Review of Forest Avenue: 'Be first in line when Sweeney steps up to the stove in his new kitchen'
Forest Avenue, 8 Sussex Terrace, Dublin 4. (01) 667-8337
At the time of writing, there were still seats available at the last night of Ciaran Sweeney's Sunday night residency at Forest Avenue, which will take place tomorrow night at 7pm. Of course, there's a good chance that this will have sold out by the time you read this, but bear with me. Because within a few weeks, Sweeney will have a new, long-term home in the kitchen at John and Sandy Wyer's second restaurant, located just around the corner from Forest Avenue, in the premises formerly occupied by Rigby's on Upper Leeson Street. This is good news.
Forest Avenue wasted no time in establishing itself as one of the best of the new generation of Dublin restaurants to emerge from the ashes of the overblown, glitter monkey Dublin dining scene that existed during the boom. Open two years now, it's the go-to choice for the discerning gourmands who gravitate towards John Wyer's accomplished food accompanied by sharp yet relaxed service presided over by Sandy, a dynamite pastry chef.
One of the nice things that's happened in Dublin over the past few years is the emergence of a pop-up restaurant culture. Pop-ups are not new - I remember the thrill of nabbing a seat at legendary French chef Paul Bocuse's on Columbus Avenue in New York almost 30 years ago - and it's almost a decade since I went to my first Dublin 'supper club', held in a suburban house in Rathfarnham, where the furniture had been pushed out of the way to make room for the guests. More reminiscent of the paladares of Havana than a restaurant, it was an odd and not wholly comfortable experience, and the food was standard dinner party fare. Since then, supper clubs presided over by good home cooks have been replaced by temporary restaurants run by proper chefs and I've been to several, including one that the Wyers themselves ran before they secured the premises for Forest Avenue. That was a different kettle of fish, as you would expect from professionals.
Ciaran Sweeney is a veteran of the temporary restaurant scene, having staged the Culinary Counter pop-ups at Forest Avenue and in The Market Canteen in Blackrock with fellow chef, Mark Moriarty, winner of the San Pellegrino Best Young Chef in the World award earlier this year. Originally from Donegal, Sweeney began working at the Rosapenna hotel aged 16 and has stints at the two-star Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham, and at Thorntons, The Greenhouse and The Market Canteen in Dublin on his CV. So he has form.
It used to be cabaret artists who had residencies, but now chefs have them too. It's a riff on the pop-up, and allows for better continuity than a frantic 'for one night only' gig. At Forest Avenue, Sweeney's is on successive Sundays during the month of December. There's a five-course set menu.
First up is a substantial snack of kedgeree on cod skin, an ugly looking prospect that announces its arrival with what my husband dubs a 'fore-smell' that we find challenging. We're used to seeing fish and chicken skin appearing as snacks and garnishes these days, but they usually appear as tiny shards and here the tranche of cod skin is just too much. It tastes good though, especially when you shut your eyes.
The first course proper is a fermented potato bread served hot with a little pot of bacon and cabbage relish alongside. There's soft brown butter with bacon crumbs to smear over the hot bread and the combination of flavours is dazzling. Alongside, the wine is the cider-y Radikon Ribolla, a skin contact natural wine from Venezia that's a Marmite choice but works well. Next up, a quenelle of rich chicken liver mousse sitting on bed of powdered pine with pickled enoki mushrooms, a crumble of granola and pickled pears. It's luscious, and the Montes late harvest Gewurztraminer from Chile an astute match.
Beetroot comes, for a change, not with goat's cheese or curds but infused with liquorice and orange, served with walnuts and a bordelaise sauce incorporating smoked bone marrow that I'd like a plateful of on toast right now. It's paired with a light yet earthy Beaujolais. Then, sharing plates of glazed pork neck with a mushroom crust and chestnut ('poor man's truffle' says Sweeney) accompanied by sprouts in a bacon sauce, carrots with bearnaise, smoked mash, and an elegant smile of cavola nero, matched with a syrah from the Northern Rhone. It's hearty and utterly delicious.
To finish, an exemplary caramel custard tart (a Sweeney trademark) with prune ice cream and a smoked tea mousse, paired with a 10-year old tawny port from Kopke. All just excellent. And then, because the dining is fine, even though the atmosphere is relaxed, there are petit fours of candied black olive cookies and buttery fudge. Our bill for two, with wine pairing and water came to €162 before service. If you don't make it tomorrow, be first in line when Sweeney steps up to the stove in his new kitchen.
On a budget
It's a one-size-fits-all offer; the five-course, no-choice menu is priced at €45.
On a blowout
With matching wine pairings at €35, and unlimited still or sparkling water at €1 per head, dinner for two would cost €162 before service.
The high point
Discovering yet another great young Irish chef and learning that his big-flavoured, confident food will be available from the spring onwards at Forest Avenue's new sibling restaurant, just a stone's throw away from the mothership.
The low point
The opening snack of kedgeree and cod skin was less than photogenic.
8/10 value for money
Whispers from the gastronomicon
Chefs get a bad press sometimes, portrayed as competitive and angry, seething with resentment, Gore Vidal-style, when one of their number receives an accolade that might have been theirs. But the new breed of chefs appears to have moved on. At Ciaran Sweeney's residency in Forest Avenue, many of the diners were other chefs, including those from Locks and Delahunt, there to support and they were full of praise for Sweeney's food. This collegiate spirit and mutual enthusiasm is good to see, and augurs well for all sorts of interesting collaborations in the future.