Thursday 22 March 2018

The revolution starts here, with fish fingers

Aingeala Flannery


65 Dame Street, Dublin 2.

Tel 08 77939195


The revolution starts here, with fish fingers

One of the contradictions about the economic hole we now find ourselves in is that -- in Dublin, at least -- restaurants are sprouting up like flat caps around a cowpat. "How can that be?" You may ask yourself as you spot another new awning on your way to the labour exchange. Fiscal boot camp philosophy would have you believe it's a matter of restaurateurs cutting their table cloths to measure, necessity being the mother of invention and all that blather. The reality is much more complex.

At the risk of sounding like a mouthpiece for the Small Firms Association, it's clear that the State-owned banks, whose debts you and I are now paying, are not meeting their Government-agreed targets in lending to high-risk, start-up businesses.

Restaurants, obviously, fall into this category. The upshot is a small but restless cohort of restaurateurs, who refuse to crawl, cap in hand, to the banks, turning instead to private investors -- ideally ones with deep pockets and empty premises.

And so we have restaurants that -- with a shot of capital and a short-term lease -- call themselves 'pop-up', because it sounds better than 'start-up' and infinitely more sexy than 'stay-up', which, of course, is their goal.

Rather than wasting money on advertising, they rely on social media, harnessing the power of a retweet. That's the way things are, and we should be glad that new things and, sometimes, good things are happening.

Or so I tell myself. But when you eat in a different restaurant each week, you see a pattern emerge, and after a while the new establishment's claim to be anti-establishment, radical, or (even) alternative, gets so far up my contrarian nose that I'm overwhelmed by the temptation to fling my twice-cooked truffle chips at the vintage comic wallpaper.

"Hipness is a self-regarding scourge," I want to scream. "The poor are too proud to drink from jam jars. Stuff your ironic gimmicks and bring me something real."

Enter James Rigby, who is on a mission to change the way we think about food.

Last year, he opened a deli/restaurant on Upper Leeson Street that did away with the notion of menu, you could have this or that, he was too busy cooking it to get into a debate. It would be fresh, seasonal and good value.

Now he's opened a second Rigby's on Dame Street -- a happier and more spacious home. Already he's turned it into an exhibition space, and has started publishing a fanzine called Foodpunk, which sticks the boot into critics, with a "review the reviewer" column, and contains instructions on how become a guerilla gardener by assembling your own seed bomb.

There's page after page of recipes, designed to empty your fridge not your wallet. I don't have vanilla beans, quinoa and crimini mushrooms hanging around my kitchen, so I found that hard to take, not so the centrefold titled "the illusion of choice" -- a flowchart showing how half a dozen multinationals control the food industry. Bearing the tagline: Less Hollywood, More Neighbourhood, Foodpunk's manifesto intends to give "a much needed kick up the hole to the foodie establishment".

Well, here I am -- and here's my fat ass -- back up and take aim. Aside from not having the stomach to pander to the "establishment", the reason Rigby doesn't plamás journalists is because he's good enough not to have to.

I don't know what he's serving for dinner tonight, but on past form expect pickled scallops with curry-cured salmon, crawfish and chilli aioli, or homemade pasta with pork cheek sausage, leeks and chorizo.

There is a BYO policy, but by the time this goes to print he may have secured a wine licence, so call to make sure.

If two choices for dinner strikes you as like it or lump it, you might want to check the place out at lunchtime, when you'll get up to 10 choices, a good range of sides, and vegetarians will not be left wanting.

That's what myself and The Cartoonist did. I kicked off with a fish finger sandwich (€7.95), which was not as Captain Birdseye as it sounds.

Rigby makes everything from scratch, so the "fingers" were, in fact, eight golden stubs of tempura, crisp, grease-free and packed with gloriously fresh mouthfuls of meaty haddock.

They were spread out on a split baguette from the Paris Bakery, with baby cos leaves, and slices of deli-style Swiss Cheese. I was content just to pick and dip the fish fingers into the bowl of tartare sauce, a champion cheek-sucker, brilliantly constructed with the perfect balance of cream and piquancy, finely diced cornichons delivering the killer blow.

The Cartoonist opted for the special -- roast lamb and boulangere potatoes on sourdough (€10.50).

It was a Sunday lunch stack; cloaked in the aroma of slow-roasted rosemary and garlic, the lamb was moist to the centre with sticky caramelised edges, beneath it layers of thinly sliced spud, alternately creamy and crusty, and thoroughly delicious.

There was no call for the accompanying jug of gravy, the cooking juices ran freely enough from the meat to soak the bottom layer of bread. I was overcome by a canine urge to grab the lot and take off down Dame Street.

There was no need to order sides, but we did anyway -- citing research as an excuse. A couple of harmless salads -- mar dhea.

The warm new potato salad (€3) was a deep bowl of baby cos, tossed with strips of lemony grilled courgette, sweet red pepper, fat and salty capers, red-skinned baby spuds and a fist of swollen, infused sultanas, bursting with sweetness and syrup.

The modestly titled "green salad" (€3), was cut with bright young leaves of ruby chard and tiny flecks of red chilli pepper, but yes, the rest was green: finely diced celery, scallions, chives, and lots of peppery rocket.

We left Rigby's full-of-belly and happy-of-heart, neither of us felt the need to eat again that day. No sooner had my appetite returned, but I was on the phone booking dinner.

Dame Street has a new occupant and it's kicking, spitting proof that style and substance are not so mutually exclusive, after all.

Go. Eat. Agitate.

TYPICAL DISH: Rigby's roast in a roll

RECOMMENDED: Lamb with boulangere potatoes

THE DAMAGE: €24.25 for two open sandwiches and two salads

ON THE STEREO: The Free Association

AT THE TABLE: Carnivores with conscience

Day & Night

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life