Thursday 22 February 2018

H is for hearty chips and a heavenly bread

Edel Coffey

Cafe Bar H

Grand Canal Plaza, City Centre South, Dublin

Tel: 01 8992216


H is for hearty chips and a heavenly bread

The Grand Canal Dock area of Dublin, new Dublin as I like to think of it, is one of my favourite places in the country. I just don't think I ever expected such a beautiful, contemporary waterside village to rise up from this once-derelict part of industrial Dublin. Even in the rain (it is, of course, pouring down on the night I go along, so I can't enjoy their lovely outdoor seating area), it has a certain glamour, with the gleaming Grand Canal Theatre looming across the square and the red lights reflecting on the wet pavement.

If it hadn't been raining so heavily, we would have walked. That's the other thing about the docklands, you can stroll to it from almost almost any surrounding area of the city within 20 minutes, whether you're coming from O'Connell Street or Ballsbridge. But tonight it's pouring, so we harangue the Boy into driving us to the restaurant, which he does with his usual grace.

My companion tonight is a very good friend, who makes me laugh like a drain every time I see her. She is one of life's truly funny people. Before we even get to the restaurant, I have experienced a comedy of errors.

When I ring up to make my reservation -- a table for two, for dinner, at 8, and the name is Coffey -- the woman on the end of the phone says in summation: "So that's two for coffee at 8." I say: "No! Two for dinner!" and she politely and professionally agrees, just as I realise my mistake. She meant "two for Coffey at 8."

You'd think that having spent the last three decades with this name I would be alert to such confusion, but as my friend quips, I probably just needed another coffee.

We arrive at 7.30, just to add more confusion to the mix, but are readily accommodated.

I tell the waitress we have a reservation for 8 but we're a bit early. She leads us to a table: "For 8 people, yes?" she says.

I mash my palm into my face. I must be the problem.

Cafe Bar H is run by Rita Crosbie and chef Johnnie Cooke, formerly of Cooke's Cafe and it has a great urban feel with its giant neon H outside and its modern decor.

The space is warmly welcoming, as are the staff and the red walls make this contemporary space surprisingly cosy. The outsize art on the walls is immediately striking, ranging from brightly coloured nude paintings to the biggest pencil drawing I've ever seen.

There are quite a few tables for two but a lot of them, as is the fashion in the hippest restaurants, are positioned quite closely to each other. We want to talk, we want to discuss people, and perhaps even skewer some, we want to talk about details, ambitions and secret plans, and maybe even to swap a little gossip. The waitress obliges and brings us to the far corner of the cafe.

Cafe Bar H operates a tapas menu, but tonight we are working off the Mediterranean dinner menu, which includes some of the most popular tapas dishes.

I order the gambas al ajillo (€9.50) and my friend goes for the carpaccio of beef (€11), which is a little crumbly for her liking but still tastes excellent.

My prawns are fantastic, sitting in their delicious, hot, spicy oil. They come with a basket of bread cut into dense little squares, perfect for shoving into your mouth but, sadly, I have chosen today to start my low-carb diet, so I just try the tiniest morsel, for research.

This was a mistake. Could this actually be the best bread I have tasted outside of France or Italy? Am I just carb-starved? I think it might be the former.

I get the waitress to take it away at once. She looks stricken -- it is obviously unheard of for people not to gobble all of the delicious bread -- so I explain to her that I'm trying to resist. She tells me it's baked on the premises, every day, which is why it tastes so good.

My friend orders the fish of the day for her main, which is hake, beautifully cooked so its skin has a high crisp but its meat is still soft and tender. I order the ribeye steak (€25) and ask the waitress to replace the chips with spinach.

She obviously knows, somewhere deep in her restaurateur core, that this is inherently wrong. I couldn't actually mean replace the delicious pieces of potatoes fried in scrumptious hot oil with a side of spinach, please, could I?

The carb-starved brain is a frightening thing. The steak arrives with a steaming bowl of perfectly cooked French fries. When I come to, I ask if I could get the side of spinach but we'll keep the chips as my friend is not torturing herself in this particular way today.

The spinach arrives momentarily and the waitress tells me that it is on the house as she is so impressed with my commitment to ignoring the bread and the chips.

By the end of the night I have developed a girl crush on this waitress. She's the kind of girl I would like to be -- she's got long, natural hair, an easy smile waiting to turn into a laugh, a carefree air and crinkly eyes. In fact, all of the staff are wonderful, encouraging and beseeching but also interesting to talk to -- one of them even used to be a producer on BBC's Panorama but left to follow her passion for wine.

We order, on her recommendation, a bottle of Rioja, the Bodegas Gomez Cruzado 2008 (€24), which is full and aromatic. We polish it off with a shared dessert, the Tarta de Santiago (€6.50), a light almond cake that we make disappear. Almonds are not carbs, right?

The damage: €94

Recommended: Dear God, the bread, the home-baked bread, should be dipped into the gambas al ajillo (if you're not on a low-carb diet).

On the stereo: The Doors, which is random but strangely enjoyable.

At the table: Smattering of couples and friends

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