Review - Terra Madre: 'Italian food of the type that you so rarely find in Ireland'
Terra Madre, 13a Bachelor's Walk, Dublin 1. (01) 8735300
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of walking around the Airfield Estate in Dundrum, Co Dublin with chefs Robin Gill and Luke Matthews. Gill is Irish-born but London-based, and owns The Dairy and The Manor in Clapham, South London, both excellent, while Matthews was one of the founders of the celebrated Mews restaurant near Baltimore in West Cork, at which I have not eaten.
If you have never visited Airfield, you should - it's a 38-acre working farm that's a 15-minute Luas ride from St Stephen's Green. Formerly the home of the Overend family, Airfield is now controlled by a trust dedicated to food education. It has always been a popular destination for school tours, but the mission of the Airfield Trust has become more focused in recent years, and it is determined to push the boundaries of its remit. There are still daily demonstrations of the estate's herd of Jersey cows being milked, and sample crops of grains to show children how their morning toast starts out, but the programme has become properly exciting with the announcement of a new collaboration between the estate and the two chefs.
Matthews' title is 'culinary lead'; he is based at Airfield full-time, responsible for bringing more of the produce grown and raised on the estate into the kitchen of the daytime café, Overends. He and Gill are also putting on a series of dinners (Wild Food is the theme on December 1 and 2, airfield.ie) and in the new year will launch a set evening menu, along the lines of the offering at Forest Avenue and intended to raise the food game at Airfield by several notches.
Every chef worth his or her salt wants their own farm these days - Noma in Copenhagen is currently on hiatus as it waits to move to its new home on an urban farm in the city - so Gill and Matthews consider themselves fortunate to be working with produce grown just metres away from the kitchen in which it is cooked.
Interestingly, both chefs credit the time that they spent working in Italy for their understanding of provenance, and the importance of developing relationships with the producers of the ingredients that they use, rather than accepting the word of an anonymous supplier at the end of a phone.
Which is a long-winded introduction to a review of Terra Madre on Dublin's Bachelor's Walk, where I had lunch with a friend a few weeks ago and experienced this Italian dedication to ingredients first-hand. It's a tiny little restaurant in a basement, just a handful of tables, a higgledy-piggledy arrangement of mis-matched furniture and the heady scent of truffle in the air. It's safe to say that this is an interior-designer-free zone, which makes for a refreshing change at a time when so many of the new restaurants opening in the capital seem to be more about the décor than they are about the food. At another table there are two gentlemen of the law (we know them by their loud and expensive suits) settling in for a lunch of the long and liquid variety, and, just over my friend's shoulder, two sophisticated older women celebrating a birthday with gifts of poetry books. (Later one of them rolls a cigarette at the table and goes outside to smoke it, which strikes us as the epitome of cool.)
The menu at Terra Madre changes often, so the dishes that we ate will probably not be on the menu when you go, but will give an indication of the type of food that you can expect.
For me, there's burrata that is in a different league entirely to what passes for burrata in any other Irish restaurant in which I've ever ordered it - hit the round of cheese with the tip of the knife and out oozes the creamiest cream. It is accompanied by a single anchovy, some tiny spheres of green that look like a bizarre caviar but are made of concentrated basil essence, morsels of intense dried tomato, and slow-cooked greens (cime de rape, I think). It is exquisite. Claire orders the Involtini di Bresaola Valtellina IGP - air-dried salted beef wrapped around crisp celery and mayonnaise, over which the chef has grated Vacche Rosse Parmesan, made from the milk of the red cow (hence the name), which is fattier than the usual Friesian variety, and harder and more intense than regular Parmesan. Simple, but very, very good. Because it's lunchtime, we are not going to go the whole hog with four courses, so it's a primi of pasta, for me, while Claire chooses a secondi. The Ravioli del 'Plin' with Black Truffle and Cheese Fondue is a traditional Piemontese stuffed pasta using a technique known as plin (the pinch) and is as richly flavoured as one could hope, while the Seppie all'Inferno lives up to its name, with a serious chilli kick to a soupy broth of slow-cooked squid and potatoes that are just on the verge of falling asunder. We are in no doubt that what we are eating is the real deal - Italian food of the type that you so rarely find in Ireland.
With a glass of wine each, a dull panna cotta topped with cherries in booze, and excellent coffees, the bill for this lovely lunch comes to €90 before service.
I plan to go back for dinner soon with a hearty appetite and to order some serious red wine.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
Tagliatellina Campofilone with Tomato and Basil from Calabria - handmade fresh pasta with a simple tomato and basil sauce - will set you back €14.50
ON A BLOW OUT
A four-course dinner of Involtini di Bresaola Valtellina, followed by Ravioli with Black Truffle and Cheese Fondue, Cinta Senes (wild pig) stew with beans in tomato sauce and dessert will cost €58 per head before drinks or service.
THE HIGH POINT
Proper, authentic Italian food.
THE LOW POINT
That my guest and I had to get back to work after lunch and couldn't explore the wine list with more dedication.