Friday 19 January 2018

Lucky Tortoise at the Hill Pub: 'I am confident it's going to get better once it finds its feet'

Lucky Tortoise at the Hill Pub, 1-2 Old Mountpleasant, Ranelagh, Dublin 6. (01) 497 6333

Lucky Tortoise at the Hill Pub in Ranelagh. Photo: Mark Condren
Lucky Tortoise at the Hill Pub in Ranelagh. Photo: Mark Condren

If you're one of the readers who looks first at the score, and rubs their hands in prospect of a blistering stinker, then you're going to be disappointed. Lucky Tortoise isn't a bad restaurant - hell, it isn't even a restaurant, it's a pop-up - and neither is it a cynical one. What it is, is a new one - and one that I have confidence is going to get a lot better over the coming weeks and months as it finds its feet.

It's a funny business, this reviewing of restaurants. On the one hand, everyone wants a good recommendation. They want somewhere to go for a date, with their pals from the book club, for a business lunch. They want to hear about the new places, and sometimes they want to hear about the old places that have somehow fallen off the radar, for whatever reason.

And on the other hand, everyone likes to hear about a really, really terrible restaurant so that they can make a mental note and remember never to go there.

At Weekend, we have a policy of not reviewing restaurants as soon as they open. There's an argument that says that if a restaurant is open for business and charging full whack for its food (as opposed to a soft opening with reduced prices) then it's fair game for a review, but we prefer to wait a while, to let somewhere bed in for a few weeks and review when it's found its feet. Given the number of restaurants opening these days, there's seldom an opportunity to visit any of them more than once every few years, so it seems fair to give them a decent crack of the whip before sticking the knife in.

So, Lucky Tortoise. I'd heard tell of their food at EatYard and that they had started doing a regular Sunday afternoon dim sum and dumpling pop-up at The Hill pub in Ranelagh. I'm a big fan of dim sum done well, the way that I've experienced it in London and New York, though sadly never in China or Hong Kong, but was wholly underwhelmed by a recent visit to check out the offering at one of Dublin's best-known Chinese restaurants. The food was so bad that I couldn't even bring myself to review it.

We visit on the third Sunday that Lucky Tortoise popped up at The Hill, which, when you think about it, was only their third day of operation. There's football on the telly in the bar, and every table in the lounge area is taken by people having dim sum. I spot Eric Heilig, a talented young chef who runs a pop-up of his own (North East, focusing on food from the Baltic region) when he's not working the day job as No. 2 to Damien Grey at the Michelin-starred Heron & Grey. The Lucky Tortoise menu is broken down into 'first', 'dumplings', 'dipping sauces' and 'sides'. For €25, you get one of everything and, because we have no idea what the best dishes are going to be, we go along with the waitress's recommendation that this is what we should do.

I gather from owner Thom Lawson, an English chef and former bar manager, whom I contacted after our visit, that the menu is going to change each week, but our favourites include the prawn crackers with chiu chow - chilli oil made by cooking garlic and long red chilli very slowly at a low temperature and then seasoned with rice wine, soy and dried chilli; coconut chicken siu mai dumplings, and pork and chive dumplings.

The okonomiyaki, a Japanese savoury pancake made with Savoy cabbage and dashi batter, served with Japanese brand Kewpie mayonnaise (umami-rich thanks to a hefty dose of MSG) and Worcestershire sauce, is utterly delicious - light, flavoursome - and I would happily have eaten the five-serving portion on my own.

The kimchi is terrific, just the right side of too funky, while Korean tartare of tuna - with Korean chilli paste, crispy wonton skin and nashi pear - divides us. I'm enthusiastic, but the others think that it needs more of a kick. Shimeji korokke are weird, golfball-sized deep-fried mushroom dumplings - the mushroom a dense pâté-like paste - that aren't a success; the fried rice and pak choi are dull. Wings in Lucky Glaze - a toasted sesame glaze - are soggy and pretty tasteless.

Given that we were still hungry at the end of it, and that there were no expensive ingredients involved, we thought that €25 a head was steep. If the quantities had been more generous, and the dishes all of a consistent quality, the price would not have been a problem, but with hindsight we would have been better ordering single portions of the dishes we liked and avoiding those we didn't.

With three indifferent gin cocktails - a Cherry Blossom 209, a MiMi featuring elderflower gin and grapefruit juice, and a Cucumber and Watermelon Mojito (€9 each) - and a half dozen soft drinks, our bill for five comes to €168.20 before service.

I'm going to go back to Lucky Tortoise, but I'm going to wait until their new Messy Eating menu is fully up and running, with new chef Ciara Dwyer on board - it will include dishes such as char siu ribs, whole curried crab and giant turmeric prawns, all of which sound wonderful. A booze-free dumpling lock-in is planned for Good Friday.

THE RATING

7/10 food

7/10 ambience

6/10 value for money

20/30

ON A BUDGET

For €12, you could have crackers and chiu chow dipping sauce, a portion of coconut chicken siu mai dumplings, and kimchi.

ON A BLOW-OUT

€25 gets you one of everything; we felt that we could have eaten more. So if you're hungry, reckon on €35 a head to include a reload of dumplings at €10. If you're thirsty, gin cocktails are €9 a pop, so you could run up a bill of about €60 a head including service if you had a couple of drinks.

THE HIGH POINT

The okonomiyaki.

THE LOW POINT

The shimeji korokke.

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