The Chop House: A new star act in the wings
Last week I got a private preview of Dublin's newest theatre, the Grand Canal Theatre. It's a stunning piece of architecture: angular, bright and gleaming. It was designed by Daniel Libeskind, the architect currently working on the Ground Zero project and the designer of Berlin's Jewish Memorial -- an extraordinary installation of huge blocks which impressed me enormously when I saw it.
From the front the theatre is deceptive; it sits back from the Grand Canal Basin behind a newly built plaza and nestles quietly between the new buildings that surround it. It's only when you see the stainless steel-cladded side of it that you realise how big it is.
It's seven storeys high, which gives the stage all of that height for the flies -- the part of a theatre that allows you to stage complicated scenarios by dropping and raising them. The stage itself is vast, big enough for even the largest of travelling shows, which means Dubliners will soon be able to see shows that, up to now, had nowhere to be staged.
The theatre has taken Harry Crosbie the past eight years to create and it's the jewel in his crown. It opened two nights ago with the Bolshoi Ballet. He took me on a tour of it and, more than anything, I was struck by the level of finish of every part of it.
Long ago, the ancient Greeks discovered that the maximum number of people that could hear the human voice in an auditorium was around 2,000 and that's the number that the new theatre sits. The acoustics have been tweaked by high-tech, moveable baffles which deflect and absorb unwanted echoes, the result being a clear and crisp sound.
"Not bad for an inner-city boy, eh?" said Harry as we stood in the auditorium, with me looking around in admiration. "Not bad," he continued, "for a man who didn't learn joined-up writing till he was 20". He is, of course, the epitome of the working-class hero.
"A product of a deprived childhood?" I asked. Poor as church mice, they went to school barefoot except in the winter, when they'd wrap their feet with barbed wire for traction on the ice. Too poor to buy water, they had to bash oxygen and hydrogen molecules together to make their own. God, the hardships of his youth, people today would hardly credit it.
The tour was a prelude to our dining. There's a new restaurant in town that I wanted to try and Harry was my dinner guest. We were off to The Chop House, Kevin Arundel's newest venture on the corner of Shelbourne Road and Grand Canal Street, where The Shelbourne pub used to be. It's still a pub, in the sense that there's still a counter and a full licence, but that's just a small part of the space, which is now taken up with dining tables. The décor is simple but stylish; it all looks very modern and clean edged in pastel colours. It's a gastropub, but firmly in the urban mode.
The kitchen is run by Kevin Arundel, previously of L'Ecrivain, Number 10 Longfields and The Schoolhouse, and Conor Dempsey previously of Dax, so even before we went I was expecting the food to be good.
The menu is priced more or less mid-range; starters are priced from €6.50 to €10.50 and main courses from €14.50 to €24.50. If the word 'gastropub' has you thinking of buffalo wings, burgers and panini, the menu here will surprise you. This is gourmet fare, served in a pub.
Here are a few of the menu items: tuna sashimi with soft quails' eggs and pickled cucumber in a Teriyaki glaze; a ballotine of suckling pig on toast; daube of beef pie; and slow-roast belly of Old Spot pig with fondant potato and apple compote.
Not your usual pub fare.
We got a table from where we could see into the kitchen, outside of which was a blackboard with a few daily specials on it. Two of the specials were a starter of pan-fried duck liver and a main course of fillets of John Dory, both of which I ordered, while Harry had the suckling pig ballotine and the cod and chips to follow. We ordered mineral water, two glasses of wine and an excellent Cabernet Sauvignon from South Africa at €5.50 a glass.
The starters came with some good bread and we were well pleased. Harry's starter looked good on his plate, a round cut from the ballotine (like a large sausage) and served with toasted bread. It tasted good too, but I have to say I thought the duck liver was better. I had to persuade Harry to try it -- it's not the sort of thing he'd usually eat -- but he tasted it and even had a second taste.
The main courses arrived: Harry's cod served on a wooden platter and his chips in a little galvanised bucket, and my John Dory served more prosaically on a plate.
The first thing I look for with battered fish is whether the batter has absorbed a lot of oil, which it shouldn't. Harry's was well done and the batter was firm and not oily. The chips were also good, golden and crisp, and for €14.50 this was a well-made and well-presented dish. I liked my fish too, but as I sit here and write I find it didn't leave much of a memory behind, other than it was quite nice.
By the time we'd finished these two courses, the place had begun to really fill up. It seems that, despite the competition just across the road from Juniors, The Chop House has found its niche already with regular customers. We had a dessert to share between us, a lemon tart with honey mascarpone, which was light and tasty, and had a thin, but tough, pastry.
Two espressos, a third glass of wine and two bottles of mineral water brought the bill to €100.10, which didn't include a service charge. The Chop House works very well: the food is inventive, the surroundings pleasing and the prices are fair. It goes to show that, even in a recession, there's always room for a good restaurant. W