is named as Stephen Caviston, of the aforementioned Cavistons of Glasthule, a man who has grown up in the fish business.
Starters run from €5.95 for soup to €13.95 for a proper, classic Dublin Bay prawn cocktail made with langoustines. Main courses are moderately priced, running from €11.95 for a pot of mussels to €30 for a large seafood platter, although the majority of dishes are under €20.
It's not just fish, though; there are plenty of steaks and burgers to choose from if fish is not for you. But fish was exactly what we wanted, so we ordered three starters to share: the grilled mackerel, the scampi and a bowl of mussels.
We ended up ordering the same main course, because we'd seen the handsome and fresh hake on the counter and couldn't resist it. It's a much underestimated fish of the cod family, with firm, tasty flesh.
And then we turned to the wine list. Our waiter, Justin, was also the sommelier, and the wine list is his work in progress. There are about 30 wines listed and a few interesting choices to be had.
Justin suggested the Meyer-Fonné Gentil d'Alsace, a cépage which included Pinot Gris, GewÃ¼rtztraminer, Riesling and Muscat grapes. An unusual blend and a very good white wine to accompany seafood, it transpired. It was on the list at €25.95.
Our starters arrived and the mackerel was simply and well done. I'm very partial to mackerel, so I enjoyed it a lot, as I did the mussels, which were Meunière with cream and a Chenin Blanc white wine.
But the real star of our starters were the scampi, for two reasons. First, they were firm, fresh and not overcooked, and, second, the batter was quite simply perfection. I don't think I've ever had such a good batter -- crisp, light and free of all oiliness. Apart from the three starters, we were also using the toasted bread to dip into a really flavoursome tartar sauce, supposedly to accompany the scampi, but good enough to eat on its own with bread.
Main courses arrived and we both were presented with two very fine hake steaks. Again, simply but well done. We could quote Van Gogh here: "Why is simplicity the hardest thing to do?" But when you have excellent and fresh produce, it's at its best when it's as simple as possible. Let the produce do the talking, not the chef.
This was an impressive meal, and now I know where I can take visitors in the city centre when they want fish. Our bill came to €108.55, without a service charge.
VALUE FOR MONEY 8/10