Simply hunky dory
Guest food critic David Norris lets the head of Unicef in Ireland, Melanie Verwoerd, take him for a colourful lunch
I have always believed in equality, therefore it didn't take a feather out of me to accept a generous invitation to lunch at the expense of the lovely and sophisticated former South African Ambassador to Ireland, Melanie Verwoerd.
Though devastated by her recent bereavement, Melanie's commitment to developing the role of Unicef in Ireland remains unshakeable. She is also a fascinating conversationalist who keeps a keen and informed eye on politics, both domestic and international, so it was no penance to spend an hour or two in her company.
Of course, there is no such thing as a free lunch. In return, Melanie asked me to write a few words about the restaurant she had chosen. This wasn't too challenging a task as, many years ago, I filled in for six months as restaurant columnist for the remarkable Helen Lucy Burke on a Sunday newspaper.
That meant I was cute enough to know to take notes during the meal and to purloin a couple of pages from the menu and wine list. This is just as well, as I wouldn't have recognised many of the dishes because I don't often eat Malaysian food, and Melanie chose the Langkawi Malaysian restaurant at 46 Upper Baggot Street, just opposite the end of Waterloo Road.
I have been a northsider now for the past 32 years, and that is probably why I hadn't been previously to this delightful place, which has been open for almost 20 years. The owner and chef is Alex Hosey, and it is he who was responsible for the cuisine.
He met his wife, Linda — who is originally from Coolock — in Amsterdam in 1984, and within a few years the couple were happily delighting the Irish public. Melanie appears to be something of a regular here and, knowing that she loves fish, when Alex spotted her name on the booking list he cleverly managed to secure some splendid John Dory with the brine of the sea still fresh upon them.
While we contemplated the menu, I took in the stylish but not over-opulent decor and particularly the interesting collection of paintings ranging from the meticulous representation of an oriental vase through to a pair of subtle and sensuous dancing figures and then a majestic portrait of a Malaysian tiger by an Irish artist.
Both of us were being very good about diet in recognition of the continuing impact in our lives of Gerry Ryan and his Operation Transformation, so we eschewed wine and went for fizzy water and also plumped — to use a very inappropriate term — for boiled rather than fried rice with the main course.
Let me hasten, however, to reassure prospective diners and quaffers that there is a very good and extensive wine list with excellent wines from France, New Zealand, Spain, Australia, Italy and, of course, my favourite — a good cabernet sauvignon from Chile — as well as reasonably priced house recommendations. All the wines have clear and helpful descriptions of the wine and its effect upon the palate.
I was already salivating when our starters arrived. Melanie had the crispy vegetarian pancake with fruit sauce, while I had the spicy Malaysian meatballs, also with a fruit sauce accompanying them. Like good pals, we dipped into each other's plates and so we had a taste of everything.
The spicy pancake was pleasant, but bland compared to my tasty and certainly spicy meatballs. I can still feel the resonance of the tang in my gullet. For the main course, inevitably, we had John Dory done two ways, and again each took a half of the other’s dish. I chose kicap ikan — that is, John Dory shallow-fried with a light, crisp touch and infused with ginger, coriander, scallions and soy sauce.
Her ladyship had her John Dory, but this time as ikan sumbat, stuffed with chilli and presented exotically on a large banana leaf. It was separated from the bone at the table by a surgically skilled assistant. Don't think I am gloating but, although both were delicious, my ikan was definitely ahead on points for the sheer subtlety of the flavours, and her ladyship tactfully agreed. We did not, however, agree on the pud.
I had banana fritters — not like any fritters I have had before, but large chunks of banana in a light batter giving a crunchy texture and that real, half-caramelised banana taste. It was a knockout. It was the conclusive round as far as I am concerned because Melanie, to my personal taste, let herself down disastrously by ordering a slab of chocolate cake!
This was the quintessence of malignant black chocolate and, as a member of a persecuted minority — those who dislike chocolate intensely — to me it was a revolting sight to see her smack her lips and lean back in satisfaction, purring like a cat. Anyway, the end result was that we were both absolutely delighted with the meal. I know these are recessionary times, and dining out can seem to be almost a provocative luxury.
But don't forget that restaurant owners and workers also have jobs and also struggle hard, and when I tell you the total of the final bill, I think you will agree it was pretty good value. The final cost was €29.90. The two meals were €25.40 — lunch is €12.95 for two courses — and the water was €4. I think they forgot to charge us for desserts, which normally cost €3.25 each.
There is also a dinner special with two courses at €19.95: a choice of five starters and five main courses, but if you want fried rice instead of steamed, there is an additional €2 charge. All in all, a delightful outing.
Langkawi, 46 Upper Baggot Street, Dublin 2,
Tel: (01) 668-2760