Sunday 25 February 2018

Taste at Rustic: 'Let the food do the talking and don't make it so damn pompous'

Taste at Rustic, 17 Sth Gt George's Street, Dublin 2. (01) 707-9596

Taste at Rustic
Taste at Rustic
Cafe Rua in Castlebar.

Katy McGuinness

It's the guts of a decade since Dylan McGrath was wowing us at Mint in Ranelagh, winning a Michelin star there for daring, brilliant, expensive food, along with a reputation for being shouty in the kitchen.

But Mint is long gone. McGrath's re-invention started at Rustic Stone and I was one of the naysayers who said that getting the customers to cook their own food would never catch on. (I got that wrong.) At Rustic, Dylan gave us a menu that ticked all the clean-eating, paleo-friendly boxes, and was a first for Dublin. Then came Fade Street Social, which I liked from the outset (I got that right), and where the food can be dazzling. It doesn't take itself too seriously, the cocktails are great, and the place is fun and good value.

And now we have Taste at Rustic, which is a return to intense, cheffy form for McGrath. You need to give your credit card details to secure a booking; no-shows are a big problem these days, and it's an understandable move, though off-putting for some. Taste is located two floors above Rustic; there's a bar sandwiched in between. We were shown to a 'nice table' down the back in the corner. Now, I like exposed brick as much as the next person, but staring at a wall of it for the night didn't appeal and so we requested a move to the bar, so that we could watch the chefs - many, many serene chefs - at work.

For my money there's way too much wordage on the menu at Taste, which is a pity. It gets in the way of the food. Dylan (there's a photo of him looking deep into your soul on the inside front cover of the menu, and a girl in ecstasy, presumably brought on by the food, on the inside back) describes what Taste is all about: "The idea is to explore the five tastes. I hope you will experience them in a subtle way and understand the difference between flavour and taste. Most of us are very familiar with the first four [sweet, salt, bitter and sour], but it's in recent years that Japanese cooking has introduced us more to the fifth taste - umami." After that introduction, there's a paragraph describing each of the five tastes, followed by two pages of text on the topic of 'Omakase' - a Japanese phrase meaning 'I'll leave it to you'. (In other words, the set menus, priced from €39 for a five-course option, to €70 for a six-course version featuring lobster.)

Our waiter was keen that, as it was our first visit, we try one of these Omakase - and perhaps he was right - but we dug our heels in as we'd already spotted must-have items dotted through the further nine pages of the menu. Each dish is helpfully labelled according to taste category (sweet, sour, etc) and also with nutritional key symbols along the lines of those at Rustic downstairs. The 'R' symbol indicates that a dish is recommended by Dylan. "Does he not recommend them all?" wonders my companion. Anyway, be sure to bring your reading glasses.

And so to the food. The sushi was wonderful. Kabayaki eel glazed with tare sauce and toasted sesame seeds, native prawn with a sweet lobster butter, sea bass torched with black smoked bacon and truffle, tuna akami marinated in soya sauce, John Dory with lime, fatty tuna with spring onion and parmesan, and scallop with roasted garlic and black garlic purée. Each more delicious than the last, subtle and super-fresh. Then crispy soft shell crab maki, the crustacean's little legs sticking up enticingly out of the nori-wrapped rice. So far so good. Lobster tataki - blanched lobster meat with ginger, lardo crudo, olive oil and ponzu jelly, was gorgeous to behold but too sweet for my palate (my fault, I'd missed the 'sweet' label).

Main courses disappointed. Wagyu flank from the grill had, according to the menu, been prepared Japanese-style, "poached at low temperature, cooked over white Japanese charcoal, flat like the Peruvian Antichuchos and then served on charred coal for better flavour…" ho hum. The meat arrived on a skewer with a little counter-top charcoal grill on which to cook it further. I struggled to cut it into smaller pieces (the meat was tough) and did cook it a little more but there was a strong back taste that I didn't like, and most of it went untouched. A replacement tasted the same. Wagyu has a high fat content that usually gives a luxurious mouth-feel but this did not. Our other main course was fine but dull: pieces of part-cooked salmon and baby vegetables to be cooked further - nabemono-style - in a bubbling pot of broth. McGrath excels when it comes to the sweet stuff and our two desserts were a joy. Doughnut sticks cooked in coconut oil with black salt, sake ice cream, and a salted miso dipping sauce, and smoked Japanese cheesecake with soya caramel, fresh banana, salted caramel and frozen popcorn ice cream were inventive and exciting.

With two sides, our food bill came to €111.50, and we were not charged for that disappointing steak. We tried two types of sake, a peach sake cocktail, and had three glasses of wine, and our total bill came to €179.50 before service.

On a budget

Six pieces of chef's selection nigiri sushi costs €16.

On a blowout

You can spend a lot of money at Taste without having to try too hard. Miso broth, followed by half a dozen pieces of nigiri sushi each, some blow-torched scallops and wild Atlantic salmon sashimi, and a shared lobster main course, plus dessert, would come to €174 for two before drinks.

The high point

Fabulous sushi, the best in Dublin. And desserts. Wonderful desserts.

The low point

Too many words on the menu. Let the food do the talking and don't make it so damn pompous.

The rating

7/10 food

7/10 ambience

6/10 value for money


Whispers from the gastronomicon

Cafe Rua in Castlebar (pictured) is celebrating its 20th anniversary as an independent family-run business, and over the weekend of November 6-8, the McMahon family has lined up a programme of events to mark the occasion. Friday dinner will be served in the original cafe on New Antrim Street, with a menu composed by original chef Ann McMahon. On Sunday the students of local school St Joseph's will hold a fundraising cake sale in the Spencer Street cafe. Everyone who eats in the cafe, or shops in the delicatessen on that weekend, will be entered in a draw to win one of 20 Rua hampers.

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