Will Travel for Food
Dining in Dublin
Ireland is not at the top of most lists of culinary bliss. When my wife and I travel, we mostly choose places with great food and impressive local wines. When I told our friends we were heading for Ireland, most were pretty surprised. "No wine and terrible food," they said. Truth be known, I wasn't expecting much. I'd heard the stories about plates filled with potatoes and bland, boiled meat. So I joined in on the Irish food-bashing. Now that I've been there, I am prepared to eat my words, as long as I can wrap them in Irish pub-grub and down them with some Irish Ale.
Based on a recommendation in 2000 Michelin Red Guide to Great Britain and Ireland, we decided to stay at the Aston Hotel overlooking the Liffey River (7-9 Aston Quay, Dublin 2; Tel: 01-677-9300; Fax: 01-677-9007). Besides the welcome $80-a-night rate, it is located at the Austin equivalent of Congress and Sixth. We arrived too late to go to a big dinner, so we asked the hotel person to recommend a place close by. Without hesitation, she suggested a place called Oliver St. John Gogarty's (Angelsea Street and Temple Bar; 01-671-1822). As we strolled along Temple Bar, we were struck by how similar it is to Sixth Street. Lots of people, clubs, restaurants, and pubs. The moment we walked into Gogarty's, I was sold. A lively bar with lots of happy people drinking good ale (mostly Guinness), the warmth against the cold rainy weather, and a four-piece Irish band sitting at a table playing for change. One floor up was another bar with a stage and music. The top floor had a restaurant. All three floors were crammed, totally packed. No places to sit, stand, eat, drink, or listen. Somewhat discouraged, we left and went to the Elephant and Castle (18 Temple Bar, Dublin 2; 01-679-3121). Great chips, but notable mainly for being much cleaner, less crowded, and particularly uninspiring.
The next afternoon, we made it back to Oliver St. John Gogarty's for lunch, and it was everything we had hoped. The bar was covered with a buffet of tasty homemade soups, tons of veggies, rare roast beef, fish and chips, sundry desserts, and fresh breads. Beautifully prepared, generously served, and cheap ($8). And beer, glorious beer. The best I've ever had anywhere in my life. Perhaps it's time to admit a personal idiosyncrasy: I like other brews more than Guinness. That is not a popular belief in Ireland, where you hear "Guinness is good for you!" as often as we hear "You deserve a break today." But I just fell head-over-heels in love with the malty, un-bitter Smithwick Ale from Kilkenny. And talk about strong! A couple of pints and I was through for the day. But the surroundings were so magical that sitting there, just slightly tipped, listening to the music and watching the locals go about their lives was like being in an enchanted dream.
The next day, we found our way to a wonderful restaurant. Jacob's Ladder (4-5 Nassau Street, Dublin 02; Tel: 01-670-3865; Fax: 01-670-3868) is a sleek and sophisticated upstairs eatery right across the street from Trinity College, about a 10-minute walk from our hotel. We chose this restaurant because the Michelin Guide gave it a Bib Gourmand rating, signifying that it will offer good value and serve carefully prepared meals. Michelin is almost as stingy with this rating as they are with stars, and I'm a big fan of good value. The cuisine here is cutting-edge contemporary, made with fresh local ingredients, presented with French finesse but owing allegiance to no country other than Ireland. On the night we went, their prix fixe dinner ($28) included a tasty, light Artichoke Soup With Wild Mushrooms and Chives. Even better was the Braised Shin of Beef With Brandy, Prunes, Parsnips, and Truffle Mash, a rich concoction with intense beef flavors married to the sweet prunes and parsnips. From their regular menu, I loved the Fillet of Beef with Wild Mushroom Ravioli and Red Wine Sauce ($22). Add to this a brilliant wine list and fair (for the quality) prices ($100 for two with wine). We loved it.
During our time in Dublin, we only had one bad meal, at a self-professed temple of gastronomy called Thornton's (1 Portobello Road, Dublin D8; Tel: 01-454-99067; Fax: 01-453-2947). $300 for three of us and it was awful!! Each dish tasted like it had a three tablespoons of salt in it. I imagined a totally pissed-off chef on his last night deciding to stick it to the customers and the owner. I can't visualize any other reason for such terrible food. Add snooty, faux-French service as a further disincentive.
Everywhere else we ate was superb. The reason? We discovered the secret: Unless you are just desperate for a fancy meal, stick with the real deal -- pub grub. Look for pubs jammed to the gills with people and live with the wait for a table. The reason to travel is to experience other cultures. Pub-crawling in Dublin gets you right in the thick of things. Sit at a bar, strike up a conversation, and meet some of the nicest people in the world.