It's tough for young chefs to open their own places in Dublin these days, with key money, unsustainable rents and staff shortages just some of the obstacles standing in their way. But for his first Dublin restaurant, Niall Davidson has neatly side-stepped some of these heartaches by partnering with Singaporean investors Peng Lik Loh and Dr Stanley Quek and installing his new Allta - a 'wine bar with food' - in a brand new extension to their recently refurbished Trinity Townhouse boutique hotel on South Frederick Street. (Loh and Quek were both educated in Dublin and also own Sheen Falls Lodge in Co Kerry.)
The entrance to Allta is on Setanta Place, beside the car park; inside, it's a cool, modern, high-ceilinged room with a few tables for four to the front, the twos at the back and one high communal table in the centre. The chefs in the kitchen are visible through an internal window. Davidson comes from a family of architects in Derry and to say that he took a hands-on approach to the design of the 'experiential' venue - from the (perfect-height and super-comfortable, yay!) stools at the central table to the vintage sound system and hand-crafted ceramics - would be an understatement. It's as sophisticated a space as you'd find in any city anywhere in the world.
But even though Allta calls itself a wine bar, it's really a restaurant - and a good one. For one thing, the menu - other than the house-made charcuterie - is not typical wine-bar fare. Sure, there is a decent (though pricey) selection of wines by the (small 125ml) glass and some space is kept for walk-ins, but it feels as if it would be risky to pitch up without a reservation.
We kick off with creamy oysters from Cromane Bay in Co Kerry (the mural on the wall is of the oyster farmer) topped with a granita-like rhubarb vinegar, and delectable tranches of crisp skate wing in a tempura-style batter, with a seaweed cream for dipping. The bread, made with heritage Ølands wheat grown in Ireland, has a brilliant chewy crust and comes with an extraordinary shiitake miso butter that I could eat by the bowlful.
The smoked Gubbeen cappelletti in a grilled maitake (crazy-looking fronded mushrooms) brodo - a dish that nods to John Wyer's signature agnolotti at Forest Avenue, where chef Hugh Higgins used to work - is sensational. Every restaurant has to have an Instagram dish and at Allta it's spider-crab bigoli, perfect strands of fresh pasta in a rich bisque made even richer by the perfect confit egg at its centre. Grilled broccoli comes with a creamy goat's curd cut with the tang of pickled green tomato - great flavours but a stingy portion for €11.50. The dish of the night - and of my year so far - is scallop with gooseberry beurre blanc and hazelnut, but there's miso in there too, and celeriac and kohlrabi, and perhaps seaweed too (Davidson, who is on the floor, speaks fast) and what's left at the end is the most divine umami-rich broth I think I have ever tasted.
The chicken scarpinocc (pasta shaped like an old-fashioned wooden shoe) is the only dud dish. In comparison to everything that has preceded it, it feels crude, unsubtle, the texture of the chicken liver unpleasant, the malt vinegar gel failing to redeem. The crisp chicken skin on top is nice, but when is it ever not?
We finish with a fun 'Nitro' milk ice-cream with white chocolate, smoked honey and the sharpness of sea buckthorn - the only dessert - that doesn't take itself too seriously. We love it.
Our bill for three, with a 500ml carafe of the underwhelming Francesco de Filippis' skin contact vin naturo (€38) and a bottle of the 100pc cabernet franc Domaine des Coutures Saumur-Champigny 2014 (at €50 one of the lowest-priced bottles on the list) comes to €200.50 before service. I suspect that some of the portions delivered to our table may have been larger than those going to other customers - an occupational hazard - it felt like a lot of food.
I like Allta; it feels different for Dublin, in a good way. It's very much its own place.
ON A BUDGET
Two 125ml glasses of wine and a shared charcuterie plate will cost €27.50 before service.
ON A BLOW OUT
The 'table menu' is priced at €49.50. With the €45 wine pairing, dinner for two with water will cost €192 before service.
THE HIGH POINT
The scallops. Wow.
A brilliant dish that will get the Michelin inspectors excited.
THE LOW POINT
Wine prices are steep.