Restaurant review: Paolo Tullio at The Magpie Inn, Co. Dublin
When it comes to restaurants, this has become a very uneven recession. While the majority of restaurants are struggling to keep their customers by slashing their margins, there are others that defy the norm and are busy.
Not only that, there are brave people who open up new restaurants, despite the obvious trading difficulties.
A few weeks ago, I went to the opening of The Tramyard Gallery in Dalkey, which has just moved from Castle Street into the Tramyard itself. After the opening, I went with Marian Kenny to find something to eat.
Two new places have opened up recently in Dalkey: The Dispensary, which is in the building recently vacated by McDonald's, and The Magpie, a gastropub at the end of Castle Street, Dalkey's main street.
We walked into The Magpie and there wasn't a seat to be had. Undeterred, we crossed the road and tried The Dispensary, where we were greeted by Jackie Rafter, who is running the front of house. Once again, not a seat to be had.
We ended up with a takeaway from the excellent Spice Cottage in Sallynoggin, and a desire to try one of Dalkey's new arrivals as soon as possible.
So, this week, we walked into a slightly less busy Magpie and found ourselves a corner table -- Marian, her son Max the chef, and me.
Before I turned to the menu, there were the drinks menus to look at. The first one I picked up was a pretty good wine list, far better than you'd expect from a pub, with a couple of pages of wines in the €18 to €35 bracket, then another page of well-chosen wines running up to just under €80.
That in itself was unusual for a pub, but it was the other drinks menu that really caught my attention. It was a three-page list of beers. The first page offers 16 different beers on draught all priced at around €5 a pint. The other pages have 32 bottled beers, which are also priced at around €5.
With Marian unanimously elected the driver, that left Max and I to try the beers. There's a growing market in Ireland for artisan beers, both Irish and imported.
These beers tend to have a great deal more flavour than the big brands, which have been designed to appeal to the broadest possible number of people.
This is achieved by making beers that are essentially quite bland. This really isn't the case with these micro-brewery artisan beers -- you get a real mouthful of flavour from them.
Max started with a German lager, the Fischers Helles, while I went native and chose an Irish beer, the Galway Hooker pale ale. I didn't taste the lager, but the Irish ale was superb, brimming with flavours of hops and toasted barley.
Marian had to content herself with a Diet Coke and we studied the menu.
The dinner menu is longer than you'd find in many restaurants, with a choice of 10 starters and 12 main courses. The starters range in price from €7.50 to €10, which gets you tiger prawns or fishcakes.
The most expensive main course is €24 for an aged rib-eye steak, and eight main courses are under €20, so it's right in the main stream for value for money.
Between us, we had starters of pork belly, a warm St Tola goat's cheese and a daily special of mussels. The pork belly was done with paprika and came with pickled red cabbage and an apple marmalade.
The goat's cheese came with toasted home-made bread and some tasty sugared grapes, just warmed and very succulent. The mussels were done in a classic Meunière sauce, which was so well done I had to ask for a spoon to finish what was left in the bowl.
As you can see, this was uncomplicated food, but it was done well and looked good on the plates. If this kind of food is the result of recessionary eating habits, then something good may have come out of these hard times.
There's a kind of honesty to food like this -- it's unpretentious, approachable and, above all, affordable.
This same theme of honest goodness ran through the main courses as well. There was a special of fresh mackerel, one of the finest fish from the sea, and Max chose that. Marian decided on a lamb burger and I went traditional with a fish pie.
When they arrived at the table, like the starters, they looked, well... , good enough to eat. The mackerel had been chargrilled and was served whole, on a bed of mash with accompaniments of lemon and broccoli. Frankly, there's no better way to have fresh mackerel -- unadorned, unflavoured and simply left to taste of what it is.
A well-made and juicy lamb burger made Marian happy, but she really enthused over the chips that came with it. And rightly too. These were chips the way I like them as well: golden in colour, crisp on the outside and soft and fluffy inside.
I had an individual fish pie served in a plain white bowl with a topping of mashed potato. All too often, fish pies come with an abundance of farmed salmon and not much else, but here the pie was filled with a good mix of fish, smoked and unsmoked, plus the odd shellfish as well. An excellent pie.
Max and I went back to the beer list and we ordered a Blue Moon weiss beer from America, and a Scottish 5am Saint.
It's worth mentioning that many artisan beers have odd names. This week, thanks to www.beerheaven.com, I've tasted Shepherd's Watch, Santa's Butt and 5 Wold Rings.
We finished with two desserts -- a classic bread and butter pudding and a lemon carrageen moss pudding. These two good desserts finished what had been a very good meal, and with a final bill of €116.90, it had been good value as well.
The Magpie Inn,
Tel: 01 202 3909
VALUE FOR MONEY 9/10