Restaurant reviews: The Oriental Café, South Great Georges Street, D2
12/13 South Great Georges Street, D2. tel: 01 6458001
TYPICAL DISH: Rice porridge
RECOMMENDED: Hitachino Nest ale
THE DAMAGE: €56.25 for six dishes, two beers, two glasses of wine
ON THE STEREO: Radiohead
AT THE TABLE: Dates
I have a deep fondness for the building that houses The Oriental Café. When I was a student, it was part of the Bewley's chain and my father part-owned the George's Street franchise. So I spent my Friday nights serving milky coffee and Mary cakes to queens of all shapes and sizes when the neighbouring George pub finished last orders.
My father, meanwhile, sat in the corner, anonymous and chain-smoking intently, as he tried to come to terms with the queerness of the world. "A pound's a pound," he'd say, long before anyone decided to call gay money pink.
When Bewley's on Georges Street closed, he sold his share in the lease and with the proceeds bought the house I now live in. So I feel there's always a bit of Bewley's around me. In the intervening years, the building was given a new (and very lucrative) lease of life by Café Bar Deli. But that, too, had its time and was last year replaced by the short-lived Café des Irlandais.
It's a tough time to be opening a restaurant and I wasn't holding out much hope that 12 Georges Street would find a new tenant that could grit its teeth against the economic nosedive. But then I heard that Yamamori noodle restaurant was taking over. This, I thought to myself, is a positive development.
Yamamori has surfed the choppy waters of recession by serving consistently decent food at reasonable prices. It has an upbeat atmosphere and the service is snappy. A few years back they opened a sushi restaurant on the North Quays, which appears to be holding its own, so there's no reason why expansion into a neighbouring premises on Georges Street shouldn't work for them. In fact, it struck me as I stepped in the door that an Asian restaurant was the perfect resident for a building that wrote itself into the city's history books as an "oriental café" and tea merchant.
And Yamamori has certainly made the most of that connection -- not least by adopting the name The Oriental Café. The dark, bentwood furniture is unchanged, but they've gone all out with the decor: blue and white china bowls large enough to bathe in, paintings of shy geishas, oriental urns and wooden flamingos. The waitresses -- to Ui Rathaile's great delight, all young and slender and silent footed -- were dressed in beautiful silk cheongsam dresses. It would have been unnatural for him not to gaze at them -- sure I could hardly stop myself from admiring them. So I let it pass.
He ordered a bottle of Hitachino Nest, a Belgian-style White Ale that's brewed in Japan. It wasn't what he expected, but I have a penchant for exotic beers and loved its hints of lemon, coriander and spice. We swapped. He took my glass of Sauvignon Blanc, and we got stuck into the menu.
Ui Rathaile kicked off with "new style Peking duck", a coconut-milk pancake, stuffed with shredded breast meat and cucumber, tightly rolled and cut into three tidy little cylinders. Served on a pristine rectangular plate with a dramatic stripe of banana leaf down the centre, it was certainly beautiful to look at, but the first bite revealed the duck to be dry, flaky and flavourless with only the vaguest hint of coconut in the pancake. The accompanying plum chutney, likewise, failed to land a punch. Indeed, the only flavour of note on the plate came from a drizzle of sticky, sweet, brown dressing -- tamarind, we thought.
Next up: scallops with shichimi and wasabi mayonnaise. I was forewarned that it comprised only three scallops. Fair enough, I thought. Three fat scallops are worth €8.95. Unfortunately, what I got was three small, shrivelled chaps -- more wretched than regal in their demeanour. They were puckered, burnt on the outside, chewy on the inside and there wasn't a hint of buttery richness to them. The wasabi topping was irrelevant.
My high hopes for The Oriental Café were well on their way to being dashed, and the disappointment stung. The only consolation was the condiments, which included a brilliant oily chilli that tickled your tongue with a slow-spreading heat.
Teriyaki pork ribs, when you went beyond the sticky sauce, were, like the Peking duck, dry, burnt and bland. They relied on the sweet glaze and salty, crushed cashews to divert your palate from the direness of the pork.
From the dim sum menu, I tried a couple of yuba dumplings prepared with a tofu skin -- a translucent stretchy casing, which was too authentically skin-like to be appetising. Inside, oyster and shiitake mushrooms cut with shredded carrot failed to meet our exotic expectations. The Japanese gyoza dumplings were better. Nothing remarkable, mind, just prawns flecked with snipped scallion in a crispy wonton-style casing.
Hungry and frustrated, with none of Yamamori's staples -- noodles and sushi -- to be had, I turned to the rice menu and ordered chargrilled chicken congee. It was described as "seasoned rice porridge" on the menu. I should have taken it literally, because what appeared was a bowl of salty stirabout with singed wisps of scallion and flaky chicken that was dry to the point of desiccation. I left it almost untouched, and it was taken from the table without question.
Normally, when I go out to dinner I spend hours taking it all in. The Oriental Café has the dubious distinction of being one of the fastest review meals I've eaten. My pants were alight leaving. The burning question: how did Yamamori, which has got it right for so long, suddenly get it so horribly, horribly wrong?
Day & Night