Market Square opened late last year in what is arguably the best location for a restaurant -- and definitely the best location for people watching -- in the capital.
It should be a no brainer: a pedestrian thoroughfare connecting George's Street to Grafton Street, with constant footfall, and a large terrace that's perfect for spying on the Bohemian neighbours -- Grogan's pub, Harlequin vintage clothing and gourmet bijou La Maison. Why, then, has no restaurant managed to thrive at 4 Castle Market?
As a believer that life's great mysteries should be chewed on before you swallow them, I've given the matter more thought than a working single parent with six impending deadlines ought to. And the conclusion I've come to is this: if you were to compare restaurants to romance, 4 Castle Market is like an intelligent man in his 40s who's handsome and healthy, has managed to sustain decent relations with friends and family, isn't drowning in debt (or drink) -- he's not a playboy, yet he remains childless and unattached, thereby giving off the unmistakable aroma of rodent.
The other (perhaps kinder) explanation is that restaurants (like men) can be hard-working and well turned out, but are destined for mediocrity because they lack that ineffable sparkle, the je ne sais quoi that down the ages has confounded philosophers and allowed low-caste lovers to seduce women who are beyond their station. A beguiling and elusive form of gorgeousness that melts resistance and demands to be loved.
My thesis, therefore, is that all 4 Castle Market needs is the love of a good tenant, someone who can sprinkle the terrace with sunlight and stardust. I ran it past Ma Flannery as we sat down to lunch there last week. She looked confused, then bored, then confused again. "But I've eaten here before," she said. "I was up for the sales and my feet were killing me. I had coffee and cake. I don't see cake on the menu. Do people not eat cake in Dublin any more?"
While she mourned the demise of cake, and ignored my assurances that there would be cake on the dessert menu, I was struck by Market Square's Mediterranean leanings: hummus, aubergine, tzatziki and feta are recurrent features.
Having confirmed that the chef is Lebanese, we decided to go native. Ma kicked off with a mezze board: crostini-style rounds of toast served with a trilogy of dips. The babaganoush was excellent: velvet in texture with a shy smoky flavour, a spritz of lemon for zest and cumin for warmth. Despite its ubiquity, hummus is something few places get right, and Market Square is one of them. The proportion of chickpeas to tahini is exactly right, the texture is rough, and the garlic yields to the lemon juice. Artichoke tapenade, however, was bitter and murky. Our second starter, calamari, was fresh and springy and came with a crunchy dusting of salt, pepper and chilli. So far, so good -- but the real surprise came with the tangy pool of tomato and harissa sauce: a sweet harmony of chilli and cumin. Delicious.
Just as I was feeling well disposed towards Market Square, and working up to asking for the tomato sauce recipe, the main courses came along and pulled the rug from beneath me. Given how good the hummus and harissa had been, I had high hopes for the falafel. But what a disappointment -- cold pitta, limp lettuce, frigid tomato, scant tahina and the falafel themselves were horrid. I was thinking crumbly and fragrant, but what I got was pasty and bland with a heavy sweetness that put me in mind of helva -- deep fried. The price -- €10 -- was a poke in the other eye.
Ma Flannery's risotto (€13) was less obviously offensive. The arborio was creamy with a good nutty bite to it, but was spoiled by the overbearing presence of goat's cheese, so pungent it bordered on chemical. It made the red pepper redundant, and managed to cancel out the peppery flavour of the rocket. To be fair to the staff, they did enquire if everything was okay, when they copped our unfinished plates of food. I should perhaps have complained, if only to see what happened next. My feeling is an apology and a comp would have ensued -- but now we shall never know.
Still, no amount of recompense would have fixed the problems with the food, particularly the falafel. I am still mystified as to why it cost so much and tasted so bad. It's early days for Market Square and some things you allow for, such as empty tables, a broken credit card machine and occasionally nervous service. But when you are open for business, you are open to scrutiny.
That said, I am so eager to see some good come of this location, I would be willing to give Market Square another shot. Had I stuck to calamari and the wine list (which is excellent), I would have been quite content to sit there watching the world pass by.
TYPICAL DISH: Salmon with couscous and tzatziki
THE DAMAGE: €60.25 for two starters, two mains, three glasses of wine, two coffees
ON THE STEREO: Dylan
AT THE TABLE: Sidewalk spies
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