Saturday, August 28, 2010

Dillinger's, Ranelagh, Dublin

A low key family celebration brought myself and four fellow family members to this newish Ranelagh establishment. A far cry from its predecessor, the Michelin stared (and priced) Mint, Dillinger's has a laidback, casual feel and recession friendly prices to go with.

Having checked out the menu online before we went, it looked exciting with strong New York/French Bistro influences. Arriving there, it was a bit of a let down though with some of the features missing-clearly the website’s menu is out of date. The menu was heavy on rehashed versions of dishes we have been offered for years in eateries like Tribeca (its close neighbour) and other similar establishments in the Grafton Street/Temple Bar areas of town. I was so uninspired by the menu that I went straight a main course, ordering the pork belly salad with chilli fried French beans, sesame and soy. Three starters were ordered: the Manhattan clam chowder with smoked haddock; the whipped goats cheese salad with roast squash, beetroot, honey truffle dressing and the calamari with spicy tomato salsa, garlic mayo and lemon wedges. The respective recipients were all pleased with their choices, with little complaint. The declaration on the chowder was that it had too many vegetables and potato and not enough liquid. This made it too heavy and filling for a starter course. However the broth that was there was delicious (I had a taste and can testify) and all slurped up. One word of advice though-those who like their chowders thick and creamy will be disappointed. The goats’ cheese salad was also oversized for a starter portion. Served with two thick wedges of ciabatta, the beautiful light but sharp cheese would have been better complimented by some crunchy crostini. The calamari, ordered by one who does not usually touch anything that swims was thoroughly enjoyed. This may have been helped by the fact that it was cooked perfectly in a delicate but crisp batter and came topped with plenty of garlic mayonnaise-a particular favourite of the fish phobic. Again, the plate could have been shared between two or three anticipating a main course.

For mains other than my pork, we had one 'Nachos Grande', one 12 oz Hereford striploin with garlic and herb butter served with duck fat roast potatoes, one sweet and sour sticky chicken with butternut squash and one salmon fillet and Dublin Bay prawn paella special. Mine was very tasty. The pork was fatty and moist but salty, brown and crisp on top. It was slightly overdone but not so that it took away from the dish as a whole. The pork was served warm over roast French beans and butternut squash. The sesame and soy dressing were unidentifiable but the 'chilli fried' aspect of the description made a more featured appearance than expected with actual chilli mince in the dish. It was all very good, but to nit pick the vegetables could have spent less time in the oven and been a bit more alive. The nachos were pretty non descript, but then when have we seen nachos any other way but with the usual combination of guacamole, sour cream, tomato salsa and grated cheese? I await the innovative kitchen that does something to spruce up this same-old, same-old tired dish. The steak looked and was pronounced delicious, perfectly cooked and seared on the outside, nice and pink on the inside. The potatoes could not be faulted, and were imaginatively served alongside in a little dish with blobs of sundried tomato paste. The chicken was plentiful and a real winner. A simple dish that could be easily imitated but that is not to take away from its success. The paella was enjoyed but could not be finished after the chowder starter. A strange concept to the purist, putting salmon with paella which would usually be associated with meat and shellfish but it seemed to work.

However the real winner of the meal was the side of French fries our youngest diner ordered. Brought to the table straight from the chip pan they were hot, and in a deep heated bowl remained so for quite some time. They, of the rustic kind (skin still visible), were medium cut, crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. I am not the biggest chip connoisseur but cannot rate them highly enough. Even when they went cold, eventually, they were still great.

The dessert menu was pretty dull but then again maybe I am being over critical. The aim here is to keep the punters happy with tried and tested favourites. And to get a simple classic wrong in a restaurant is a big no no, so it does perhaps raise the bar. As an experimental home cook however, I like to see some creativity and experience new texture and flavour combinations when I eat out. Anyway this did not put me off enough to refuse dessert (sure I had to try for reporting purposes...). I had been looking forward to the key lime pie as it’s not a dessert we see often this side of the Atlantic, but alas it was not on offer. I went for the New York style baked cheesecake which was as expected, perfectly done-creamy in the centre and slightly more done around the edges. Plenty of real vanilla, freshly scraped from the pod sang through making for a sweet and mellow satisfying dessert. It was topped with a few bits of dark bitter chocolate which gave it a slight, but appreciated twist. Two crème brulees were also had. Crème brulee is crème brulee and the perfect sweet finish to any meal when done correctly. Here it was served with a scoop of berry sorbet. The fish phobic is also has a berry paranoia so that caused some distress but the whole dessert was not rejected altogether, which is usually the case, so that must be a good sign.

