The Vine: Could Thai harder
109 Main Street, Co Wexford
A visit to the south east this week had me thinking. I remember when Kinsale was regarded as the nation's culinary capital, a time when there were very few good restaurants around the country and Kinsale had more than its share. Since then, the country has caught up with Kinsale and good restaurants abound where once there were none.
Wexford town seems to be to the south east what Kinsale was to the south. For what is not a big town, Wexford does have quite a lot of good restaurants. In the past couple of years I've eaten well in The Sky and the Ground, Mange 2, Le Tire Bouchon and, of course, Roberto Pons's La Dolce Vita. This week I was there again with Lisa McMullan to try a Thai restaurant called The Vine. All of these restaurants can be found on Wexford's long and narrow Main Street.
The entrance to The Vine is through a courtyard that leads to a rather grand, but slightly shabby, staircase. This leads you up to what must have been one of the finer rooms in the town, but you will smell the disinfectant from the loos as you pass by. It's a beautifully proportioned room and it's big, with a high ceiling, large-paned windows and some very fine plasterwork on the ceiling. One end of this room has been modified to include a mezzanine and, tucked in beneath it, a kitchen.
We were brought the menu and a jug of iced water, a nice touch I thought, and for once I spent no money on mineral water. As an aside, let me tell you a story about water. A few years ago I was talking with Tomas Clancy, who writes about wine in the Business Post. We were discussing TCA, the abbreviation for the chemical that gives us corked wine. "Have you noticed," he asked me, "that the water in Dublin city centre is corked?" I hadn't, but a few weeks after this conversation I had a glass of tap water in a Dublin hotel. You know what? Tomas was right: it had the unmistakable smell of TCA, which is why now I usually drink bottled water. But there was no such problem in Wexford, the water was good.
Before we chose our food we went through the wine list. It's a short list but it's well priced, with the majority of the wines at less than €30. I've always thought that Asian food probably goes best with beer, but the wines of Alsace do go well. There was an Alsace Riesling listed at €28, so we ordered that.
When it came it was quickly unscrewed and poured before I noticed that the bottle was not Alsatian, but was from Western Australia. I said I'd ordered the Alsace Riesling and was told that this was its replacement. Okay, it was also made from the Riesling grape, but in truth it wasn't a good substitute as it didn't have the crisp austerity that you get from the Alsace.
Choosing from the menu was harder -- there were some good dishes to pick from. After a bit of thought we ordered this: the Tom Yam Gung soup followed by Gaeng Peht Talay (a seafood curry dish) for Lisa, and Seekoang Mu (pork ribs) followed by Phad Thai for me.
The starters were absolutely delicious. Lisa's soup, a spicy and sour soup with lemongrass, kaffir leaves, galanga root and mushrooms, was expertly judged. The flavours worked perfectly together and we both agreed that this was a star dish. My Seekoang Mu was just as good -- more pork than rib, they'd been carefully prepared and the taste of the house special sauce was extraordinary.
You may have heard that we can taste just four things: sweet, sour, salty and bitter, but in 1908 umami was first identified as a separate taste by Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo University while researching the flavours of seaweed broth. He isolated monosodium glutamate (MSG) as the chemical responsible and later began the commercial distribution of MSG products.
Glutamates can be found naturally too, in Asian foods such as soy sauce and fish sauce, as well as in Italian food such as Parmesan cheese, anchovies and mature tomatoes. There's no perfect translation into English from umami, but the words savoury and meaty come close. So the best I can do is tell you that my pork ribs had a deep and pungent natural umami taste that was really delicious.
I wish I could say that our main courses were up to this same high standard but, sadly, they were not. Lisa's seafood in red curry turned out to be more of a very light pink shade. A heavy hand with the coconut milk had left the sauce unbalanced, with little of the curry taste left. There was plenty of seafood in the dish, although the promised squid turned out to be absent. The result was a dish that was short on flavour, but generous in quantity.
My Pad Thai, a dish of noodles and prawns with spring onions, ground peanuts and bean sprouts, was similarly shy in flavouring. More curiously, the noodles themselves had acquired a rubbery texture and were more than a little chewy. In the end I managed no more than half of this dish, confining myself to the prawns. It was profoundly puzzling: how could the same hand that had made those exquisite starters have made these two pedestrian dishes?
As far as I could see there was only one chef, so it can't be explained by two different hands.
I've remarked on it before, but cuisines that are largely based on the savoury, such as Indian, Italian and Thai, are not generally very good at desserts. Here in The Vine the desserts were all Irish, and I suspect bought in. Banoffee, ice cream, sticky toffee pudding and the like are perfectly good desserts, but they're hardly a fitting end to a genuine Thai meal. We decided to give them a miss and just have a tea and an espresso to finish the meal. Our bill came to €87.60.