Food: Dumbed-down... at Söder & Ko
64 South Great George’s Street, Dublin 2. (01) 478 1590
"Inspired by Scandinavian creativity and chilled-out sophistication. Matched with Asian purity and passion on a plate. All wrapped together here in a place on South Great George's Street that can be traced back to the Vikings in the 9th century." Honestly, you couldn't make it up. Who writes this stuff? And what does it all mean? I decided to go and see for myself.
Söder & Ko occupies what was until recently The Dragon gay nightclub and, during the boom, a super-bar that a friend remembers as So Sue Me. Its Scandi-Asian schtick is, I am confident, a first for Dublin.
First things first: Söder & Ko is enormous, so not somewhere to put on the list if you like an intimate vibe. It has the feel of a bar rather than a restaurant, although there are comfortable booths to the front and plenty of space between tables.
At 7.30 on a Wednesday evening, it is almost empty, and the same when we leave, but it's probably a different story at weekends. We are offered one of the booths to the front, but opt instead for a table at the back, opposite the open kitchen.
This may have been a mistake, not because of anything untoward going on in said kitchen, but because the peculiar height of the table means that it hits the two of us sitting along the banquette squarely mid-chest, while the pair opposite look down on us from too-tall stools and have to reach down to get to the food.
Thought has gone into the interior decoration of Söder & Ko - there are quantities of Asian blue and white vases and some cool art - but fundamental design problems should have been sorted out before the restaurant opened.
The Scandinavian influence applies only to the drinks offering, while the food is 100pc Asian.
Cocktails are described as 'signature serves' and priced at €12. Soder Sura, a blend of sweet Zacapa rum and ruby grapefruit with a frothy top that may involve egg white and cream, is bland, while the 64 & Söder - an orange- and cinnamon-spiced old-fashioned made with maple-infused rye, is knock-your-head-off strong.
As is current, the food menu offers small plates for sharing, rather than traditional starters and mains. This is in line with the more casual way we want to eat now, and it suits the kitchen, which can fire out dishes to be dispatched to the tables as soon as they are ready, but it does have difficulties.
Not least of these is that some plates don't lend themselves to easy sharing - especially when chopsticks are the default implements for eating.
Also, because the plates arrive in an order that suits the kitchen rather than the palate, the natural progression of a meal from lighter to heavier dishes is skewed. Plus, the table gets crowded and there's confusion about which sauce accompanies which dish. I end up with too much hoi sin and oyster, and not enough lime, basil and lemongrass.
There are three categories of small plate on offer: raw, dim sum, and hot, priced between €6 and €10. Sides and steamed buns form separate categories. You can order three small plates and a side for €25, or five and a side for €45. Between four of us we have eight small plates, three sides and two steamed buns.
It is just the right amount, and the food bill comes to €74 (one side was left off the bill in error), which is good value.
The chef is Kwanghai Chan, until recently number 2 to Martijn Kajuiter at the Michelin-starred Cliff House in Ardmore, Co. Waterford. With pedigree like that, we expect good things and, for the most part, we get them. The presentation is artful, every dish picture-perfect.
Tuna sashimi is super-fresh, as is scallop ceviche, although both dishes would have benefited from more oomph, more wasabi with the tuna, some citrus in the ceviche. Pot stickers - crisp chicken and scallion dumplings - have plenty of flavour, but the tempura batter on the squid is heavy.
Coincidentally, friends eating at the next table have lived in Hong Kong for 15 years.
They feel that the flavours have been dumbed-down for the Irish palate, and are unimpressed with the king prawn dumplings (known as Har Gau in HK), which they say suffer from a too-thick wrapper and an over-cooked filling - "A complete fail in Hong Kong terms".
From the 'hot' plates, the pork cheek with Vietnamese crab roll and crackling puffs is terrific, and we like the charred and peppered beef fillet with sticky rice, quail egg yolk and mustard cress. Another scallop dish, this time seared with watercress and black rice congee, is less successful, the texture grainy.
Kimchi and duck steamed buns are both excellent, once we manage to divide them - rather inelegantly - into four. Of the sides, bok choi is bland and watery, tempura broccoli okay, and the robustly flavoured aubergine with roasted garlic, chilli, coriander and teriyaki our favourite.
We drink a St Clair Gruner Veltliner from New Zealand (€39) that works well with the food.
Our total bill for four, including two bottles of wine and a tub of Nobu dairy-free ice cream (the only dessert option) is €199 before service.
My problem with Söder & Ko is that it's Scandi-Asian USP is naff. I'd prefer to see a serious chef such as Chan working somewhere that his food is the real star.
ON A BUDGET
A kimchi steamed bun and chicken pot stickers will set you back a tenner each.
ON A BLOWOUT
Cocktails to start, followed by five sharing plates and a side, plus a couple of steamed buns, Nobu dairy-free ice cream, and a bottle of Bollinger would cost €208 for two.
THE HIGH POINT
Kwanghai Chan's food is elegant, and the scallops in the ceviche were sweet and clearly very fresh. The food is well-priced for the level of complexity involved.
THE LOW POINT
There's no getting away from the fact that Söder & Ko still feels like a soulless bar.
8/10 value for money
Whispers from the gastronomicon
Dax is one of the classic Dublin restaurants, with excellent food and a loyal clientèle. Over the past 12 months, owner Olivier Meisonnave has quietly raised over €11,000 for the Dublin Simon Community with a donation of €2 added to every bill issued, and by hosting a fundraising dinner in the restaurant. Dax staff have also prepared and served barbecues for residents in some of Simon's high-support housing accommodation, and Meisonnave plans to continue his efforts over the coming year, with another barbecue scheduled for the Run for Simon fun run in the Phoenix Park in October.