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Restaurant review: Lucinda O'Sullivan sampling gastropubs

I love gastropubs; their ethos is to offer restaurant-standard food in a casual atmosphere, as opposed to bog-standard pub grub. We were in a few places recently, starting off with lunch in the new hot, hip Black Sheep on Capel Street.

The Black Sheep, tel: (01) 873-0013, specialises in craft beers and eclectic 'simple' food and is by the people who gave us Against the Grain on Wexford Street. It's the 'shabby granny' look here as opposed to shabby chic. A fashionable grey outside, the interior is filled with scuffed tables and chairs that might have adorned the bedsits of Rathmines and Ranelagh in the Seventies. Add a few gilt-framed auction-room pictures, a commode, a faux 'library bookshelf' wallpaper and you have it: a type of inverted-snobbery, retro decor loved by the designer-clad crowd. Put that look in a bedsit today and the tenants would be on to the PRTB in a shot.

The guy behind the bar was very friendly and helpful. Chunky French onion soup (€4), for me, was grand. Himself had the 100 per cent steak burger (€11), speared with a steak knife between a floured bap, with a little stack of slightly sad jumbo fries. Moroccan chicken tagine (€11) was tasty and plentiful, but it was chargrilled chicken breast on couscous and a spicy sauce, rather than a tagine-style stew per se. Himself had a pint of Fisher's beer (€5.10) and I had a mineral water (€2.80). Fine, if you wanted basic food, but you wouldn't be doing a detour for the grub.

The polar opposite, style-wise, is The Waterloo on Upper Baggot Street, tel: (01) 660-0650. A sleek transformation has retained an old-world Dublin pub to the front, with a vast new atrium bar to the rear, complete with a long, high banquette running the length of the room. Food is New York Italian-style, with a touch of the old sod thrown in by way of local produce. Starters, light bites and mains ranged from €4.50 to €27. They also cater for the steak men with 28-day, dry-aged Hereford steaks -- 8oz feather blade, 10oz sirloin or 8oz fillets, complete with fries and sauces. New York clam chowder (€6.95) had a lovely flavour, while twice-cooked organic goat's cheese souffle (€6.95) had likewise, save that the outside was overly burned. Pollo alla cacciatore (€14.95) -- Italian hunter's-style stew -- was well presented and flavourful, with a dish of rustic roast potatoes to the side. Brendan's fish and chips (€14.95) looked great on a board: he got a fine chunk of haddock, a mini milk pail of fries, gauze-covered lemon, a ramekin of tartare sauce and a whoosh of cress. Here, Brendan had a pint of Guinness (€4.50) and I had a Diet Coke (€2.70). Worth a visit.

The Chop House on Shelbourne Road, tel: (01) 660-2390, has a really good feel, and excellent, French-style food; it deservedly won Best Gastropub at the 2012 Santa Rita/LIFE magazine Restaurant Awards. Painted in faded-chic colours, it has lots of blackboards, bentwood chairs, marble-topped tables, and wine bottles abound. We wheeled up on this visit for dinner, where starters (€7.50-€12.50) included a ballotine of chicken and foie gras with pickled shiitake mushrooms and a port vinaigrette. Brendan kicked off with a cool, clear tian of Clogherhead crab salad (€9.50), with mint, apple and pineapple carpaccio, while I had seared scallops (€12.50), which were interspersed with little blocks of black pudding, Jerusalem artichoke and drizzled with a veal jus -- both were absolutely ace. The Chop House steaks are Limousin, and dry-aged for at least 35 days; they range from a rib-eye, to a Porterhouse for two, inclusive of all the trimmings and sauces, plus options to add fried eggs, Burgundy snails, sauteed gambas or pommes mousseline. Fish and chips (€15) was a fine chunk of hake in a tempura beer batter with twice-cooked chips and tartare sauce for Brendan -- he seems to favour fish and chips, but who doesn't?

Fillet of beef (€28), for me, on a rectangular slate, was topped with a parsley crust, set off with a touch of luxury by way of a foie gras, crispy, cromesqui ball criss-crossed, Musketeer-style, with baby-carrot 'swords', and a whisper of pea shoots. Top-notch grub and a vast selection of wine. We enjoyed a bottle of Crianza (€28). See and be seen here.

Bar One in Castlebar, Co Mayo, tel: (094) 903-4800, owned by Mark Cadden (brother of Paul Cadden, of Saba fame), is another superb, urban-style gastropub with excellent service and grub, and it is a good place to make for if you're hungry and heading west. Here, Brendan had a fabulous bowl of McHale's farmed lamb stew (€11.50), with really tender, succulent pieces of lamb, cooked to perfection, and served with a dollop of creamy mashed potatoes. He loved it and I was madly envious, although I did have a smashing south Indian chicken curry (€10.50), with hot aromatic flavours, served with Basmati rice. With an excellent selection of wines by the glass, Brendan had a glass of Shiraz Cabernet 2011 (€5.20), while I had water, and we were fortified for the rest of our trip to Mulranny.

The best roast duck in Ireland is served in the atmospheric Finin's, Main Street, Midleton, East Cork, tel: (021) 463-1878. The same could be said for their Dublin Bay prawns and seafood plates. On our recent visit, I kicked off with a Dublin Bay prawn cocktail (€14.50), served heaped on a plate, with Marie Rose sauce to the side. Brendan had the sauteed lamb's kidneys with Madeira sauce (€11), which he always loves at Finin's. We almost fight each time about who gets to have the duck (€24). This is perfect, old-fashioned, moist, succulent duck with stuffing, and it comes with big dishes of gratin and Parmentier potatoes and vegetables. I won out this time, but Brendan had superb big scampi (€30), with tartare sauce, hand-cut fries and a side salad. We washed all of this down with a superb bottle of Aotea Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (€25). By the way, Finin's also do an excellent value menu at €25. Another real winner.

Ireland's gastropub culture is getting better each year.



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