Thursday 23 November 2017

Pre-theatre pub grub cuts the mustard

Aingeala Flannery

WJ Kavanagh's

4-5 Dorset Street, Dublin.

Tel: 01 8730990

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Pre-theatre pub grub cuts the mustard

None of my friends have any money. Most work in the Arts -- a dilapidated tenement, commonly mistaken for an ivory tower. In return for free lunches, they have, over the years, contributed enormously to this column: Ui Rathaile, The Drama Queen, Pedanto and The Cartoonist. All of them work harder than I do. I get paid to eat and write. The writers I know don't get paid enough to eat.

Yet, there's a rhetoric that persists in raising its ugly head: if the State didn't spend so much subsidising the Arts, we would have more money to spend on vital services like health and education.

It isn't the Arts that has us crawling, begging bowl in hand, to the EFSM. More than 100,000 people are employed in the Arts in Ireland, they are low paid workers, with families, who live from hand to mouth, and whose incomes are quickly absorbed into the local economy.

In return for its investment in the Arts, the State gets to play the culture card in selling Ireland overseas. It is, as so called 'international business leaders' have been at pains to point out, one of the few things the Irish can be justifiably proud of.

We are good at it. Something else we are good at is talking out of both sides of our mouths, which is why the Government is committed to sending artists abroad wearing the green jersey, while dismantling Arts organisations at home and slashing the funding that keeps workers in the sector off the live register.

What kind of career realignment can Minister Burton's JobBridge offer a novelist? You either pay artists to work, or you pay them the dole. Which would you prefer? I had to poke Ma Flannery to see if she was still listening. She insisted she was. Could I repeat the question?

Which would you prefer?

Chapter One, she replied.

For the love of God.

I'd told her already the pre-theatre sitting at Chapter One was booked out. We were going to Glengarry Glen Ross at The Gate. It cost €25 a ticket instead of the €125 you might pay in other cities. I'd told her that too -- about subsidising the audience not just the artist ... and that Chapter One could not have survived without The Gate. "Can't you call Chapter One and tell them you're coming to review?" she whined. "Chapter One doesn't work like that," I told her. "And neither do I. You'll eat in a pub on Dorset Street -- and like it."

It had been a glorious day. Late, hazy sunshine was pouring in the big front window of WJ Kavanagh's -- an evening for simpler food and for ale. Ma Flannery had a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. She took a long, cool slurp of it, and said the weather was too nice to be sitting in Chapter One, anyway. Then she thanked me for getting the tickets. "I love the theatre," she said, "much more than going to the pictures." I felt awful for beating her over the head.

The Boyne Valley blue cheese salad she had to start was pungent and gorgeously creamy. The rough edges rounded by four kinds of sweetness: crunchy balls of candied walnuts, curly crisps of dried parsnip, syrup-laden poached pear and pickled red onions.

It was a summery delight.

My choice of drink, a malty Rebel Red ale from Cork's Franciscan Well Brewery, was paired on the menu with black pudding wontons. Presumably the pudding also hailed from the People's Republic -- Clonakilty.

It was properly spicy and rich. Greedily, I would have liked more of it, but wontons must be light and so I forgave their slimness. Less should leave you hankering for more. It was served with palate-cleansing strips of sour green apple, and fennel for a liquorice kiss.

For the main course, Ma Flannery reverted to her Suir Valley roots -- where the only part of the pig they won't eat is the squeal -- and ordered a gammon steak.

It was served with the traditional (some would say tacky) pineapple ring. With salt, you must have sweet. It was as good as slow-cured organic pork can be -- moist, sweet and juicy, with sticky, burnished fat, although the accompanying egg and chips was too much like a navvy's pub dinner for Ma. Cabbage and mash, we agreed, would have been more fitting.

Tempted as I was by the Japanese themed fish and chips: caper-crumbed ling with wasabi mushy peas and nori tartare sauce, I decided to go for chicken, crumbed with buttermilk and lemon. Corn on the cob, mac 'n' cheese and a dollop of slaw sounded like the perfect mix of summer and Americana for the mood I was in.

The lemon worked wonders on the chicken and the red cabbage slaw was perfect, but the corn was pale, underripe and flavourless. The macaroni put in the best performance -- all credit to the creamy Glebe Brethan sauce, made smoky by snippets of free-range bacon.

Friendly service, affordability and cooking that's well above pub grub par, makes WJ Kavanagh's easy to recommend -- especially for casual pre-theatre grazing. Steer clear of the tiramisu though -- it has a texture that wobbles uncomfortably between tofu and mascarpone.

Thus we were sent happily on our way to The Gate, where Ma Flannery bought herself a programme. A memory to take home to Waterford, and put into a drawer of happy keepsakes. They're all there -- from when she first brought me to the theatre -- to see Borstal Boy when I was 12, maybe 13. I've taken her back many times since. Improbable Frequency, Eden, The Beauty Queen of Leenane . . . I remember them all. I couldn't tell you for the life of me what we ate beforehand. Maybe we didn't eat at all.

TYPICAL DISH: Nori and caper battered fish 'n' chips

RECOMMENDED: Gammon steak, without the chips

THE DAMAGE: €69.60 for two starters, two mains, one dessert, two beers and two glasses of wine

ON THE STEREO: Van Morrison

AT THE TABLE: Local first-time buyers

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