The dated offering in this Middle Eastern favourite on Dublin’s Mespil Road fails to impress our critic
It’s a rugby Saturday — Leinster are playing at home and have just seen off the French upstarts — and Upper Baggot Street, the stretch between Pembroke Road and the bridge, is busy.
It looks very different to the way it did in the Nevill Johnson photos which filmmaker Alan Gilsenan uses to such good effect in his Ghosts of Baggotonia, the name coined by writer Brendan Lynch for the area as it was in the late 1940s and 1950s.
Back then, locals included Kavanagh, Behan and the rest, our very own Irish bohemians. But Parsons Bookshop is now an insurance company, and the names of the pubs are mostly different. There are burrito restaurants, a branch of Sprout and, across the bridge, Carolyn Swift and Alan Simpson’s Pike Theatre on Herbert Lane, which once staged a scandalous production of The Rose Tattoo, is long gone.
So too is the infamous Catacombs nightclub, which operated from the basement of 13 Fitzwilliam Place and sounds as if it was a proper den of iniquity.
Things have moved on considerably in terms of the quality and range of food in Dublin, and what must have felt fresh then no longer does
I don’t know what occupied the premises on Mespil Road now home to Keshk back then, but Keshk itself has longevity for a restaurant, having opened its doors back in 2009. It’s had a makeover in the last year or so, but its website still features endorsements by restaurant critics from more than a decade ago; the most recent is from 2012.
I’m guessing Keshk felt new and exciting back then, when there were few other restaurants here offering Middle Eastern cuisine other than The Cedar Tree on St Andrew’s Street; The Tree of Idleness in Bray having closed some years earlier. Things have moved on considerably in terms of the quality and range of food in Dublin in the intervening years, and what must have felt fresh then no longer does.
I can think of half a dozen places falling into the broad Middle Eastern/Mediterranean category (Keshk describes its menu as focused on Mediterranean cuisines, with some Greek, Turkish and Lebanese dishes) where the food is more vibrant than it is here.
We start with a sharing platter of starters, which should be a showcase of what’s on offer. It features feta fritters coated in a sesame crust (think a Greek-ish version of that 1980s classic, deep-fried Camembert), prawns wrapped in pastry, some stuffed vine leaves, falafel and arayes (minced lamb on flatbread). The platter is accompanied by a dish each of hummus and baba ganouj, and a basket of pitta bread. It’s all serviceable, but nothing stands out; the baba ganouj is the best element. The table we’re at is too small to accommodate the food, and we end up having to move things around and balance dishes on top of one another. It’s not very relaxing.
Lamb kafta cooked on the charcoal grill are nicely juicy, although the lamb chops we see heading to other tables look even better (as they should, for €35.95). Moussaka is a dull business, the aubergine slimy. (It’s not as good as the version we make at home.) The main courses each come with a complimentary side dish: potatoes are hot but not crunchy enough; grilled vegetables (aubergine, red peppers, mushrooms) are greasy and unpleasant. The retro-style presentation — the balsamic dressing squeezed out of a bottle over the salad with the kafta is pure 1990s — doesn’t appear to be ironic and makes Keshk feel as if it’s stuck in a time warp.
We finish with a shared dessert of baklava squares, served with whipped cream, made with filo rather than kataifi pastry. Dusted with crushed pistachios, they are as tooth-shatteringly sweet as you might expect, and perfectly fine if you like that kind of thing.
Keshk doesn’t have a licence to serve alcohol, so it’s BYOB, which I assume to be one of the reasons behind its enduring popularity. It seems like a good idea, when you’re going out with a group, to opt for somewhere you can bring your own booze. It helps to keep a lid on the bill, and the non-drinkers don’t end up subsidising the soaks.
But even given the lack of corkage charge, Keshk doesn’t work out as much of a bargain as you might expect. Our bill, with two large bottles of water, comes to €89.35, and by the time you factor in a tip (service is excellent) and the cost of a bottle of decent red (€25) from Baggot Street Wines around the corner, this mediocre meal eaten at an uncomfortable table ends up costing us €65 a head.
But the place is hopping, and the rugby crowd and the groups celebrating birthdays seem happy, so what do I know?
Have soup and hummus or baba ganouj with pitta for lunch for less than €14.
Share a mixed starter platter followed by lamb chops and dessert for two for €115 before drinks.
Keshk, 73 Mespil Road, Dublin 4, D04 RH63, keshk.ie