Life Food & Drink

Tuesday 21 November 2017

All bark but no bite in hipster relic of boom

Aingeala Flannery


29 South Frederick Street, Dublin 2.

Tel: 01 6797000


All bark but no bite in hipster relic of boom

In the middle of the last century when men were men and ladies were happy, there was a staff writer with The New Yorker magazine named AJ Liebling. He was an outstanding war correspondent, but he was also three times a husband, a gambler, a chancer and a self-confessed glutton for fine food and strong liquor.

Some of Liebling's best writing was about food. Not surprisingly for a man who used bacon as a bookmark, he was morbidly obese, and died before his 60th birthday.

Before his death, Liebling published a collection of essays on food called Between Meals. It was mostly a memoir about time spent eating in Paris as a student; and later as a war correspondent.

Declaring a passion for "tastes that know their own minds", Liebling decries tasteless, odourless, colourless vodka, and its popularity with those who like their alcohol in conjunction with the reassuring tastes of infancy -- orange and tomato juice. It is, he says, "the ideal intoxicant for the drinker who wants no reminder of how hurt Mother would be if she knew what he was doing".

He is similarly caustic about processed cheese eaters, synthetic vanilla extract and the Golden Delicious apple "because it doesn't taste like anything".

But Liebling saves the hilt of his rancour for lovers of bland seafood -- people with an apathy towards flavour who relish "South African Lobster Tails", which he points out aren't lobsters at all (they don't have claws), they're closer to prawns. And as for sole, well it's so utterly redundant of flavour, it's only tolerated by people who detest the taste of fish. Sole doesn't taste like fish, he rounds. Sole does not know its own mind.

AJ Liebling is what sprung into my mind when I read the menu at Bite, a new, mostly seafood restaurant that's opened opposite Trinity College on South Frederick Street. Sole, cod, seabass, haddock, squid, prawns and crab -- the vast majority served in either batter or breadcrumbs -- and not an oily fish to be had. Was this a restaurant for fish lovers or haters? I wondered.

I was meeting The Italian Millionaire, recently returned from a sojourn in Sicily, looking tanned and well-rested. I wouldn't believe the seafood in Sicily, he said.

The fish were hopping live from the boats onto the shore. Sold by the pound to the highest bidder. Oh, the fresh, salty aroma of its skin blistering on the grill! My envy was marching headlong into the territory of spite. I opened my mouth to say something polite, or at least not unpleasant. But my mother's voice spilled out. "Isn't it well for some," she said.

I could see the Millionaire was stung by this bitter riposte, but we both pretended it never happened. He consulted the menu and announced, rather too cheerfully, that he'd have the cod and chips.

I tried to make up for my unladylike behaviour with a badly timed quip about "another Italian seafood classic". He shot back with the patronising "Italians are too cultured to batter fish".

"I did not know that," I said, poking his Latin blindspot for irony. Jesus, I'd take the one and one in Mizzoni's any day above this gastropolitical bunfight.

The one and one and its gentrification is what Bite is all about. Yes, it's as simple as that. Jo'burger reinvented the quarter pounder, Crackbird cornered the market for breaded chicken, and now Bite is doing the same with fish and chips. This time Joe Macken is not involved, but the message is clear: your street credibility might never recover if you're spotted in Eddie Rocket's, Leo Burdock's or Kentucky Fried Chicken.

This is gourmet. It's posh. And it's cool. Bite's tagline says it all: Hip. Not hipster.

Badly prepared vegetable dishes I can forgive, but when a creature has been snatched from life to satisfy your hunger, you like to think it did not die in vain.

Alas the unfortunate potted crab at Bite was shown no such respect. It wound up in a tasteless, watery slaw, served at room temperature, allegedly with apple, which must have been the insipid variety Liebling wrote of. Alongside it, there were soggy strips of shaved fennel that had the texture of a boiled rag.

The squid tempura the Millionaire chose to start looked splendid -- giant, puffy fingers glistening like gold, they burst when you bit them and your tongue searched for the squid, which was good and springy, but meagre. The cavity between it and the batter was greasy enough to leave a film on the roof of my mouth.

His cod and chips were pretty good. The batter, crisp and airy; the fish gleaming, white and supple. A side of skinny chips (an additional 95c) had your hand returning compulsively to the bowl.

If you wanted chunky chips cooked in duck fat or with truffle and Parmesan, you had to fork out an extra €3.95, and therein lies the true catch of the day. Tartare sauce sets you back 95c, while a pot of lukewarm green stodge AKA mushy peas costs an eye-watering €3.95.

Before you know it, your lunchtime one and one could add up to €18.80.

The only unbattered fish on the menu -- sea bass -- was unavailable, in its place I was offered sea trout, which I gladly accepted.

Our waitress told me, rather curtly, that it came unaccompanied. So, I set about ordering costly embellishments. The grain mustard and dill sauce was all mustard and little dill, while the rocket salad would have been fine, if the trout didn't arrive with guess what ... a rocket salad on the side.

The trout itself was healthy and peachy looking, but instead of allowing its natural oiliness to shine by pan searing it, the fillet was swollen and greasy as if it had been slow fried on the hob. Another needless death.

Dessert yielded a redemptive surprise; rhubarb panna cotta was a thick creamy delight -- bursts of tart sweetness, finished with crumbled ginger nut biscuits for spice. Coffee, too, was very good.

Bite, to my mind, is all style and no substance, swinging from the tail of the Celtic Tiger.

A timely reminder that tastelessness and expense get along swimmingly well.

TYPICAL DISH: Cod and chips


THE DAMAGE: €76.95 for two starters, two mains, one dessert, four glasses of wine and two coffees

ON THE STEREO: iPod shuffle

AT THE TABLE: Hipsters

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