Shouk, 40 Lower Drumcondra Road, Dublin 9 (01) 532 2114
At a time when so many new restaurants are based on concepts rather than food, with more time and attention devoted to interior design, fit-out and making sure that the PR gets the 'right' people to attend the opening than to staff training, it's refreshing to find a new place to eat that manages to be pretty cool without any of that palaver.
Shouk opened at the end of the summer on the stretch of the Lower Drumcondra Road just beside the junction with Clonliffe Road. It's a little tricky to find, in that it doesn't have any street frontage, and you enter via a courtyard next door to the Chipmonger chipper (which also looks as if it might be worth a visit). In this and other respects it reminds me of Assassination Custard, a tiny restaurant on Kevin Street, which is similarly difficult to locate on a first visit, serves great-tasting food without making a fuss, and is one of the most effortlessly hip restaurants in the capital.
We've called ahead to book a table and we're glad that we have, because every seat in the place is taken at 7pm on a Wednesday evening. There's a welcome diversity to our fellow customers - two women sitting on stools at the bar catching up after work, a family tucking in at the corner table, two young wans in beanies next to us, one with a bottle of Prosecco, the other preferring a screwtop Australian cab sauv. (Shouk is BYOB.)
The decor is shoestring unpretentious - bare wooden tables, benches with colourful cushions, cutlery in tin cans, nothing fancy - and turns out to have been built by the owner, Alon Salman, using largely salvaged materials. There are two rooms, and also a yard out the back which provides extra space when it's warm enough to eat out of doors.
Alon tells me later that he is half-Israeli, half-Wexford but it's safe to say that there is little of the Irish part of his heritage in evidence on the menu at Shouk.
If you've read the narrative of Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi's book, Jerusalem (rather than just cooking the recipes), hankered for the food of Israel, and felt that you too could become obsessed with hummus, then Shouk is the place to head to satisfy those cravings. It is I think as authentic - there's that word again, the one that we restaurant reviewers are guilty of over-using - an iteration of Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food as I have eaten in Ireland.
Our waiter (of whom more later) tells us that Shouk has had a busy lunch service, and that the restaurant is sold out of a few of the dishes on the menu. We are disappointed that there is no whole roasted cauliflower left in particular. (Cauliflower is having a bit of a moment these days, which just goes to show that there's hope for swede yet, apropos of which it popped up on the Ottolenghi Instagram feed the other day.)
So we order just about everything else. Five of us share a mezze feast of falafel, hummus that's in another league entirely to the stuff you buy in a tub (even the posh versions), tahini, a Moroccan aubergine salad, a vibrant Moroccan carrot salad, a salad of pickled beets and a 'Jaffa' salad of tomatoes that taste of something, cucumber, scallions and herbs. The puffy pitas are made to order in the steam oven and are exceptional.
A whole blackened aubergine smells insanely good, its flesh combined with tahini, harissa and cherry tomatoes in a melting, delicious ooze of flavour, and a grilled vegetable salad, all the elements -broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, cherry tomatoes and scallions nicely charred and then dressed with oil, lemon zest and garlic - are far tastier than that modest description indicates.
We share a couple of filled pitas -one burger, one rib-eye minute steak -crammed with all manner of deliciousness in the form of tahini, pickles, shredded vegetables and much more besides.
For dessert, there's a caramelised banana and chocolate spread pita that is so rich that one is quite enough for five of us to share.
The food at Shouk is so good that I'd happily go back and eat it all again tonight, and the BYOB policy makes it highly affordable for a gang.
But what really set the place apart was the service. Our waiter had the right personality for working in hospitality, in that he seemed as if he genuinely wanted to be there and was enjoying his job.
He trod the fine line between the right amount of attentiveness - moving us to a bigger table "because you've ordered so much food!" - and too much, with aplomb.
He was so invested in what he was doing that, until just before we were leaving, we thought that he was the owner.
Our bill for six (we brought home a doggy bag of leftovers and an extra rib-eye minute steak pita for one family member stuck at home) came to €122 before service, including corkage of €4 for a bottle of wine that we brought with us.
Shouk is a complete delight and, come January, when you are all broke and in need of a little cheap sunshine, you will very much want to remember its name and location, so make a note of it now.
9/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
A falafel pita costs €6.
ON A BLOW-OUT
Share a mezze for two, followed by a rib-eye pita and dessert each, and your bill will come to €60 including corkage for a BYO bottle of wine.
THE HIGH POINT
A cheerful and inclusive restaurant that appears effortlessly cool, thanks to a winning combination of great food and excellent service.
THE LOW POINT
That Shouk had sold out of the whole roasted cauliflower in extra virgin olive oil and sea salt flakes with tahini, cherry tomato and scallion dressing… mmm will have to go back for that.