Refuel: Kokoro * * * * *
19 Lower Liffet Street, Dublin 1. Tel: 01 8728787
Wanted: friend with a curious palate to consume free lunches in return for lucid opinions. Must be willing to eat raw fish on the northside of Dublin in a restaurant with no chairs, only standing room at a bar that doesn't serve alcohol.
Number of rejections: many. Quality of the excuses: ranged from the lame "I can only eat sitting down", to the convenient "No sushi for me, I'm pregnant", to the shamelessly forthright "Call me when you've got steak and wine". Recession my arse, you can't give food away in this town.
Talk about a shower of ingrates -- all I can say is the laugh is on you. Because, ha-ha-ha, you missed out on some of the best grub around. It was so good, in fact, that I have this past week been contriving situations that place me in the Liffey Street area around lunchtime. If both (or either of) my employers (this newspaper and Today FM) had stayed put in their grotty old offices, I could've had a casual work-around-the-corner type of relationship with Kokoro. You know, all cool and convenient. But instead I've become a stalker who announces her arrival with the words "I'm back!" Anything to avoid them saying "you again!"
So, what have I had? Well, my first order was for beef yakiniku, strips of sirloin, wok seared at an extreme temperature so that the end result was tender and juicy. The meat was coated with a barbecue sauce, a heady concoction involving soya sauce, miso, mirin, sesame oil and toasted seeds. There were slick Spanish onions, crunchy bean sprouts and, for green-ness, broccoli and courgette. It came with a sticky white rice (although I'd quite like to try it with nutty brown rice) and, as is the case with all the hot bento options at Kokoro, it costs just €5.40.
The following day, promising quality at a keen price, I lured the Home Economist to join me at Kokoro. This time, we concentrated on sushi and honed in on the pre-prepared bento boxes, neatly packed with salmon nigiri and ever so slightly seared tuna, edamame, rice, wasabi, soy sauce and a few geometrically perfect norimaki, filled with radish and asparagus. Served with a cup of miso soup, the bento box deal will set you back €6.50. Of course we found it hard to stop there and moved on to the pick 'n' mix sushi fridge -- a kind of candy store for grown ups.
Sushi is sold two pieces at a time in individually wrapped cellophane packages. The range is impressive: salmon, prawn, mackerel, squid, octopus, and seabass nigiri. Norimaki range from simple hosomaki (€1.75 a pair) with salmon, avocado, carrot and ginger, and tofu, to more elaborate futomaki (€2.00/2.25 a pair) that are filled with combinations of prawn, smoked salmon, crab, asparagus, cream cheese and spiced tuna and eel. We tried the octopus and prawn nigiri, along with some California rolls, all of which were beautifully assembled, and delicate in flavour -- until the wasabi kicked in and gave our sinuses a hammering.
Seduced by Kokoro's prices, and afflicted with a terminal laziness, I decided it would be a very good idea indeed not to make dinner that night, but to bring home something from the hot bento counter instead.
The "hot" choices include chicken and beef teriyaki, seafood udon, chicken and tofu yakisoba, and chicken katsu curry. I tried the beef curry, which looked like a regular stew: large cubes of dark, flavoursome and pleasantly chewy meat, roughly chopped carrot and onions. The deep, savoury flavour was punctuated with cumin, coriander and fennel. It was uncomplicated and delicious.
On the third day (I know, I know, I have no shame), my cover was blown. It was a relief, to be honest. After partaking in an unexpectedly interesting tofu and pumpkin curry, which was speckled with toasted seeds, I was offered a beauty-enhancing Aloe Vera drink. As I sipped my complimentary elixir, I learned that Kokoro is a one-off venture -- the brainchild of Ian Conway who spent years working in Yamamori. Clearly, he was taking notes. The end result is an unique little business that has the potential to convert even the fish-phobic Irish to Japanese food. Now that's saying something.