A phrase coined from many a school report, Dillinger’s ‘could try harder’. I don’t think it quite reaches its potential but it does have some great things going for it and deserves a chance. Go for the classics, burger, steak etc and don’t miss those French fries. Share starters and don’t miss dessert if you like a good classic.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Cafe Paradiso, Cork City

By 9pm last Saturday night, myself and my five fellow diners had built up an appetite walking around Cork city all day. As we had two vegetarians among us, I had the inspiration to bring them to Cafe Paradiso, a well known and established foodie haunt. Being from Dublin and only having had the chance to visit on one previous occasion several years ago, I had delicious flavour memories and was excited to return. Oh dear...maybe I had set myself up for disappointment from the word go.

None of us being particularly flush, I tend to lose all sense of perspective when it comes to food. I suppose it's the foodie equivalent of the shopaholic. However noting the consensus of my compatriots, we decided to go straight for the main course. Probably for the best as it's a rare occasion that I say no to dessert. A few nibbles were provided on arrival-sunflower seed biscuits, cashew nuts and olives-a pleasant touch.

The menu was very appealing and I was torn between several options. I decisively settled on the roast aubergine parcels of Coolea cheese, walnuts & black kale with spiced fennel couscous cake and warm sungold tomato and caper salsa. Quite literally a mouthful! Each individual flavour was distinct and each bite was followed by a burst of flavour explosions. The aubergines had been grilled in olive oil before being stuffed with the tangy cheese and kale filling, bound with a mix of oil and spices. They were then roasted till hot and melting inside. The couscous cake was equally pleasing, with a crunchy top, although I had expected the fennel to feature more than the odd sliver. The inspiration of the plate however was the tomato and caper salsa-wow! Here is where one can appreciate the importance of good quality ingredients. It was comprised of sweet tomatoes with a tart edge, lightly cooked with juicy little capers in extra virgin olive oil. It made the dish. At a price of €25, I did think that it was a little steep for the time and effort required. Although the flavours were complex, the assembly and presentation were not particularly so. I also felt that there could have been more food on the plate and was very sad to admit to myself that I was still hungry having licked the plate clean.

My neighbour went for the sweet chilli-glazed panfried tofu with Asian greens in a coconut and lemongrass broth, soba noodles and a gingered aduki bean wonton. It smelt absolutely delicious, especially the sweet pungency of the tofu which had taken on a caramelised appearance. The broth appeared to be lacking, or maybe I was just expecting to see a big bowl of soupy noodles as we are used to in Asian restaurants. Anyway although I didn't ask for a bite, it got the big thumbs up. She, the only wine drinker of the night had a glass of sauvignon blanc which was well needed and hit the spot. Three of the others went for the almond pastry galette of feta and spinach with coriander crushed potato, harissa sauce and sugar snaps. The verdict on this was that it could have also been bigger and did not satisfy all tummies. I had a corner of my other neighbour's pastry and was expecting something more exciting from the inclusion of the ground almonds, however apart from being slightly shorter, it was no different to ordinary filo pastry! Again I couldn't agree that value for money was really offered with this dish at a price tag of €25.

Although I had decided on a dessert, I actually needed a dessert. Now, a dessert should not be a necessity. It should be something that we feel guilty for ordering so that we can savour every guilty and indulgent bite. Fancying myself as a bit of an amateur pastry chef, I was disappointed with the desserts on offer. They seemed a bit dull, lacking any real vision in an otherwise creative and inventive kitchen. I was tempted to go for the limone Paradiso-a trio of lemony sour desserts that hit you right in the cheek pockets. However fearing that this would not fill me up enough (I feel like I want to cry reliving this but maybe I am being a tad melodramatic...) I reluctantly decided on the Strawberry Baked Alaska, hoping that it would offer satisfying spongy, creamy comfort. Feeling the purse strings, only two of us ordered dessert and we both went for the Baked Alaska. Despite this we were kept waiting for at least 30mins before they arrived. A mountain of golden white, it didn't take me a second to get stuck in and I had made it clear that I was not sharing (at €9 a pop I could have nearly bought Magnums all round!). I did like the dessert but I didn't love it. Disappointingly there was far too much sweet, sickly uncooked eggwhite and far too little sponge and ice cream. The strawberry ice cream was undoubtedly homemade and tasty, but it was the stingiest tiny scoop. The sponge was nicely soaked in a strawberry syrup, however it was only a very thin layer underneath all the meringue. Unfortunately, the whole thing was overpriced and below par but at that stage I was just glad to have filled the gap in my stomach.

I don't mind paying for good food but on this occasion, I felt that the meals were overpriced and undersized. Maybe skipping on the starter was a mistake in a vegetarian restaurant where meals are typically going to be lighter, however remaining hungry after only a main course is not a good sign. (As a side note I am neither a horse nor a rugby player). Maybe I had built this place up too much and my expectations were too high but it was not as I remembered it. On my previous visit it had a more rustic and cosy feel. On this occasion it did take on more of a 'cafe' resemblance. Apart from slowing up towards the end of the night, service was fine but could have been more attentive. Would I recommend this restaurant? Yes but with a word of warning-make sure you've had a good lunch!