Wednesday 25 April 2018

Refuel: Mulberry Garden

TYPICAL DISH: Sea trout with samphire
THE DAMAGE: €121. 60 for two starters, two mains, one dessert, one cheeseboard and six glasses of wine
ON THE STEREO: Plinkedy-plonk
AT THE TABLE: The well heeled and well bred

Mulberry Garden
Mulberry Garden

Aingeala Flannery

I grew up in a house where the culinary ethos was you'll eat what you get, and you'll like it. It gave me an appreciation, later on, for the luxury of choice. The joy of reading down a menu and thinking: what tastes and textures am I in the mood for tonight? A choice of six appetisers and six entrees seems to me the perfect number. Anything more launches me into a confusion of wants, anything less and I quickly lose interest.

No surprise then that the menu at Mulberry Garden, which offers only two starters and two mains, stokes my rebel streak against anything that feels like restraint.

If that isn't enough to pin your appetite to the mast, Mulberry Garden opens just three nights a week: Thursday, Friday and Saturday -- for dinner only. Dinner costs ¤40 and the house wines are accessibly set at ¤22 a bottle. The menu changes weekly and is posted on their website, so you know precisely what you're getting and how much it'll set you back.

There are, I suppose, two ways of looking at this: it's either a practical ploy that's in step with the times, or it's an exercise in predictability. I went there with The Home Economist who imposed an explicit ban on reading the menu beforehand.

Finding Mulberry Garden will be a challenge if you're not well-acquainted with Donnybrook Village. It's hidden away down a winding lane, behind a high wall in a glass-fronted mews that formerly hosted the legendary Ernies, and latterly, more briefly, Poulot's. A cast-iron wall plaque tells you that you've arrived.

Inside the tables are elegantly set with starched linen and polished cutlery -- glassware sparkling in empty expectation. Threads of pink and purple Angora slash the walls from the ceiling to the skirting boards, like the work of a vengeful knitter.

The Home Economist, dressed to kill, sank into a well-upholstered chair and gave the place a long appreciative glance of approval before confessing that she'd broken her own rule and read the menu beforehand.

But her recital of it didn't match the card I was holding in my hand. It sounded similar but not the same. This unexpected jolt seemed to give her a thrill. "This is even better," she cried. "Let's order some wine." A glass of Hugel et Fils for me, a Mas Rabell Palleda-Granache for her. We asked the waiter to bring us everything on the menu.

A wooden palette of bread arrived on the table: dark treacle brown, two rectangles of onion and olive loaf, and a glazed ball simply described as "white". Alongside them a chilled slab of smoked butter that tasted dangerously good. Quite the curtain raiser, then. Our starters arrived in good time, a pillow of crab ravioli, encircled by fat corn kernals, and underlined with a green stalk of braised scallion.

A brilliant sunburst of yellow cream swooshed out of a jug and almost covered the ravioli, which released a small puff of steam when I pierced it with my fork. The shredded crab filling was delicate and moist with a liquorice hint, we identified as tarragon.

A dusting of pancetta crumbs added a sultry edge to the sweetness and stopped it from crossing the line into sickly. The velouté had the character of a fine silk, whose shocking yellow appearance belies an underlying gentleness. It was a dream to eat.

The Home Economist's risotto, meanwhile, was prettiness on a plate. Shavings of pickled cauliflower studded the pale creamy grains of arborio. It was crowned with spirals of young watercress that reminded us of springtime, while a frosting of toasted almonds added crunch.

We couldn't fail to be impressed by the thoughtful beauty of the presentation, and the unusual harmony of flavours had the extraordinary effect of making you forget that this was, after all, a mere risotto.

My main course kept the pace. Clew Bay sea trout: a small peachy fillet that was mild and sweet, the scorched skin still blistering from the grill. Beneath it, a bed of shredded kale mixed with crunchy samphire that tasted of sea spray -- the trout couldn't have wished for a more heavenly resting place.

The plate was dotted with attractive distractions: smoked haddock croquette -- light as a cloud, a dramatic flash of beetroot to the east, a pool of vaguely smoked Hollandaise to the west and more beetroot in between, this time in the form of a cylinder. In short -- a stunner.

So far, so imaginative, until it came to The Home Economist's Lough Erne lamb, which was served pink, musky and succulent with an aromatic flavour not unlike heather.

I suppose we had been spoiled, but the straight execution of lamb with rosemary potato, peas and turnip (albeit white and curiously undercooked), seemed somehow anticlimactic. Another restaurant would have been proud to serve it. But here, at Mulberry Garden, something very, very special is happening.

Down to dessert; a heartstopping dark chocolate affair, laced with coconut meringue and cream, and the Irish cheeseboard (Killeen Goat's, Glebe Brethan, Hegarty's, and Crozier Blue), we were utterly smitten. It felt right that we weren't given a choice. It felt like good old-fashioned seduction.

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