Meal Ticket: Etto
18 Merrion Row, Dublin 2 0 1-678-8872
I have to be honest. I'm kinda relieved the team behind Etto pretty much nail what they set out to do: create the kind of confident, contemporary Italian-inspired wine bar they got used to frequenting during their recent sojourn in London.
Relieved, because the couple behind this compact haven of fine food and rare wine are the kind of people you'd hate to speak badly of, such is their infectious enthusiasm and willingness to work hard to create something special. Relieved too because we need talented, dedicated people like this to prove that there's opportunity for emigrés to return to home shores with the fruits of their forays abroad.
In short, I'm relieved to be a cheerleader for the likes of Etto, and not a naysayer.
It helps that these folk have pedigree. The back-end of the team is headed up by chef Barry Fitzgerald, who proved his mettle in one of London's top gastropubs, the Michelin-starred Harwood Arms. Upfront are Simon Barrett and his partner Liz Matthews.
I first met Simon several years ago when he was working for his uncle, Joe Barrett of Bang Café. The genuine interest with which Simon served the wine that particular night struck me as unusual in a town where engaged wine service often gets left to restaurants high-end enough to have a trained sommelier.
Liz may have less restaurant experience than her fella, but she's got all the important elements down already. They love restaurants, and "want Etto to be the kind of place you wake up in the morning thinking about eating in".
Thankfully, this 38-seater reserves a few precious counter spaces for walk-in customers seeking to satisfy such cravings, or a quick glass of wine and maybe a 'small plate' from the versatile, grazing-oriented menu.
Getting a booking can be harder, in what is the hottest joint in town. We tried once, persevered despite an unreturned email, and succeeded with a between-service phone call. We were sat next to an old pro of a restaurant reviewer, who happens to be an ex-editor of mine and one of my favourite curmudgeons. He seemed happy with his Etto lot, despite muttering Sinatra-style about quibbles ("I have a few"). Sure, I thought, as I polished off my marmalade and honeycomb ice-cream at the end of one of the tastiest meals I've had in an age. I'd find quibbles, if pushed.
Bad acoustics, for one. But that's stripped back surfaces for you: undressed wooden tables, white-washed walls and chalked-up blackboards do nothing to soften the bounce of wine-fuelled chatter. And floorstaff trained up properly to hand-sell those wines without Simon having to be permanently on-call. (We had a gorgeous Slovenian Dry Furmint, the grape associated with sweet Tokaj wine: weighty but fresh too like citrus oil and ripe pears.)
And sell me some sherry while you're at it, to match those salted almond bar nibbles.
Oh yeah, and we ordered a dish with pickled walnuts, but they were just walnuts. Tsk.
My final quibble is more of a warning. That menu makes it easy to get carried away. We thought we'd escape the tyranny of starter/ main/dessert and ended up completely over-ordering, and blowing our budget needlessly.
It was a feast and a half, full of nuanced flavour and colour and texture. A basket of Le Levain bread, truly the best in town. Oysters slicked with lemon granite (think subtle sorbet). Fingers of spongy sourdough toast crowned by soft slivers of intense, horseradish-flecked venison carpaccio. Earthy baby beets with airy buffalo ricotta and crunchy walnuts (unpickled). Dense croquettes of smoked eel and pork belly, the snack of angels. Charred flatbreads to tear and scoop gutsy Romesco sauce. Softened leeks in vinaigrette with nutty brown shrimp. And the dish that encapsulated this kitchen's skill: a slick of soft polenta onto which moist, pillowy meatballs spilled veal, pork, golden raisins and pinenuts, and a crowning sliver of roast lemon to add a burst of joy.
We could have gone home happy then and there but instead dove into another round. Mussels spiked with nduja (super-spicy chorizo-style paste), sweetened with leek and salted with crunchy samphire. Featherblade beef which proved well-named, its flaky layers making this 'large plate' easier to share than anticipated – in a practical sense at least.
The accompanying smoked bone marrow was decadent, the parsnip-enriched champ clever, but it was the brussel tops that stole my heart: Christmas-green leaves, soft like kid leather gloves, with gorgeous bite and tossed with piquant mustard dressing and crumbled chestnuts. Magic. Finally, to prove we were unbeaten, a delicate vanilla-flecked blancmange with poached quince – and a final scoop of aforementioned ice-cream.
If that sounds like a whole lot of food, you're right. It was. Still, we ate it all like pros. And it was worth every cent.
So, to summarise, I love Etto.
Quibbles? A few. Regrets? I have none.
Typical dish: Spinach and ricotta dumplings, trompettes, egg yolk and sage
Recommended: Yes. (No, really. Go. Order whatever. Relish it.)
The Damage: €150 for way more food than we needed to order, including dessert, and some fine wine to match it
On the Stereo: Couldn't hear a hint of it though there may have been some behind all the chatter
At the Table: Food critics, restaurateurs and followers of food-fashion