Cold comforts at Boqueria in Stoneybatter
3 Prussia St, Stoneybatter, Dublin 7 (01) 868 3575
Boqueria has only been open a few weeks, but already there is quite the buzz about it. Some enthusiastic early Twitter action has made this one of the city's hot tickets, with the early adopters exhorting us all to beat a path to Stoneybatter to try a different spin on tapas from chef and owner, Matt Fuller.
Fuller trained in Dublin - he has stints at L'Ecrivain and Peacock Alley on his CV - and lived in Valencia for eight years, working on the other side of the pass in restaurant management, and developing his knowledge of Spanish food and wine.
On his return to Ireland in 2010, Fuller became Conrad Gallagher's head chef at the ill-fated Salon des Saveurs, and more recently was in charge of the kitchen at Citron in the Fitzwiliam Hotel. Boqueria is his first solo venture; it's named after the famous Mercat de la Boqueria on Las Ramblas in Barcelona, which is one of those places that anyone with an interest in food should be sure to visit if ever they have the opportunity.
For a hot ticket, Boqueria was distinctly chilly when we arrived for an early supper last week. The Irish summer really needs to cut restaurateurs a break. It doesn't seem fair that they should have to factor in the cost of central heating during August, but the sad reality is that they must. The affable front of house chap spotted us shivering and said that he would open the doors to the kitchen and have them turn off the fans. The place would warm up in no time, he said, and he was right, but it would be more welcoming if the temperature were comfortable to start with.
From the outside, Boqueria looks sharp, kitted out with dark grey livery and smart signage. Inside, it's less successful. The start-up costs for any restaurant are huge, and it makes sense to spend the bulk of the money in the kitchen, but the decor here is uninspired, the walls too white, the lighting too bright, the ceiling tiles and chairs too ugly. The art on the walls looks, said my dinner companion, as if it has been bought at Debenham's.
If the interior is disappointing, the food is not.
The menu offers a selection of about 20 savoury tapas, half a dozen desserts, and cheese. Our waitress suggested that we order two to three tapas each, but we found it hard to choose and ended up ordering a total of eight tapas and one dessert, which was a lot of food.
Smoky roasted almonds were a fine start, but we thought afterwards that ordering the breads with flavoured butters and oils had been a mistake. Not because they weren't good - we particularly liked the toasted sourdough with fresh tomato - but because there was too much of them. And then when we wanted to order the intriguingly named Duck Bikini - essentially a duck and Parmesan toastie with asparagus - our waitress said that she thought it would be too heavy after the breads. We saw it arrive at the next table and suffered a twinge of regret as it looked and smelt wonderful, in a bad kind of a way.
The stand-out tapa was the Hot Smoked Mackerel with Apple & Fennel salad, Orange and Garlic. The smoking was subtle and delicious, and the dish wholly successful, despite being served on a leaf-shaped plate almost a foot long. The barrel chips - described by the waitress as a modern take on patatas bravas - came arranged in rows on a large slate, each barrel topped with roast garlic mayonnaise and the rows interspersed with a spicy tomato sauce. They were fantastic, crisp and hard to resist. Pan-seared Scallops with a Tarragon Rosti, Almond Brittle and Passion Fruit was another great dish, the scallops sweet and caramelised.
Seven Sauce Squid, pieces of fresh squid in batter presented on another long plate with little blobs of balsamic, saffron, pistachio, fennel, carrot, garlic and pickle sauces, was fine, although I would have preferred a crisper batter and there wasn't enough of any of the sauces to taste them properly. They seemed to be there for decoration rather than taste.
We liked the Irish rare-breed Pork Cheeks with Caramelised Pineapple and Vanilla Roast Potatoes very much, the pork beautifully tender. Lamb Belly 'San Jacobo' with Manchego Cheese consisted of three substantial croquettes of breaded, deep-fried lamb and cheese with a fresh tomato sauce and salad leaves. It was a tasty dish, but heavy. With the exception of the small round dish used for the scallops, the serving dishes were cumbersome and over-sized, and the table soon got crowded.
Some of the tapas are keenly priced - the barrel chips, for instance, are only €5, and the lamb is €7.50 - while others, such as three small scallops at €12, seem expensive.
Our bill, with an indifferent chocolate mousse served modishly with sea salt, olive oil, and a sliver of candied bread, a glass of wine each from a wholly Spanish list, and two large bottles of mineral water, came to €82.50 before service.
On a budget
Two substantial tapas - say Duck Leg 'Bikini' with Asparagus (essentially a duck and Parmesan toastie, explained our server) and Pea Risotto with Smoked Pork Belly - and a glass of Tempranillo would set you back €19.
On a blowout
The scallop starter followed by a 10oz Cattle Market Sirloin Steak and a selection of three cheeses, plus a bottle of Tina de Toro, Grand Elios Mora, would come to €148 for two.
The high point
Inventive and well-executed tapas that are a notch above the offering available elsewhere.
The low point
Uninspiring decor, and cumbersome plates.
7/10 value for money
Whispers from the gastronomicon
If you happen to be passing through Easkey village in Sligo, check out the new Pudding Row Café, located above the surf club. In the kitchen is Dervla Conlon, who co-founded the Pepper Pot Café in the Powerscourt Town Centre and has now returned to her home place with her husband, Johnny. "It feels that we are back where we belong," says Conlon, who bakes breads and pastries each day for the café. Pepper Pot favourites on the menu include the Roasted Pear, Bacon and Cheddar sandwich on crusty white bread, which occupies a special place in the hearts of many Dubliners.