independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Infused with creativity

Choosing a restaurant for the first review of the year needs a little thought. In my mind, it sets the tone for the forthcoming year and, being an inveterate optimist, I want it to be good.

That way, I can tell myself that I've got a year of good food to look forward to. So I'm optimistic, or just maybe carried away with wishful thinking.

I decided that The Damson Diner would be a good choice, partly because I'd heard good reports, but mostly because I knew that the brothers behind Coppinger Row were involved, and Coppinger Row is a restaurant that I like.

The visit turned out to be something of a family outing; there was Marian The Blonde, her daughters Gemma and Sophie, Sophie's beau, David Uda and me.

David is an artist, and as it happened he had an exhibition of his work in Bagots Hutton, a wine bar right across South William Street from the Damson Diner.

So Sophie, Marian and I began with a visit there to meet David, and we found him in the caves at the back of the bar. Well, they're not caves, but they are the oldest wine cellars in Dublin.

Following the cellars to the end, we found David and a trio of traditional musicians. We were almost ready to order a glass of wine when a call from Gemma to say she'd arrived at the diner took us across the road to meet her.

The Damson Diner is very now, very trendy and very chic. It has a kind of New York-diner feel when you first walk in.

There's a double-height glass front, a wall of living greenery, and a long counter behind which a brigade of chefs is at work, in front of which are the kind of round-topped stools you've seen in all the movies portraying American diners in the 1950s.

Beyond the counter there's a dining area.

From where we were sitting, we had a good view of a shelf of variously coloured liquids in large Mason jars. At first I thought these were a design feature, but later I learnt they had a very real purpose. These were the ingredients for the cocktails.

There's a whole menu listing 'infusions', and some of them sounded really interesting. For example, vodka with Wicklow frockens, rum with Wexford raspberries, whiskey with Tipperary cherries, and gin with elderflower.

The suggestions for these infusions were either to have them as a spritzer with sparkling water, as a Royale with Prosecco, or as a classic cocktail. Certainly plenty of invention there.

The food menu is divided into three. There are 'bites', which you can think of as large starters; then there's 'in a bowl', which has soups, salads, chilli con carne and mussels; and last, 'from the grill', which listed a pork chop, a rib-eye steak, grilled sea bream, a cheeseburger and a mushroom burger. Sides included corn on the cob, breaded courgettes, rice, slaw, steamed greens and a small salad.

There was a short wine list, with wines running from €20 to around €50, and six of them were available by the glass.

But, as I said, it was the cocktails that looked interesting, so we ended up with four infusion cocktails, a couple of beers and lots of Diet Coke for the girls.

I got to taste all the cocktails and I was much impressed, they really were very good.

We ordered three starters to share: Louisiana crab cakes, Siam duck and Asian ribs. The crab cakes were flavoured with peppers, onions and celery and came with a tartar sauce. I thought they worked well, as they managed to avoid being dry – the commonest fault with crab cakes.

The ribs were chargrilled and came with a ginger glaze, and the duck came with a pickled chilli sauce. These were competently done, but neither of them really enthused me.

For main courses we had two Bangkok chicken salads, a cheeseburger, a mushroom burger and a bowl of mussels. The chicken salads were nicely done, the Bangkok part being, I'd guess, the slices of daikon (a kind of radish) and the tamarind glaze on the chicken.

The cheeseburger was perhaps the best of our main courses, the grated Cheddar cheese incorporated into the burger, rather than lying on top of it, and the whole thing was wrapped in bacon.

The mussels were a generous portion, and were flavoured with chilli, ginger, soy and lime, and I enjoyed them. I wasn't impressed with the mushroom burger, which turned out to be a large Portobello mushroom in a bap, but it was Sophie's choice and she liked it.

Our side orders for these dishes were strips of breaded courgettes, which were very good, and chips, which were also very good.

Before we had desserts we did a little exploring. First to the outdoor smoking area, which takes you past the private dining room. Beware – what looks like a mirror from the outside is in fact a one-way mirror.

Inside the private dining room you can see people preening on the other side of the mirror. Upstairs, past a really interesting painting on the wall, which changes colours with the lighting, there were the loos and another dining room.

Back for desserts, we ordered a boozy sorbet and a chocolate brownie, which both went down well. I was the only taker for an espresso and it was a really good one. Ristretto, with a good crema and served in a dainty shot glass.

Our bill came to €171.70, not bad for five people.

The food offerings may not be enough to get me back, but the buzzy atmosphere, the excellent service and the great cocktails definitely would.

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