Northside tale: The Woollen Mills on Dublin's quays
41-42 Lower Ormonde Quay, Dublin 1. Tel. (01) 828 0835
There are shop fronts that become icons, simply by virtue of being there for many years.
The Woollen Mills on Dublin's quays is a case in point. When I first came to Dublin as a teenager it was already there, just where the Ha'penny Bridge hits the north side of the river. I used to walk the length of Bachelor's Walk when it was stuffed with auction houses, looking for bargains, and the Woollen Mills marked the end of my auction house searches.
A shop front as iconic as this isn't going to disappear, nor indeed will the name. The guys who brought you The Winding Stair have taken over the building and it's still called The Woollen Mills. With The Winding Stair looking after the food, you can't help but feel a little optimistic when you go there to eat - for years now it's been one of Dublin centre's better restaurants.
I was there to meet Michael Colgan, impresario and director of the Gate Theatre. By now The Caretaker will have started its run, the first time he's produced a Pinter play without the man himself beside him for valuable advice. Funny to think it was back in 1994 when I took part in the first Pinter Festival, playing the waiter in Betrayal.
Anyway, Michael was already there when I arrived, sitting at a table upstairs as all the downstairs tables were filled. Now I don't really want to begin on a negative note, but making your customers feel comfortable on arrival really is part of the job.
No exaggeration then when I tell you that the chairs were instruments of torture, probably sourced from a surplus in Guantanamo Bay.
I do understand that if you want a quick turnaround you need chairs that won't allow your customers to linger, but chairs that are instantly uncomfortable can't be a good idea. As a further punishment, the chairs had a tubular bar some six inches high at the back - exactly the right height to bite firmly into your kidneys if you tried leaning back. And one last niggle. 'Spartan' would be a good word to describe the décor. Plain wooden tables, chairs you know about, wooden floors and tables closely spaced. That adds up to a loud room, full of echoes from hard surfaces. I checked my decibel app and found the noise the room was peaking at 105 decibels, which is loud. We were able to talk by leaning over the table, but had we been four, it would have been a lot more difficult.
The menu, as you'd expect, is interesting. The fish section on the all-day menu reads very well: fried whitebait with wasabi mayo €6; a tin of Ortiz anchovies; too much Cuinneog Farmhouse butter, potato sourdough toast, shallots, capers and lemon €10; mussel and leek pâté with toasted rye €10; chargrilled squid, watermelon, peanuts, lime and chilli, rocket €11.
There was also mackerel smokies with cherry tomatoes, crème fraiche, spring onion, smoked Drumlin cheese with a mixed beetroot salad and toast €14; curried crab claws on toast with samphire €16; black sole tongues deep fried with saffron mayo and caper berries €16; Roaring Bay rope mussels with Liberties Ale, soured cream, herbs, sourdough, fennel mayo €16; and Howth cod wrapped in Connemara ham, kale, cherry tomatoes, olives, caper and fennel salsa, purple crushed potatoes €24.
But just as important as a menu that reads well, it needs to translate into good food on the plate. As this was lunch for us, rather a lingering dinner, we chose simply. I started with a ham hock and Michael began with a vegetable soup and a mozzarella sandwich, an enormous thing made with sourdough bread that would damp the appetite of even a trencherman. There was too much even for Michael.
The ham hock came to me topped with a poached free-range egg, which was perfectly cooked. The hock had been pulled off the bone and was served on top of vegetables and new potatoes. It worked well as a simple dish, the kind you might get in a pub, but it didn't leave me wowed.
What did wow me was the wine we ordered. Michael ordered us a Pinot Grigio, not one of my favourite grapes, well, not until this wine arrived at the table. It was from Roberta Fugatti and it was priced at €7.25 a glass. It completely restored my faith in Pinot Grigio, giving me a full mouth feel with a crisp and clean aftertaste.
The other thing liked about the wine list was the number of wines available by the glass, and even better, here was a wine list that offers a Manzanilla sherry, a wonderfully dry and salty wine from San Lucar called La Goya.
On the dessert menu was an entry called 'treats', which was a small version of all the desserts on a plate made for sharing. Perfect, we ordered one of those.
The treats turned out to be five tasters, a chocolate sour cream cake, a ricotta and berry tart, a mulled wine poached pear and almond tart, dark chocolate and orange baked cheesecake, and a dairy-free carrot cake. These were probably the best bit of the lunch, all well-made and good to eat.
We finished up with a couple of Americanos for Michael and an espresso for me, which brought us bill for €79.92, which included a 10pc service charge, something I haven't seen for a while.
On a budget
Breakfast is very well priced - for example, there's seven different buns and cakes running from €1.95 to €4.95 for cake and coffee. Sunday brunch also looks good, the Ha'penny fry-up is yours for €13.
On a blowout
Most of the main courses on the all-day menu are priced in the low teens, except for the rib-eye steak, which is priced at €26.
No doubt here. The desserts were the best thing we ate.
I wasn't impressed with the pulled ham hock, it just looked a little clumsy on the plate.
Value for money 7/10
Whispers from the gastronomicon
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