When you're a restaurant critic, there's no danger of being stuck for small talk in the company of people who have an opinion about food. And that's just about everyone. Everyone wants to know about the new places that you've visited, in the hope of being tipped off ahead of the posse. They want to be warned away from establishments that they should avoid at all costs. And even people who aren't that interested in food want suggestions for a family gathering, a business lunch or a birthday dinner.
Twitter is where chefs and proper eaters tend to hang out. (Instagram is more for the clean eating brigade.) It's the tool that food folk use to navigate a new town, city or country; the place to which they turn when they want to find somewhere good to eat on a Monday, for instance, or where they can bring their own wine. Their blood runs cold at the prospect of wasting the opportunity to eat a good meal, so Twitter really comes into its own for foodies on holiday. Eating a mediocre meal when you could have had something wonderful around the corner is something that shouldn't happen when you do your research properly.
A determination to seek out the best meal wherever you are is, of course, an approach that has its downsides, as my family will attest. Traipsing around Florence in the rain trying to find a restaurant (Mario's), on a street that had mysteriously disappeared from Google maps, is one that they remind me of from time to time. "Ah, yes," I say. "But it was worth it. Remember that bistecca fiorentina?" And they do.
So when I come across people on Twitter looking for recommendations of places to eat in Dublin, I participate in the flurry of concerted activity determined to ensure that they will eat well. It's a matter of pride, really. I don't want visitors coming to Ireland and eating in chain restaurants, or in lazy establishments that suck in the tourists regardless of the quality of their food offering just because of their fortuitous location on the main drags. Have you noticed that there are certain restaurants in Dublin that in which no Irish person ever seems to have eaten? Yes, thought so.
The place where I tell everyone to go to is Etto. There are many terrific places to eat in Dublin at the moment. But the one that I keep coming back to is Etto. And everyone that I have ever sent there has agreed that it is wonderful. It's inevitable that as word of its charms has spread, it's no longer quite the insider secret that it was when it first opened three years ago. The clientèle is a little more mainstream, which is a good thing in terms of restaurant longevity, but in its essence Etto remains as personable as it ever was. Simon Barrett and Liz Matthews are the owners, and they have surrounded themselves with a great team, people who share a collective hospitality gene and want their customers to have a good time.
I recommend sitting at the bar and starting with a sherry, some smoked almonds and a bowl of nocellara olives. Then perhaps moving to a table for suppli (deep-fried balls of rice with, perhaps, smoked mozzarella and tomato) and hake and leek croquettes. Then starters, perhaps summery asparagus with house ricotta and chestnut mushrooms, or deeply-rich roast duck hearts with romesco and grilled calçots (I had to ask too, they are a type of spring onion), and beef carpaccio with pickled mushrooms and Parmesan. Or, best of all, a perfect plate of smoked eel, beetroot, burrata and horseradish. For mains, a soupy, intensely flavoursome bowl of mussels, nduja, leek and samphire, and the simple essence of spring in a plate of nettle gnocchi, broad beans and peas, topped with a crisp egg. And then the cote de boeuf that has become as much of a signature dish as Etto's famed malfatti dumplings, served with bordelaise and garlic potatoes. The sides should not be passed by (hashed potatoes and Lyonnaise onions, kohlrabi, chervil and caper salad, chargrilled broccoli draped with lardo di Colonnata) and neither should the red wine prunes with vanilla mascarpone. There will be riots if those are ever taken off the menu, although the bitter chocolate pot with amarena cherries and hazelnut biscuit is pretty damn good also. A taste of appenzeller and fourme d'ambert cheeses and, sadly, the meal is over, although there's wine to finish and no pressure to move on. There were five of us, but the bill for two eating on this scale, including a bottle of the Marzemino (only 12pc ABV and my current favourite wine), would come to about €150 before service. Reading back, I realise that this review sounds like a love letter. And I suppose that it is. A love letter to my favourite restaurant.
ON A BUDGET
Mid-week, have soup and a sandwich for a tenner, or the worker's lunch for €14. A two/three course lunch is €20/€25, and the pre-theatre menu is €24/€28.
ON A BLOW OUT
You could run up a bill of €100 per head if you had nibbles, followed by starters, that cote de boeuf, sides, desserts and cheese, and a serious bottle of red.
THE HIGH POINT
It's all good.
THE LOW POINT
The fear of missing out on the cote de boeuf when a large party ordered six. Thankfully, there was one left.
9/10 value for money
I'm hearing good things about Forest & Marcy, the new restaurant from John Wyer and Sandy Sabek, the couple behind Forest Avenue. It's only been open a couple of weeks, so I won't be visiting just yet, but I've had a look at the menu and am looking forward to eating Ciaran Sweeney's food again. I reviewed his Sunday evening pop-up in Forest Avenue a few months back and was properly impressed. Forest & Marcy is located in the spot that was formerly home to Rigby's at 126 Leeson St Upper. Walk-ins only. forestandmarcy.ie