Fish Shop: 'Each of the bar snacks is a small moment of perfection'
Fish Shop, 76 Benburb Street, Smithfield, Dublin 7 (01) 557 1473
Several years ago, I had a strange but good meal in Seven Social, the restaurant that previously occupied these premises on Benburb Street. It was an Ancient Irish Feast, and amongst the dishes that appeared on the menu that night was one that featured grey squirrel. I only mention it, because the re-vamped space that is now home to home Fish Shop looks nothing like it did back then, although its location will be familiar to passengers on the LUAS red line, which passes right outside.
These days, there's a minimal-on-a-budget interior, all white tiles and stylishly functional lighting, with seven or eight stools along a main counter topped with bottles of malt vinegar, and another half dozen along the wall. There are four of us and we've booked, which seems a tad over-anxious for a chipper, albeit one with nice glass- and tableware, but turns out to have been prudent, because there is a steady stream of hopeful punters without reservations being turned away all evening. (Fish Shop does take-away also, so some avail of that by way of compensation.)
The seating configuration is best suited to ones and twos - four of us find it hard to maintain a single conversation - and Fish Shop is clearly popular with solo diners; there are several having a civilised dinner with a glass of wine and a book.
Around the corner on Queen Street is the other Fish Shop, also owned by husband and wife team, Peter Hogan and Jumoke Akintola. The former teachers started out in a not-very-glorified garden shed in Blackrock Market, where their superior fish and chips gained them a devoted following. The move to bricks and mortar premises happened a couple of years ago, and the €39 wild fish and seafood tasting menu at Queen Street has evolved into one of the most consistently interesting in Dublin. The food is zeitgeist-y in a good way and the restaurant has the best selection of natural wines that I've seen anywhere in Ireland. The natural wine trend is only just beginning here - it is huge in Paris and gaining strength in London - and we're all going to be seeing a lot more of it. My own early dabbling was not encouraging, but I'm persevering and the cloudy glass of Kalkundkiesel from the Austrian winemaker Claus Preisinger that I had to accompany my fish and chips at Fish Shop Benburb Street was delicious.
Anyway, Fish Shop Benburb St serves fish and chips, a few bar snacks by way of starter, and a dessert of the week. There are 30 wines available by the glass - everything from a selection of sherries to an organic prosecco to a pleasant picpoul at €6.50, all the way up the scale to a rich puligny montrachet 2010 from Domaine Pierre Naigeon at €17.
Between the four of us we share five bar snacks - the sixth, smoked haddock croquettes, has run out. Really good olives, brown crab meat on toast, delicate squid in a light, ethereal batter (we could have managed a portion each, especially the tentacle-y bits), umami-rich Cantabrian anchovies on toast, and pickled herring (on more toast) with crème fraîche. Each one relies on the quality of the ingredients that has gone into it, nothing more, nothing less, and each one is a small moment perfection.
There's a choice of three main courses: fish and chips, fillet o'fish shop burger, and organic rope-grown mussels. Each one is priced at €14.50, which isn't cheap for fish and chips, but is a more than fair price for sitting in a civilised space and eating carefully-prepared, simple food without pretension. It's the kind of offering that should exist in restaurants all over this island of ours and mysteriously, inexplicably, does not.
The fish in the fish and chips changes daily according to what's available - on this occasion it's haddock. Now, deep-fried fish is never going to qualify as health food, but the beer batter here is so light and non-greasy that - amazingly - we don't hate ourselves after eating it. The chips are hand-cut (you could choose salad and, I suppose, perhaps some people do) and good, although I'd quibble and ask that they be left in the fryer for a moment longer. The home-made tartare sauce is chunkily piquant and just as it should be.
Hake is the choice of fish for the fillet o'fish shop burger; it comes on a brioche bun with an apple, mint and fennel 'slaw that - again - somehow makes us feel clean rather than dirty after eating it. It's probably because the brioche is not slathered in mayonnaise, although we do accept an offer of home-made garlic mayo for chip-dipping purposes, and very fine it is too.
For dessert there's a simple chocolate pot topped with crème fraîche. The portion is small but the ganache is rich, so two between the four of us is just right. There's no cheese on offer, which is a small pity, although that would be an encouragement to linger, which is not what's needed in a restaurant as small as this. The bill for four, including three glasses of wine and one soft drink, comes to €114.50 before service. Perhaps it wouldn't be the same if there were Fish Shops all over Ireland, but right now, coming up to lunchtime, I think it would be just fantastic.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
Fish and chips with a glass of picpoul is €21.
ON A BLOW OUT
If you shared all the snacks, and had main courses and dessert, plus a glass of fino and one of La Stoppa (one of the best known skin contact wines, from Italy) each, the bill could reach €100 for two before service.
THE HIGH POINT
Simple food, impeccably prepared, great selection of wines by the glass.
THE LOW POINT
Because of the way the seating is configured - stools along a counter - it's hard for a party of any more than two people to keep a conversation going.