Wednesday 13 December 2017

Meal Ticket: Culture crusade disappoints

Opium 26 Wexford Street, Dublin 2 +353 (0)1 526 7711 HHHII

Opium, Wexford Street, Dublin
Opium, Wexford Street, Dublin

The closest I ever got to experiencing a real-live opium den was in Laos, a particularly laid-back country nestling between Vietnam and Thailand. The opium den of my imagination was a languid sort of place, infused with yellow light and peopled with vaguely dangerous characters penned by Graham Greene or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Some things in life work better on paper. The real life version turned out to be a dingy room with boarded-up windows and slouching Westerners. Glamorous it was not, nor was the possibility of being raided by police. I passed, and focused instead on my South East Asian drug of choice: the extraordinarily diverse, gloriously kick-ass regional food.

I imagine that when the team behind Opium on Wexford Street came up with the name and concept, they were alluding to the opium dens of our collective imagination rather than channelling actual field research. First read of the menu however does suggest that someone has done their homework, or has at least consulted someone who knows their South East Asian cooking, if not necessarily their geography. The website promises 'modern Thai/Vietnamese cuisine'. Including Japanese gyoza on the menu does seem like a bit of a stretch, not to mention proudly Hispanic dishes like ceviche (marinated seafood) and chiccaron (crispy pork rind). I guess that 'modern' is the crucial word here, allowing for cultural borrowings. And sure why not really, if you execute it well?

The menu's name-checking of properly authentic Asian ingredients was encouraging. Pea aubergines and yard beans gracing a green curry. Tamarind, nahm pla (fermented fish sauce) and sriracha (a sour hot sauce). Betel leaf, rau ram (Vietnamese coriander) and morning glory (a fresh-water green). These are names which give me hope.

But the proof is in the eating – and the drinking, vis-à-vis claims of 'world-class mixology'. It proved a bumpy ride. Chicarron seasoned with Japanese seven spice and seaweed salt constituted an unlikely success, even if the accompanying 'coriander chutney' was just one mutation away from a sweet chilli sauce. We snacked on them with our cocktails, when they eventually arrived (the wait staff don't do hard sell it seems – it takes quite the effort to spend your money here). The list features lots of quirky treats; my Japanese Sazerac hit the spot nicely.

Our starters were underwhelming. There was no hint of the promised sweet basil and gari (pickled ginger) in my Vietnamese rolls, and the prawns and off-season asparagus lacked the flavour to carry the show, while the accompanying sriracha mayonnaise was more Hispanic than Asian. The crab cakes were better, encased in a crisp panko crumb and infused with lime leaf. A sour plum chilli jam lifted the flavours nicely.

The best successes were the main courses. My duck red curry was well balanced, loaded up with sweet Thai basil and packed with fresh rambutan (an opaque-fleshed Thai fruit), sweet red pepper and bamboo shoots. Sadly the confit duck leg was less generous and its separate cooking meant it brought no flavour to the curry sauce. Pork belly was nicely handled, served with braised morning glory in a simple but moreish soy, garlic and oyster sauce. We washed them down with a delicious Liberties Ale, and did our best to ignore the disappointment of a green papaya salad which pined for any hint of its signature tang-tastic dressing. Perhaps nobody tasted this before sending it out, or perhaps whoever did has never tasted an authentic version. Done properly, that combustion of flavours is impossible to forget.

For dessert, we tackled the roast pineapple 'chops', thick slices cooked in their skin and then cut to resemble pork chops, which was only slightly disconcerting. The oddness continued with a panko-fried pastry cream, which also weirdly worked, as did the tangy lime caramel.

There's stuff to like about Opium and I imagine it'll prove a popular spot for upbeat, cocktail-fuelled, pre-gig dining. But it feels to me like a lost opportunity, suffering largely from a lack of proper training. The menu reads well but like those literary opium dens, the offering at Opium works better on paper. So far at least.

Why go?
To retrace your South East Asian travels

What to order?
The Japanese-spiced chiccaron (Mexican pork crackling), so wrong it's right

Who to bring?
Gig buddies and party people

How much?
€103 for dinner for two with a cocktail and beer each

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