Review: Juniors - 'The two women running front of house are hospitality incarnate'
Juniors, 2 Bath Avenue, Beggar's Bush, Dublin 4. (01) 664 3648, juniors.ie
It's Saturday morning and I'm trying to figure out where to go for dinner. It's been quite a week, and I'm not in the mood for anything challenging. I definitely don't want to go anywhere too cool. I want to eat food that's delicious but not try-hard, where I'll be minded but not fussed over. Usually review excursions are planned well in advance. And I've little patience with friends complaining that they can't find a table for six anywhere good at the last minute. I tell them that they need to do their research and be organised. But this time the shoe is on the other foot, and I'm the one wondering where on earth I'll get into.
And then I happen upon food writer Domini Kemp's Instagram post of a broccoli dish that she had at Juniors saying that it is her favourite restaurant. The fact that it's within walking distance of my house makes dinner there seem like a very good idea indeed. Miraculously, we land a table for the coveted 8.30pm slot.
Even though I live close by, I've only ever been to Juniors for lunch, when the offering is mainly sandwich-based. At night, the menu is entirely different. It's not fine dining (hooray for that), but it is more interesting than I had anticipated.
The restaurant is tiny, with a covered and enclosed area on the pavement outside that seats another 15 people at a pinch. The maximum number of covers can't be more than 30.
And there's no getting away from the fact that it's all a bit of squeeze. The tables are too small and too close together. If the people either side of us hadn't been quite so delightful (of which more later), then this could have been irritating. But the vibe at Juniors is so friendly and everyone is so nice that none of this matters a whit.
This is down to the two women running front of house and the floor (there don't appear to be any other servers), who are hospitality incarnate: solicitous, warm, generous, lovely. (Could they possibly be cloned and distributed to restaurants that just don't get how important this is and what a difference it makes to their customers' enjoyment?)
We start with what I'll call Domini's broccoli dish - char-grilled purple sprouting, with a goat's cheese mousse, served with red chicory and toasted hazelnuts - simple, seasonal, rather good. You could make this at home and I think that I will.
'A pint of prawns' is menu kryptonite - impossible to resist. This version is fine, no more than that. The prawns don't have a huge amount of flavour and the home-made mayonnaise that comes with it has none of the gorgeous yellow wobbliness that I was hoping for. It's white and anodyne and less exciting than Hellman's. (I worked for a summer in Paris one year and subsisted on tubs of tiny crevettes grises dunked in luscious mayonnaise for supper. I've been trying and - almost always - failing to re-capture that bliss ever since.) The griddled sourdough that comes with the prawns is beautifully charred and full of flavour.
Looking back over the menu, I regret not ordering either the burrata with shaved prosciutto and truffle honey, or the scallops with cauliflower purée, samphire and smoked bacon crumb, either of which might have been more interesting than the prawns.
Côte de boeuf has become a fixture on almost every menu in Dublin these days. A few years ago, everyone wanted rib-eye (you can have that at Juniors too), but the vogue now is for sharing steaks. It's a sociable way of eating and, done well, it's comfort food of the highest order.
Three of the other six mains (too many) are carb-heavy - risotto, linguini, gnocchi - and hake with a nduja and cherry tomato risotto, tenderstem broccoli and salsa verde sounds too close to something we make at home. (Q: How do you get reluctant fish-eaters to take the plunge? A: Salsa verde. Works every time.)
The success of côte de boeuf depends first and foremost on the quality of the meat, and then on the skill of the chef in achieving the perfect balance between charred exterior and juicy, medium-rare meat inside.
Etto sets the gold standard for CDB, but Juniors' version - which comes with a slightly stingy portion of decent bearnaise, a generous bowl of good hand-cut fries, and a mountain of rocket and Parmesan salad - isn't far off.
(It was during the enjoyment of this fine meat that I managed to break a glass of red wine and send it flying in the direction of the neighbouring table, a mere foot away, and a woman wearing a beautiful white silk shirt. The gods were smiling though; not a drop reached her. Phew. She couldn't have been nicer about it.)
Apparently there's a little Jack Russell in Ringsend with gout because the waitress brings him a meaty bone every night, so to save him from himself we bring our leftovers home.
A modest (but just big enough) shared slice of salted caramel, peanut and chocolate tart is pretty good.
We drink a smooth and juicy Nero d'Avola Costadune 2016 from Mandrarossa in Sicily that's well priced at €30 (it retails in my local wine shop for €15.95) and our bill comes to a reasonable €115 before service.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
The broccoli dish followed by pea and broad bean risotto and dessert will cost €64 for two before drinks.
ON A BLOW-OUT
Pan-fried scallops with cauliflower purée, followed by rib-eye steak with confit garlic mash, green beans, cherry vine tomatoes, with New York-style cheesecake to finish will cost €96 for two before drinks or service.
THE HIGH POINT
Discovering a new-to-me neighbourhood restaurant.
THE LOW POINT
The tables are very close together.