Review - Michael's: 'The fish is cooked impeccably and the abundance is delightful'
Michael's, 57 Deerpark Road, Mount Merrion, Co Dublin (01) 278 0377
We food writers love to bang on about the lack of good locally-caught fish and seafood available at a reasonable price in Irish restaurants. But we're going to have to find ourselves a new priority moan (suggestions on a postcard please) if the situation keeps on improving in line with its current trajectory.
I've written before about Niall Sabongi, whose Klaw restaurants in Temple Bar and on Capel Street are democratising the eating of oysters and crab and lord knows what else to such an extent that you might be forgiven for thinking that we are, in fact, a nation surrounded by water. No one has a bad word to say about Sabongi and his food, and any time you walk past one of his restaurants you'll see happy tourists beaming from ear to ear. They know that they are in the right place, which must not always be the feeling that they experience in other restaurants around the city centre that target their business.
If you ate for a week in those places, you might get the impression that Ireland's national dish is a Cajun chicken panini, or some similar nonsense. (Not that everyone has gotten the memo about the fabulous wild native fish and seafood being landed on Irish shores; there's still plenty of farmed sea bass on menus and one new place, Sole, which opened on South William Street in Dublin earlier this month offers Norwegian crab at €65 for 300g, albeit alongside Irish seafood.) Anyway, over at Michael's in Mount Merrion, which used to be an Italian-ish neighbourhood restaurant, new proprietors, Gareth (Gaz) Smith and his wife, Rita - they took over last year - have been quietly steering the focus of the food offering in the direction of fish and seafood.
The restaurant looks much the same as it used to, but the menu has shifted and manager Talha Pasha has upped the ante in terms of the wine offering. Yes, you can still have pasta -Rita makes it by hand each day - and there are steaks, but you won't find burgers or pizzas. Instead, you'll be offered as comprehensive a range of quiveringly fresh fish and seafood as you'll find anywhere in the city, with the menu changing daily according to what's available. The Smiths buy much of their fish directly from small day boats that fish out of Howth and Wicklow - this is where their lobsters, and crab caught off Lambay Island (of which more below) are sourced - with the rest coming mainly from Kish Fish, whose 6am call regularly wakes Smith from his slumbers. He says that they phone him before the boat has even landed to make the deal, an arrangement that enables him to keep his prices at a level commensurate with his location. Whatever about paying €40 for black sole in the city centre, that's not a price that will fly in the 'burbs.
We visited for dinner a couple of weeks ago, drawn in by pictures of the whopper John Dory that Smith had put up on his Instagram. We start with some of the wild duck and mushroom arancini that are a Michael's staple - substantial and tasty, and some delicious, melting bellota Iberico with 36 month aged Parmesan, before seguing on to the business of fish. Soft-shell crab tempura with an Asian dressing and lime tempura is the only frozen seafood that Michael's uses - the crustaceans have to be caught within a window of time about 12 hours long between when they crawl out of their too-small shell and grow a new one - and they have that incredible texture that makes them irresistible.
The fresh Lambay Island crab salad sits on a layer of avocado, the sweet, briny flesh is bound with a lemon aioli and served with pickled cucumbers and dill. It is both simple, and simply lovely - and you will find it on the lunchtime menu most days.
A gratin of crab claws, also from Lambay, and Dublin Bay prawns is a garlicky, generous, mop-able delight. (Smith tells me later that his young son, Felix, gets crab claws as a daily after-school treat when he pays a visit to the fishermen with his mum.)
Sadly we are too late for a whole roast John Dory - they'd all been snapped up already - so instead we share a seafood platter (€30 each) featuring tranches of turbot and John Dory, more of those fine crab claws, whole Howth Bay prawns in wild garlic butter, and scallops, served with excellent house-made chips (the best I've had anywhere for a long time) and salad. The fish is all cooked impeccably, and the abundance is delightful; it is such a rare thing. (I'm used to eating in places where chefs slice the scallops in half to make it appear as if they are giving you more of them.) At Michael's, there's no sense that anyone is counting. A fine, flavoursome rib-eye on the bone is our other main course - but, really, if you come to Michael's, go for the fish. That's the point.
By this point we are replete, and would happily have passed on dessert, but we manage one excellent shared sticky toffee pudding with ice-cream between us.
Our bill for four, including two bottles of wine, comes to €242.15 before service.
Michael's is a happy place, serving happy food - the food that Gaz Smith says that he likes to cook and eat himself. It's a neighbourhood restaurant that's fast becoming a destination.
9/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
On Tuesdays, the two-course evening menu is €20, you can add a glass of wine for €4. Or simply drop in for a bowl of soup or crab salad some lunchtime. Michael's is open from 11am Tuesday to Saturday.
ON A BLOW OUT
Lobster is always going to be the most expensive item on any menu, but Michael's won't rip you off.
THE HIGH POINT
Stonkingly fresh fish and seafood cooked simply and served with great charm.
THE LOW POINT
If you don't like butter and garlic, Michael's may not be the place for you.