Review - Urchin: 'It's the kind of place that needs a crowd'
Urchin, Cliff Townhouse, 22 St Stephen's Green, Dublin 2, (01) 6383939
Urchin is located in the basement of the Cliff Townhouse on St Stephen's Green - it has a separate entrance - and its schtick is that the menu is focussed on mainly fish- and seafood small bites, sharing plates and cocktails.
The décor has a seaside feel - white with counterpoints of strong turquoise and orange. Outside, there's a covered smoking area, and I've walked passed on sunny evenings when there has been a great buzz of bonhomie leaching out into the night.
Unfortunately, on the night of our visit, the weather has taken a turn for the worse - it is one of those dull Dublin summer evenings about which there is nothing balmy, nothing at all - and we are the only people in Urchin for most of the time that we are there. It's the kind of place that needs a crowd, so there is a touch of the Mary Celeste about it. Granted, a couple of friends of the staff drop in for a drink at the bar, and just before we leave a small group of tourists arrives, but there is none of the interest and ambience and sense of conviviality that comes with being in a bustling room.
The Italian bartender doubles up as waiter, and has to be commended for doing both jobs well, with charm and efficiency, running through a description of each item and explaining the thinking and method behind each one. Now, he has clearly been instructed to do this, but frankly I get the heebie-jeebies when the concept and methods behind dishes have to be explained to me because, well, I'm much more interested in how they taste than in how they are prepared. It's a bit of a killer, I find, this tendency to verbiage. Why not just let the food speak for itself?
We start with a couple of cocktails, asking for recommendations for something gin-based and not too sweet. Our Italian friend (who is clearly a career mixologist, with the word 'Imbibe' tattooed on his forearm) comes up with The Skyscraper, featuring Hendrick's with elderflower liqueur, liqueur à la violette, vanilla and chilli tinctures, apple, passion fruit, lime and whites, that is nicely sharp yet balanced, with a frothy topping that feels silkily frivolous, and The Yuzasia: Dingle gin with yuzu, peach, lemon and peach bitters topped with elderflower tonic; it's refreshing and bright and probably more suited to a sunnier day, but properly attitude-adjusting nonetheless.
The Michelin-starred chef at the Cliff House in Ardmore, Martijn Kajuiter, and his counterpart at The Cliff Townhouse upstairs, Sean Smith, are behind the menu at Urchin. The various 'methods' which our waiter is at pains to explain derive from them. First up of the 'small bites' is a razor clam dish, with seaweed salad, pomegranate and yoghurt lemon emulsion. I lose track of the method somewhere during the description, although a water bath definitely features in there somewhere. The dish is pleasant enough but not a patch on the razor clams that we ate at a stall in the Time Out market in Lisbon a couple of months ago.
Sobrasada - a paste of pork with chorizo blended and used on a steamed and grilled bun, along with ricotta, sriracha and a cute fried quail egg - is a tasty little mouthful, and the octopus with green cabbage and smoked paprika, on a layer of potato on bread, smokily tender and delicious.
Organic duck liver comes in pâté form in a choux bun topped with pear caramel that puts us in mind of the hard coating on a fairground toffee apple - two smaller ones would have been better for sharing than one large, and indeed, you'd want to be pretty friendly with your eating companion to share any of these small bites.
Sea urchin is one of those tricky things that I want to be sophisticated enough to enjoy, yet struggle with. (It's a texture thing.) Here, three sea urchins are cooked in some way (the water bath again perhaps?) and served in a preserved tomato 'cocktail' hollandaise with notes of celery. It's a 'method' that works well, you get the distinctive flavour of the urchin without the tricky consistency of the raw creature and the fine white urchin-shaped vessel that it's served in is adorable. A shrimp croquette tastes of nothing much.
From the 'sharing plates' section of the menu, we order Flaggy Shore oysters - three of them, steamed and topped with chilli, spring onion, ponzu and yuzu oil - that are tiny and bland, as if the essence of the sea has leached out of them in the steaming process.
West Cork Scallops - six of them - are cured (I think) with a mixture of ginger beer, tonic and lime, and topped with seaweed and pickled ginger. The dish is overly sweet. We are still hungry. The food has arrived in very rapid succession, with multiple dishes coming at the same time. We check the time and we have only been here for 45 minutes, so we order a simple plate of gorgeous jamón bellota negra, which comes on crunchy little slices of pan con tomate and, ironically, turns out to be our favourite plate of the evening. We have ordered all but two of the dishes on the menu.
With two cocktails and a bottle of spätburgunder from Runkel, our bill comes to €139.50 before service.
6/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
Just to get a sense of what Urchin is like, you could drop in for a glass of wine and have a couple of small plates - the razor clam and duck liver perhaps (both €4) - and have change from €20. But you'd still want to have dinner afterwards.
ON A BLOW OUT
If you shared one of everything on the menu, your bill would come to €84 before cocktails, wine or service. Cocktails cost between €13.50 and €15.50.
THE HIGH POINT
The octopus. And the jamón bellota.
THE LOW POINT
The food may be clever, but I'd prefer more focus on flavour.