If you ever had a dream to open a restaurant of your own, you are probably now thanking your lucky stars that it never became a reality. But our independent restaurateurs are a resilient bunch, and the best of them have shown an ability to adapt, survive and even thrive in the face of a level of adversity that none of them could have envisaged, in the hope of making it out the other side. And so they've opened shops, offered takeaways and meal kits, and invested in retro-fitting to get their doors open.
Andy Noonan of Baste may not have called himself a restaurateur pre-Covid, but he is one now. At the forefront of low 'n' slow cooking in Ireland, Noonan is the organiser of The Big Grill festival that takes place in Herbert Park each summer, bringing together pit-folk from around the world. (Last year, Clanbrassil House's Gráinne O'Keefe collaborated with Black Axe Mangal's Lee Tiernan to create a brilliant dish of beef with hash brown fried, ginger and chilli salsa and anchovy mayo that was one of the best things I ate in 2019.)
A couple of months back, Noonan began offering click-and-collect boxes of barbecued meats, made with free-range meat and poultry. And now, in a disused car lot near Harold's Cross Bridge, he's opened Baste, an open-air barbecue restaurant that's the kind of place we all want to eat in right now and which the powers that be in Dublin City Council should be doing their utmost to facilitate.
We are booked in for the second sitting of Nick Reynolds' Lil Portie event, which starts at 6.30pm. The outdoor tables and seating made out of packing crates turn out to be surprisingly comfortable and are well spaced.
Lil Portie has been running as a pop-up serving Caribbean food for a couple of years now and Nick was on the verge of taking a lease for a permanent home when the pandemic hit. Some of the recipes on tonight's menu come from his Jamaican grandmother. We start with tender Cuban chicken wings, simple and fresh, marinated in orange, lime, garlic and zest, served with a garnish of pineapple and chow chow - a type of gourd - and toasted coconut. Alongside is a Peruvian sauce of jalapeño, honey and spring onion that comes over all gentle and innocent initially and then bites you on the ass. (The idea, says Reynolds, who is on a mission to educate us about the difference between spiced food and spicy food, is to trick the brain into thinking you like spice, so you get sharpness first, then sweetness, and then - when you've been seduced - heat. In Mexican and Indian food, which we are more used to in Ireland, the spice is more immediate.)
The main course is shoulder of pork: brined overnight with dried lime, slices of orange and coriander seed, then rubbed with pimento, cinnamon, nutmeg and palm sugar and smoked for 10 hours. Reynolds dices the crackling and sprinkles it on top to make little bombs of delicious fat that melt on the tongue. There's also 'proper jerk' chicken, marinated for 24 hours before he cooks it over a mix of pimento wood and Irish whiskey barrels. There's also red cabbage cured in cane-sugar vinegar, coconut milk and avocado, rice and beans from his grandmother's recipe and her scotch bonnet sauce that should be approached with extreme caution. Dessert is a taste of gorgeous mango and chilli ice-cream in a light biscuit shell.
Our meal costs €50 a head, but generally dinner is €40, including a €10 advance deposit. The price includes corkage - customers are welcome to bring their own drinks - and each sitting lasts for two hours. A guest turn from Gaz Smith of Michael's, a vegan night with Reynolds (who is also planning to cook a whole pig wrapped in banana leaves in an underground pit from a recipe dating back to 1838), and a whole lamb cooked on an Argentinian asador are some of the special events in the works.
ON A BUDGET
Take away smoked chicken in a brioche bun with a side of slaw or potato salad for €13.50.
ON A BLOWOUT
Dinner costs €40pp including a €10pp booking deposit.
THE HIGH POINT
Great cooking from Nick Reynolds of Lil Portie, top-quality ingredients and an outdoor space that's perfect for pandemic dining.
THE LOW POINT
There aren't more places like Baste around Ireland.