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Town Friar gets a good grilling

The other day I attended a food photography seminar, if that's not too grandiose a title for what was essentially a friendly gathering of peers. The gig was organised by the Irish Food Bloggers Association, of which I am now a member. Though my personal food and drink website www.forkncork.com has been up-and-running for almost 10 years, it's only recently I realised I am a de facto blogger. On making contact with the IFBA, I was astonished to find that it has 400 members -- that's 400 people blathering on the internet about food in Ireland. It was an interesting and informative day out, fronted up by the energetic and immensely likeable Donal Skehan.

So I'm now a fully paid-up member of The Blogging Tendency, dutifully following said Corkman's advice to integrate my blog with the social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. It was on the Facebook page of another blogger and ex-colleague Aoife Carrigy (you might like www.holymackerel.ie ) that I became aware of a new restaurant, The Whitefriar Grill, who were having a 'soft opening'.


A 'soft opening' means that the restaurant opens up a few days in advance of admitting the public, hosting dinner to a clientele comprising largely of relatives and cronies. This allows the restaurant to fine tune its operation and its menu in advance of the 'hard' opening. Restaurant critics are usually kept away from such events.

Chef proprietor is Geoff Nordell, who sweated in the kitchens of a number of prominent Dublin restaurants, before opening the Whitefriar -- the third restaurant to occupy the premises. Darwins, brainchild of butcher Michael Smith, traded there for a few years before moving across the road. Latterly, the building has been home to Conrad Gallagher's Salon des Saveurs until it was done in by a combination of being out of kilter with the times and, I suspect, Conrad's idiosyncratic version of restaurant economics.

I found the new decor, pale shades and areas of exposed brick, curiously startling after the bordello reds and purples favoured by both previous occupants. It's certainly easier on the eye. Calgers, my guest, scented a Parisian vibe. Being from Vancouver I'm not sure he's exactly qualified to judge. To me it had that low-key neutrality (think L'Gueuleton, think Coppinger Row, think Seagrass) that said "We are going to let the food do the talking". And talk it did.


Straight off, I bullied Calgers into taking the twice-baked Mount Callan cheese soufflé as I'm a huge fan of this cheese, being of the opinion that it's the only Irish farmhouse cheddar to come within touching distance of the best of the English ones, especially in texture. My guest opted for a 'tapas' approach, taking three starters. He followed up the souffle with a genuinely heroic gambas pil-pil and a smoked haddock and potato gratin, that came with creme fraiche spiked up with lemon and chives.

I toyed with the bone marrow with oxtail marmalade before selecting the seared calamari salad, tasty, melt-in-the-mouth squid beautifully and sensibly teamed with a chilli and orange gremolata, no gloop here. For my main course, I ordered the slow-cooked rabbit and was glad, lovely rib-sticking generous fare. You will see by this stage that Geoff's cooking is liberally laced with imagination.

We just about managed dessert. I took the cheese plate, an Irish selection in peak condition; Calgers, the Eton Mess -- a dessert that seemed to have insinuated itself into the national repertoire. One of the best, he said. Espressos were on the right side of acceptable.

So far as the wines were concerned, there's a short but eclectic list. The stocked bottles range from €19 to €45, which seems very fair, but I have to say the very average Rueda we had was priced OTT at €28. Overall, though, this is a very decent little bistro offering cooking with flair, from righteous, well-sourced ingredients and a high, though not overly formal, standard of service. It's the kind of restaurant Dublin can do with more of.