Saturday 19 April 2014

777 is the magic number

Restaurant Review: 7 Castle House, South Great George's Street, Dublin2

7 Castle House, South Great George's Street, Dublin 2

I'm not the first person to say this, and I surely won't be the last, but there's a weird thing about getting older and it's this: you don't feel it yourself. I don't feel any different than I did when I was 28. I've asked friends about this and pressed them for their mental age. We all seem to have stopped somewhere in our 20s in our minds, although our bodies have aged relentlessly.

Most of the time I'm blissfully unaware of how much I've aged, but there are times when it's brought home to you, and sometimes it's quite forcefully done. Take this week, for example. Marian the Blonde and I were in Dublin to meet friends Elma and Paul Cusack, and we arranged to meet them in 777, a restaurant on George's Street with a touch of Mexico on the menu.

777 is the newest link in the chain of restaurants belonging to John Farrell, who also has The Butcher Grill and Dillinger's, both in Ranelagh. Like Joe Macken of Crackbird, Bear and Jo'Burger, John seems to have a knack of opening restaurants that pull people in.

Between the two of them, they may well end up paving the roads between George's Street and Ranelagh with restaurants.

What all of these restaurants have in common is that they have that undefinable quality of trendiness. They're uber-chic, very now and filled with the young and beautiful – exactly the clientele that made me aware of my age. I mean, when you look around and realise you could be the daddy of those about you, then you have to admit that you're getting older.

Every now and then I come across a description of a restaurant that says 'it has the New York look', and I find myself thinking 'not to me, it doesn't'. But as we took our table in 777 and looked around us, I had to admit that, this time, I felt that the description fitted.

The decor is a mix of styles: shabby and chic; new and old. The high ceiling is covered in distressed tiles, there are porcelain tiles on some walls and the menu design matches the table-top design. It's eclectic, and it works. I found myself quoting Dolly Parton – "it takes a lot of money to look this cheap".

What you do notice more than anything, though, is the sound level. My decibel app was peaking at 109, which is loud by any standard. Still, the music was good and we were able to hear ourselves across the table.

A counter runs almost the whole length of the restaurant, dividing it between the tables for dining and the counter for cocktails and bites. There's a long menu of cocktails and drinks, and the dinner menu has food on one side and wines on the other.

Although we ended up drinking beer, I took a little time looking down the wine list. There's a couple of dozen wines listed and there's a higher than usual mark-up, so wines that you'd commonly see on other lists are about €5 more on this list. This means that the majority of wines are in the €30-€40 bracket, rather than the €20-€30 bracket.

Our drinks order became a couple of Margaritas, sparkling water and beer – Peroni and Modelo.

With four of us ordering, we were able to get a good spread across the menu. Everything listed on the menu is Mexican or Spanish, so there's a real flavour of Meso-america, including classics such as Moros y Cristianos (black beans and rice), ceviche (fish), borracho beans ('drunken beans') and asados (barbecues or roasts).

The first dishes to arrive at the table were the bistec, which is a tartar, the huachinango, which was blackened snapper, the 'vuelve a la vida', which is a ceviche, and a tuna sashimi. The bistec was served with a citrus and horseradish mayonnaise, onions and chilli. It worked well as a dish because the flavours were all in balance.

Across the table from me, Elma and Marian were enjoying the fish starters; the blackened snapper being cooked in the classic New Orleans style of a coating of spices and flavours, which makes the 'blackened' part of the description.

In Elma's ceviche, there was a fine mix of seafood – shrimps, clams and mussels all mixed with avocado and flavoured with cilantro and jalapeno peppers. It looked good too, served in a wide goblet.

Of our main courses, two really stood out: Elma's chilli ribs, which was a very generous portion, and also beautifully served – glazed and topped with cilantro leaves.

But it was unanimous between us: the star dish of the night was definitely Marian's choice, the oak-grilled hangar steak.

Hangar steak is what Irish butchers call flank. It's a lean piece of muscle meat, but untreated it can be tough; it's used most commonly for mince. This, however, was as tender as fillet steak but with a whole lot of flavour. You could taste not only the meat, but the smoky barbecue flavour of the asador. If you needed proof that the best flavour can be found in unusual cuts, this is it.

If you walked into 777 knowing nothing about it, your first impressions would be of a busy, buzzy cocktail bar. Then you might notice that there's food on offer, and because you noticed the food second you might assume it has a secondary function in the restaurant.

But that would be wrong. The food is of a high standard, far better than you'd guess. Not only good, but also accurate and precise, making the tastes of Mexico rather better than you'd commonly find them in Mexico. The bill for the four of us came to €162.50.

Irish Independent

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