A few weeks back, I wrote about a little restaurant in Blackrock Market, Heron & Grey, which had just been awarded a Michelin star. There's nothing very glamorous about the market, and the accolade for Andrew Heron and Damien Grey's establishment has been seen as a sign that the tyre company is starting to shake off the shackles of conformity, and to recognise and acknowledge exceptional food regardless of the premises in which it is served.
Not that there's anything wrong with the market, I hasten to add, it's just that it's not the kind of place where you'd expect to find a Michelin-starred restaurant.
El Celler is a new-ish arrival to the same market, and its Spanish tapas bar schtick is more what you'd expect to find tucked away amongst the units selling Asian ingredients and hippy bits and pieces. I imagine that it's benefiting from its proximity to Blackrock's latest celebrities because potential diners have to walk past it on their way to having a gander through the windows of H&G, which is now booked out well into 2017.
The tapas offering in Ireland is a mixed bag, and by that I mean that I have found it to be poor. The quality of what's on offer in the most modest little establishment in Barcelona or San Sebastian is in a different league entirely to what passes for tapas here. In my opinion, there are a number of well-known tapas restaurants in the city that take a cynical approach to their food offering, pawning their customers off with food that's of a low standard, made with inferior ingredients, and seemingly getting away with it under the forgive-all label 'tapas'. With the high quality of Irish fish, meat and other foods available to those who are prepared to seek them out, there's no excuse - other than cheapness - for restaurants not to use free-range meat and poultry, wild fish and organic vegetables.
So I'm delighted to see a note on the menu at El Celler that says that all ingredients are locally sourced, and that they do their best to buy organic where possible. Yes, it's a bit woolly, and I'd love more specifics in terms of provenance, but having eaten at El Celler and experienced its rather endearing charm, and having the sense that it's a place that is doing its very best while it finds its feet, I'm going to take them at their word.
This is the time of year for eating out in big groups, and the quest for the place that can be all things to all men (and women) is a tricky one. We need a place to go with the parents of our children's school-friends (how else will we find out what's really going on?), as well as somewhere for the book club night out (it has to be done), the gathering with former work colleagues (yes, really, it will be fun) and the informal (non-inclusive) school reunion. We go out with the neighbours, the lads from... (actually, where are they from?), and the laydees from bootcamp. There's even a night out with the schnauzer/doodle/cockerpoo/Kerry Blue owners. We want to keep the food accessible and the bill modest, because some people will eat a lot and others will just want to drink. No wonder there are so many tapas restaurants in Dublin; if they are good then they can cater for all this and more.
First things first, El Celler could do with turning up the heat. On a chilly winter's evening there's a draught blowing in through the front door directly onto our table in the outer of its two rooms. The staff are apologetic, and offer to move us into the inner room when a table comes free, but by the time that it does we have had a couple of glasses of wine and have warmed up nicely.
We order lots of food and share it all. The best dishes are the Catalan rustic bread with grated tomato, extra virgin olive oil, Maldon salt and garlic - a huge portion for €4.20, made with tomatoes that taste of tomatoes - the Spanish omelette, a fine pie-slice of an impeccably executed classic, the padron peppers, the cod fritters (in one of the new breed of Irish restaurants they'd be called 'snacks') and the arroz negro, squid ink rice with calamari, shrimps and baby octopus.
A dish of langostinos a la plancha is disappointingly oily and made with tiger prawns rather than the langoustines that we were expecting (the menu does make this clear, so it was our fault) and the albondigas meatballs lack flavour and seasoning, as does the sauce in which they are served.
Our resident Spanish expert doesn't find the croquetas de pollo asado (roasted chicken croquettes with bechamel) authentic, although they taste pretty good to me, and a platter of bread and dips comprises a curious mix of pesto, sobrasado, hummus and aioli that feels as if it belongs in a different restaurant.
Pork ribs marinated in honey and mustard are another anomaly, but meaty and delicious all the same, and the patatas bravas get a unanimous thumbs up. The bread is all grilled on the plancha and tastes wonderful. We finish with a single shared crema Catalana that's simple and just right.
Our meal at El Celler was by no means perfect but I have a good feeling about this place that makes me want to go back. Our bill worked out at around €50 per head, including plenty to eat and drink.
7/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
Choosing carefully, tapas for two with a bottle of house wine could cost less than €50.
ON A BLOW OUT
If you were to push the boat out and share a cured meat plate, half a dozen tapas, and a cheese plate, and wash it all down with a bottle of serious Flor de Pingus 2010 (€140), you could run up a bill of €250 before service.
THE HIGH POINT
The simple pa amb tomaquet - rustic tomato bread - at €4.20, and charming, helpful service.
THE LOW POINT
The outer room can be chilly.