Review: Fowl Play - 'Filipino-style pork belly skewers are sweet, sticky and delicious'
Fowl Play, The Square Ball, 45 Hogan Place, Dublin 2. (01) 6624473, foul-players.com
'Is it over yet?" Apparently not, there's another week to go before the footie ends, so there's still time to nip down to Fowl Play at the back of the Square Ball pub (around the corner from Holles Street hospital) and have a match-watching-in-the-pub experience that's a little different from the norm. By the looks of things, the Square Ball is a proper sports pub, so if football isn't your thing you'll be able to catch other contests more to your liking. And they also have a huge library of board games, available for rent.
A couple of weeks ago, Fáilte Ireland and the Vintners Federation of Ireland announced that they were joining forces to improve the food offering in Irish pubs. The 'Grow Your Food Reputation' initiative comes not a moment too soon. Although there are honourable exceptions, the food in most Irish pubs is a dismal business, and missed opportunity on a grand scale in terms both of tourism and indigenous local business. (One of the honourable exceptions is Hackett's Bar in Schull, where I recently had a terrific open crab sandwich of epic proportions for little more than a tenner.)
Fowl Play bills itself as "Dublin's only dedicated live fire chicken joint" and the kitchen cooks over natural charcoal and Irish oak using a wood-fired rotisserie and The Vault - a smoker brought all the way from Houston, Texas, where they know a thing or two about such things. The venture is a collaboration between Trev O'Shea and Andy Noonan, who are the people behind the Big Grill Festival, a must-visit for anyone interested in real barbecue, which is bound to become more and more of a 'thing' as our summers get hotter.
This year's Big Grill will take place in Herbert Park over the weekend of August 16 to 19 and features appearances by superstars (yes, really) of the live-fire and barbecue cooking scene such as asador champion Rama Basilio from Buenos Aires, David Carter from Smokestak UK and DJ BBQ, as well as Irish chefs known for their use of fire including Grainne O'Keefe from Clanbrassil House and John Relihan, who worked with Jamie Oliver at Barbecoa in London before opening Holy Smoke in Cork.
But back to Fowl Play. As well as taking a purist approach to barbecue in terms of the cooking methodology (no gas or electricity), the restaurant occupies the high ground when it comes to provenance, not typically something that gets a whit of attention in barbecue joints or, indeed, pubs. The chicken and pork are both free-range.
We visit for early dinner on a Saturday evening; Sweden is losing to Germany on the huge screens above our heads and about half of the other customers appear to be engrossed, while the rest are more interested in the food that's in front of them - and with good reason.
The bar snacks are fun. Padron peppers are the Russian roulette of tapas and sure enough there's one in the bowl that looks no different to the others but fairly blows my head off. Here, they are grilled over charcoal and flavoured with preserved lemon and sea salt; I could eat them all night. Croquetas, ubiquitous now on Irish menus, of smoked chicken and chorizo with a garlic mayonnaise for dipping are tasty, and we love the frickles - sliced dill pickles deep-fried in gram batter. Filipino-style pork belly skewers are sweet, sticky and delicious.
The last order of smoked duck with moonshine orange marmalade and kimchi has been sold to the table before us, so we'll have to return to see if the dish is as interesting as it sounds. We are dissuaded from ordering all the food that we want to - "That's an awful lot of food," says our server, "way too much" - and settle on a chicken burger and the pitmaster's platter, effectively Fowl Play's version of a mixed grill.
The chicken burger - boneless free-range thighs with tomato and lettuce doused in Alabama white BBQ sauce (essentially mayo with horseradish, mustard, garlic and paprika, not too spicy) on a toasted brioche bun - is fantastic, confirming that the humble thigh is really the best, most flavoursome bit of the bird. On the platter there are chicken wings - smoked and then fried - in both Alabama White and Louisiana Hot versions, the latter with a dip of pickled celery and blue cheese. We'd have liked the skin to be more crisp, but they taste great. There's rotisserie chicken, which has good flavour but could have been marinated for longer as it's dry, and smoked turkey dog that's certainly smoky but otherwise doesn't have a whole lot to say for itself. Sides of charred tenderstem broccoli with sesame seeds and slaw with crushed peanuts and a lemon yoghurt dressing are fresh and vibrant, but fries covered in 'house rub' are flaccid and would have been better without the over-powering seasoning.
There are no desserts on offer. As we leave, the bingo that happens here every Friday and Saturday night is kicking off. Apparently it gets competitive, with arm wrestling and dancing on the tables. Our bill for three, with a couple of soft drinks and a bottle of Ciu Ciu Italian Piceno, comes to €96.40 before service.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
The vegetarian option - chargrilled halloumi with peppers, caramelised onions, smoked tomatoes, cos lettuce and a pink peppercorn chimichurri - costs €12.50.
ON A BLOW OUT
Two snacks, a bowl of free-range chicken wings (Louisiana Hot or Alabama White BBQ) to share, and cherrywood smoked duck with moonshine orange marmalade and house kimchi for two comes to €63 before drinks.
THE HIGH POINT
A fun, unpretentious venue with food to match.
THE LOW POINT
The rotisserie chicken was dry.