Review: 'A new chef is fusing the best of Irish and Italian cuisine at this Dublin sea-front gem'
Oliveto, Haddington House, 9-12 Haddington Terrace, Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin, haddingtonhouse.ie
Back in 2009, Oliveto started out as a pizza restaurant by the seafront in Dún Laoghaire. It looked as if a lot of money had been ploughed into the venture - a snazzy pizza oven and a slick interior fit-out - but the timing was off. Oliveto re-emerged after a couple of years at what was once the Kingston Hotel, now renamed Haddington House. This used to be rather down at heel, but is now well on its way to becoming the jewel in Dún Laoghaire's crown.
The man behind Oliveto, and now the owner of Haddington House, is Fla Larkin, who is three years into a five-year programme of renovating and upgrading the hotel. Initially, the food offering was focussed around simple pizzas, but the arrival last year of a new chef, Cormac Rowe, who held a Michelin star for three years while he was in charge of the kitchen at the Lady Helen at Mount Juliet, has upped the ante. Larkin says that the culinary ambition is now expressed as "Irish seasonal food through an Italian lens".
As it happens, Rowe is on holiday on the night of our visit, leaving sous-chef Barry O'Neill (who worked under Barry Fitzgerald at Bastible and Gráinne O'Keefe at Clanbrassil House) in charge. On the evidence of our meal, the eatery is in safe hands.
The large room has an over-sized bar beside the entrance and a pizza oven blazing away at the back. (Larkin tells me that the space will be getting a makeover in the next couple of years, but for now, it's perfectly comfortable without being particularly stylish.)
My friend has booked ahead, requesting a table by the window, so we have one of the few with a view. (It's a travesty that there are so few places in Dublin where you can eat looking out at the sea; in any other coastal city, there would be slews of them.)
There is a pizza menu but - apart from the fact that I reviewed Pi Pizza last week and I'm not sure that there is much more to be said about pizzas anyway - we are here to explore the rest of the offering. (That said, when the weather is fine, there are wooden tables outside where you can sit and order pizzas - this strikes me as a good idea to file away for a couple of months hence.)
We start with a 'small bite' of fried baby squid with roast garlic aioli - delicate little tentacled creatures in a light batter - before a shared starter of salsify with roasted Parmesan, smoked almond and saffron vinaigrette. The dish comes with a disconcertingly large puddle of sauce - it takes up fully half the plate - which turns out to be the roasted Parmesan, in almost-soup form, that's intensely savoury. Salsify is one of those under-used ingredients that we tend to forget about until it shows up on a menu to remind us how good it is; the texture from the almonds is spot on.
Then a small portion of potato and cheese agnolotti with king oyster mushrooms and tiny cipollini onions, to which we add delectable, crisp guanciale. The stuffed pasta eats lighter than it reads; it's very good. My friend is borderline vegetarian and well impressed by a main course of chargrilled celeriac, black garlic butter, Savoy cabbage, mushroom ragu and pine oil. It's clear that as much thought has gone into this as into the composition of any of the meat dishes, and it's very good.
Andarl Farm is one of the only producer names on a menu that would persuade me to order pork, so it's tender braised pork cheeks with a gorgeous purée of Jerusalem artichokes, hazelnut butter, kalettes and a Pedro Ximinez jus for me: umami-rich, deeply flavoured and quite the triumph.
A portion of rhubarb with baked mascarpone is too big and, while the first rhubarb of the year is lovely, the cheese is heavy. The cheeses on the cheese board are in great condition, but no one tells us what they are. Our bill, with a side of cavolo nero, a carafe of white and one of red (Falerio and Rosso Piceno, €19 each), and an espresso comes to €137 before service, which is affable.
ON A BUDGET
At lunchtime, midweek, you can order a plate of penne all'arrabbiata or a margherita pizza for around a tenner.
ON A BLOW OUT
Two people both ordering salumi as a snack, chargrilled pork with vegetables to start, strip-loin steaks and cheese to finish would run up a bill of €130 before drinks or service.
THE HIGH POINT
The focus on flavour.
THE LOW POINT
Nobody told us about the specials.