Restaurant reviews: Nonna Valentina, 1-2 Portobello Road, D8
Tel: 01 4549866
TYPICAL DISH: Bucatini with pork cheek and tomato sauce
RECOMMENDED: Beef escalopes
THE DAMAGE: €134 for two starters, two mains, two desserts, seven glasses of wine and two espressos
ON THE STEREO: Muzak
AT THE TABLE: Savvy foodies
Nonna Valentina has the unfortunate distinction of deserving a wall plaque proclaiming it the most unsung restaurant in Dublin 2011. Why is that? I ask myself.
Some would say it's off the beaten track. I say it has one of the loveliest locations around -- overlooking a leafy bank of the Grand Canal. Others maintain it's not as good as its nearest neighbour, Locks -- I'd fork-fight them to the death to argue the contrary. That said, I've allowed myself to be distracted by a flurry of openings and closings and Nonna Valentina has just plain slipped my mind -- and my reviews.
I'm as guilty as the next person of grazing in a flock -- slavishly reliant on media blurbs for directions to the latest food trends. The "what's hot, what's not" brigade who applaud you on the way up their barometer, only to kick you in the arse as you slide back down.
The self-appointed 'WE-dia', a cohort of a dozen journalists who'll implore you to eat at restaurants with names such as KRUD. Think Berlin, think Bauhaus. So Bohemian, so now. WE love it!
You will not read anything of the sort about Nonna Valentina. Not least because it's part of the Dunne and Crescenzi group and therefore so Noughties. But also because it celebrates the importance of tradition, family and romance. Concepts that are not exactly fashionable at the moment, but they could spike in popularity should the zeitgeist change direction.
Ui Rathaile reckoned I went to Nonna Valentina to kick sand in the face of a media club that won't let me in. Not true. Tragically, I just wanted to get dressed up and have him gaze at me in the candlelight.
I hadn't eaten there for at least two years. Previous to that I was quite the regular -- when HRH was a baby, we'd go on a Sunday evening and the waitresses would shower him with cuddles and tickles while I finished eating. I've sent at least two trembling men there with engagement rings in their pockets, and it was also the venue for Ma Flannery's last 'big' birthday bash -- more a tombstone than a milestone celebration, as I recall she necked half a bottle of Frascati before our appetisers arrived.
Fast forward to the present ... I arrived to find Ui Rathaile at the best two-top in the house, rolling a glass of Primitivo Salento between his palms. The smacker he landed on me tasted of caramel and cherry spice. I ordered a Prosecco to cool myself down.
Glancing over the menu, it struck me that Nonna Valentina is very much 'on trend' when it comes to value. The set-price menu is drawn from the Ã la carte, with a choice of three starters, five mains, and two desserts for €30. There are plenty of luxury touches: McConnell's smoked salmon, Ligurian truffle oil, juniper berries, saffron and a DOP designation at every turn.
Ui Rathaile began with bresaola, draped in sheets over a dome of dressed rocket leaves. The supple and delicately spiced beef married well with the bright peppery rocket. It was crowned with saline flakes of Grana Padano Trentino and finished with sweetly marinated mushrooms. Individually the flavours hit all the right notes, together they made for a blissful harmony. Ui Rathaile was smitten.
The wooing went on with millefoglie di melanzane: layers of grilled smokey aubergine, paired with mozzarella di buffala. Again, the quality of the ingredients shone through as the cool milky mozzarella countered the earthiness of the eggplant.
No shortcuts with the pesto either: a conspiracy of basil, Parmesan and pine nut -- to win your appetite's approval. A final glug of fruity green olive oil served to sweeten my surrender.
Ui Rathaile switched to white, and ordered a glass of Falanghina to go with his main course: porcini mushroom risotto. Now, I did not approve of this choice. Risotto, to my mind, is a side dish -- to be served with fish or meat, but never alone. No matter how well it is cooked, the first forkful tastes the same as the last. Ui Rathaile didn't like this challenge to his choice -- I might as well have called him "tedious and repetitive" and no amount of "it's the risotto -- not you, my love" could convince him otherwise. He argued (quite rightly) that the risotto was perfectly executed, nutty, light and creamy ... from the first bite to the last. My point exactly.
His defence began to crumble once he tasted my main course: beef escalopes that were melt-in-your-mouth succulent. The thick slices of tenderised beef oozed juicy flavour and richness -- the gravy, which I assumed was Marsala-based, was particularly good, with some meaty, woody field mushrooms thrown in for good measure. Truffle oil made for a luxurious finish. Served with crisp roasted cubes of potato, it was a dream to eat.
In my enthusiasm, I insisted that we diverted to the Ã la carte for dessert. I wanted Ui Rathaile to try Nonna's tiramisu -- a creamy, boozy bowl of bliss. Also, I had a hankering for affogato, which wasn't on the menu, but they made one for me anyway -- with Amaretto in lieu of coffee. It's one of those things I try at home and never get the temperature or consistency right. How difficult can pouring liqueur over gelato be? Yet my efforts never taste right.
That's what's so great about Nonna Valentina -- it's the real deal. And if you're in any doubt as to its Italian authenticity, just listen to their lousy taste in music. It's only fair that we're better than them at something.
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