Review: The flavours at hot new D8 spot Variety Jones are already near perfection
Variety Jones, 78 Thomas Street, Dublin 8. (01) 454 4976, varietyjones.ie
A chilly Saturday night in the middle of dry January and we are so desperate to get out of the house and have a glass of wine that my stooge phones Variety Jones to see if it's possible to advance the time of the booking that he made last month. Horror of horrors, they have no record of the reservation but say that they'll seat us at the bar whenever it suits us to show up.
This is a bad start. I arrive in a grump. (Apparently the trend towards bar seating and tall tables is driven by the fact that customers find sitting on a stool so uncomfortable that they are less likely to linger, ensuring quicker turnover for the restaurant. Occasionally - in the right place and, crucially, on the right stool - sitting up at the bar can be perfect, but it's not something that you want sprung upon you.)
The situation is rescued with charm by Vanda Ivancic, Variety Jones' sommelier, a familiar face from Luna, where chef Keelan Higgs also worked. Hugh Higgins, another Luna veteran, is in the open kitchen alongside Higgs; all appears calm. (Variety Jones, by the by, is the pseudonym of a nice chap that Higgs' father met in Thailand, who later turned out to be a key figure associated with the dark web.)
The menu is concise, with the appearance of having been typed on an old Smith Corona and Gestetner-ed, and geared towards family-style sharing rather than the traditional starter/main course/dessert format. The plan is for it - and the wine list - to change frequently. Some of the food is cooked over burning ash in an open hearth, a 'trend' that's of course as old as the hills but now back in fashion, along with cooking over flame and in wood-fired ovens. The flavours that result can be magnificent.
Tonight's snacks are Gerry O'Halloran's Flaggy Shore oysters (from where the Burren Hills meet Galway Bay) - salty and sweet, they come with a Vietnamese dressing and finely diced cucumber - and crisp shells of Jerusalem artichoke skin filled with a rich, cheesy (I think it was mature Coolea) goo (technical term). Both impeccable.
A plate of grilled cauliflower (it should have been cooked for slightly longer), burnt yeast, trout, brown butter and fish roe is so full of flavour that we plead for spoons for the sauce, and are rewarded with two decorous slices of a seeded Danish rye made in-house, while Comté ravioli that burst joyously in the mouth are like an Irish version of soup dumplings. They, and the hearth-roasted and pickled mushrooms, in a savoury mushroom broth, are exquisite.
And then a whole sole, grilled on the hearth to that exact point that teeters on the brink, meatily perfect, accompanied by an "old school" mussel and cockle sauce with butter, cream and herbs, and a warm potato and smoked eel salad that is beyond the beyond in terms of flavour. Cavolo nero grilled over ashes is a revelation, slightly crisp, smoky, and utterly delicious.
Cheeses are in excellent condition. There's Monte Enebro, mature Coolea and a blue that's made from a mixture of sheep's and cow's milk that I need to find the name of so that I can eat it again. Soon. The sheets of seeded cracker made in-house are carta di musica thin.
By way of dessert, a dark Jamaica cake with caramelised pineapple, vanilla and coconut cream set off with the aromatic bite of Sarawak pepper. It's sophisticated, not too sweet, and just right.
Our bill for two, with a bottle of Viña Ilusión 2017 (€35), a light, modern Rioja that doesn't overpower the fish, comes to €147.50 before service. The wine list is cleverly curated, well priced and geared towards minimal intervention.
Higgs' cooking is unashamedly focused on flavour and it's outstanding. The room would benefit from some finishing touches - somewhere to hang the coats other than on the backs of the chairs would be good, and I wouldn't want to sit at the first table by the door on a chilly night - but the food is nigh on perfect already. I can't wait to go back. I might even sit at the bar.
ON A BUDGET
Hearth-grilled vegetables with barley and curds costs €13.
ON A BLOW-OUT
Snacks, foie gras and chicken liver parfait, ravioli, venison loin with celeriac and wild mushrooms, cheese and dessert - all to share - will set you back €123.50 before wine or service.
THE HIGH POINT
Seriously good cooking in an area that needed a proper restaurant.
THE LOW POINT
A reservation near-miss.