Saturday 16 December 2017

Can we please keep the kitchen confidential?

Aingeala Flannery

Brioche

65 Aungier Street, Dublin 2.

Tel: 01 476 3771

HHHHI

Can we please keep the kitchen confidential?

Kitchens, like bathrooms and boudoirs, should be private. Who wants to know what goes on behind the scenes? Is there not more pleasure in divesting a lady of her stockings if you haven't seen the act of contortion getting into them entailed? And so it is with food. The spud that rolls on to the floor, the jus that spurts over the edge of the plate, the burnt brulée ... these are things I'd rather not witness. I'm happy, as they say, to let the mystery be.

Yet, this fashion for open kitchens persists. It began in our homes -- to allow accomplished dinner party hosts to chat casually while they cook, dazzling their guests with calmness and conviviality as they juggle cutlery and pots, wearing oven mitts, with a glass of Sancerre in one hand. Smug isn't the word. Sociable, it most certainly is not. It's aggressive and competitive -- a suburban blood sport that leaves people feeling resentful, inadequate and exhausted.

This spurious desire for "openness" has spread to restaurants. Serious gourmands like to see where their food comes from. If that were true, you'd have a run on abattoirs and fish-gutting plants.

There was a time when smart customers asked to be seated as far from the kitchen as possible, now they want either a window into it or -- heaven forfend -- an actual table in the kitchen, where they can squint and take notes, like students in the city morgue watching the guts spill out of a cadaver as the pathologist sinks his knife in. No thanks.

Whatever happened to the old-fashioned gentility of having servants, beggars and dogs eat in the kitchen, while guests dine in a quarter so remote, the staff have to race to reach them before the soup grows cold? The middle class did away with it, is what. And the upshot is we now go to restaurants expecting chefs to smile as they scald themselves, swallowing expletives as smoothly as we swallow wine.

The need to witness this is not so much voyeuristic as sadistic. You try feeding 60 people single-handedly with a smile on your face.

These are the thoughts that crossed my mind when I went for dinner with McGuffin to Brioche last weekend.

Brioche is a coffeehouse by day, and has recently started serving tapas-style dinner at night. Its kitchen is open by necessity, not design, and it's as basic as you get -- a stove top and oven behind a sandwich-fridge counter top. We arrived to find the chef Gavin McDonough bouncing off surfaces, sweat pumping, eyes wild with adrenaline.

"You're lucky," he panted, "we've only one table left." Word of bloody mouth. It was the worst table in the house, but I wasn't going to baulk, the stagecoach was departing at breakneck speed. Did we want a seat or did we not?

McDonough knows I'm a reviewer, so to save us both our blushes I sat with my back to him and judged the gravity of each crash, bang and wallop by the expression on McGuffin's face. I buried mine in the menu.

Everything bar the charcuterie plate was under €8, which made ordering a challenge. How much is too much and how much is not enough? Were we talking pintxos-style tapas or starter size? After glancing over the other tables, we decided that two plates each would suffice.

We ordered a bottle of Moore's Creek Shiraz, a mouthful of chocolate and plum and spice, delivered to us by a waiter who confessed, with disarming honesty, that he'd only been working in Brioche a couple of hours. We watched him flit from table to table, his shyness overcome by the urge to "get it right".

For a newcomer, he was playing a blinder -- when our first plates appeared, he described each component with a sincerity that was almost touching.

The ham hock terrine (€8) was a block of loosely clad bacon chunks. Healthy pink, moist and spicy, it was cut with savoy cabbage and carrots. Alongside it some proper crunchy cornichons and a cheek-sucking dollop of homemade piccalilli -- a shocking yellow mix of cauliflower, pearl onions and courgette, marinated in vinegar with turmeric and mysterious spices. A most happy marriage, consummated on slabs of sourdough from the Paris Bakery on Moore Street.

Duck paté (€7) came in a tulip-shaped jar. It was to refinement, what the terrine was to rustic. A silky, smooth classic, the brandy quenched any residual bitterness from the duck livers, while the butter added richness and a spoonful of red pepper, and tomato chutney in the base of the jar was sweet and surprising. Again it came with sourdough, and with a ramekin of dark, sticky plum relish. Delicious.

If our pre-prepared tapas gave the chef a reprieve, the next ones turned the heat up again. McGuffin's belly of pork (€7) was beautifully presented on a slender rectangular plate.

The cube of pork belly was golden and crispy -- more duck fat, we guessed -- it was perfumed with cider jus, which trailed along the plate through a daintily arranged picnic of carrots and turnips glazed with brown butter and a spoonful of whiskey mustard mash. A miniature feast, jauntily crowned with dried apple.

Next up -- daube of beef was braised almost black, intensely savoury and rich, with juices on the sticky brink of caramelisation. The flavour of the meat poured over roasted carrot tips and pearl onions. A neat square of potato gratin balanced cream and firmness, while a ramekin of lemon and mustard laden celeriac slaw did its devilish best to cut through the richness of the beef cheek. It was fantastic.

We rounded off with a cheese plate -- a generous Franco-Hibernian arrangement that featured Hegarty's cheddar, Bleu d'Auvergne and Cooleeney, served with herb shortbread, and homemade rhubarb jam. All around us, tables lingered on, ordering more wine, their chat getting ever more animated.

The kitchen closed and, out of the battle mist, McDonough emerged. "How was it?" he asked. I told him it was great. He ripped the apron from his chest, threw it over the counter and announced he was going for a pint. Alone.

TYPICAL DISH: Braised daube of beef

RECOMMENDED: Ham hock terrine

THE DAMAGE: €67 for five tapas plates, one bottle and two glasses of wine

ON THE STEREO: iPod shuffle

AT THE TABLE: All walks

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