Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Furama, Donnybrook, Dublin 4

For many the ultimate comfort food is a big greasy Chinese takeaway. Though I may come across as having a holier than thou attitude when it comes to food, I am not going to deny that I too can be partial to the odd Chinese pig out. Yes, I’m taking the works-deep fried battered chicken balls, gloopy sweet and sour sauce, a mountain of fried rice, as much prawn crackers as you can shovel and an extra side of MSG for good measure. I will never forget a girl in 2nd year who was convinced that your Friday night takeaway was good for you because it was ‘dinner’ and not McDonalds. But most of us know that this food is pure crap. And on another point this kind of “Chinese” food is as much Chinese as I am. Ireland doesn’t really do authentic Chinese, much less anywhere outside of Dublin.  On a recent trip to Letterkenny, every second business in the town was a cheap tacky Chinese (alternating with Polish barber shops in case you were wondering). It is no wonder when our towns have the capabilities to feed Beijing that we, as a nation are getting fatter and fatter. Irish people cannot get enough of it. Maybe it is possible that there are more fools out there like my old friend than I thought….

In Dublin there are a handful of places using good quality cuts of meat and the Chinese concept of cooking as a balancing act between sweet, sour, spicy, salty and bitter flavours. Most of these places are the most well established Chinese restaurants in the city, but a new generation has also sprung up around the Parnell street area. Many of the newer places cater specifically to the Irish-Chinese community and are doing pretty hardcore stuff. Astounding value for money is to be had if you are willing to take a few chances and go on a food adventure.

Furama in Donnybrook belongs to the former category mentioned above. For years I had heard great things about it but never got round to visiting until such opportunity arose on a recent quiet Tuesday evening. I was in the company of my oldest and dearest friend. You know those people who bring out the true you, making you feel great about yourself without flattery-well she’s my one of those. So no better way to spend a night before it had even begun.

The restaurant was quiet, though pleasantly so. The calm atmosphere was accentuated by dim lighting and soft panpipe music (ok, not to everyone’s taste!) A big bowl of prawn crackers was delivered to our table upon arrival which we dived into. Munching and chatting away, we are two of the most indecisive people so this was not helped by the fact that the menu was about forty pages long. In general this is a not a good sign but it is acceptable when it comes to Asian food, as usually there are only very slight variations between the numerous dishes. Craving a nice bit of meat and some bold flavours I went straight to the beef options and decided that Fillet of Beef with Green Pepper, Garlic and Black Bean Sauce (sizzling) was the one for me. After lots of humming and hawing mademoiselle went for the Roasted Duckling in Plum Sauce.

We were served in about half the time we took to order. Considering that there were only three or four other occupied tables, I suppose it was not so surprising. One generous portion apiece, accompanied by some fried and special fried rice we were made up. The fillet of beef was finely sliced, exceptionally tender and had that rather uncharacteristic delicacy that good Chinese restaurants can bring out of beef. As a cook I have always wanted to know what the trick is. My best guess is that it is a combination of the finest piece of meat, a good sharp knife and the touch of technique that only a professional chef can achieve. Now I am no carnivore and could happily skip meat for a week but knowing the existence of these exceptional taste moments, I could never give it up altogether. The rich flavoursome sauce packed a punch but by some marvel did not overwhelm the meat. The peppers were crunchy packed a punch but by some marvel did not overpower the beautiful meat. The peppers were crunchy and there were enough of them, without being too many. As a garlic fiend, the garlic came through especially to my liking balanced out by the earthy flavour of the black bean. The rice was oily enough to make it moist, but not so that it was greasy. Each lavish bite was a piece of heaven. The duck died a similar second death. It had all the elements which make this such an addictive dish-crispy fat, succulent meat and a sweet, fruity sauce. Having been served so quickly, my one quibble is that our plates were whisked away the second we had put our forks down (no chopsticks-sacrilege!). We hadn’t quite licked the plates clean but I would have happily made a go of it. When your plates are taken so quickly there is a sense that you are being swept out the door.

I wouldn’t usually go for a dessert in a Chinese restaurant, as even the best don’t make their own, but desiring something sharp to finish off my meal I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied without a lemon sorbet. It was one of those mass made ones that come in a lemon skin. Nothing special but it hit the spot. I can’t quite remember the total bill but we paid circa E20 per main and E5 per rice. I did note that the menu was pricier than the website listing which I had glanced at in advance. This annoyed me a bit, as it’s just careless and lazy not update your primary marketing tool as a restaurant. I hope Furama stays around, but they could do well to market themselves a bit better. The restaurant is rather uninviting from the outside and you have to ring a bell to get in. But I would guess that Furama has an older and loyal customer base, with whom they have a good rapport. Service was generally polite. The food was worth every penny. No need to rely on MSG to entice the customer here.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Keshk Cafe, Upper Leeson Street, Dublin 4

Again and again D4 tops the polls as the most expensive place to live in the country. It comes as a nice surprise then that one of Dublin's few Greek restaurants takes pride of place in this suburb and is practically giving its meals away for free. I can’t imagine how Keshk Cafe on Upper Leeson Street works economically, but gastronomically it is a mint. Anyone who's tried getting a reservation in this tiny restaurant will know that it can be a challenge. But with a bit of forward planning, you should be in luck.

I visited last week with a good old friend who'd just returned from her summer abroad in the Big Apple with lots of exciting stories. Our tight purse strings, my companion’s vegetarianism and the BYOB policy of Keshk were the clinchers for us on this particular night. With lots to catch up on, she arrived with a nice bottle of rioja and the nights' entertainment (for me, my lips are sealed) unfolded. Straight away the waitress arrived at our table with a couple of glasses of iced tap water without us having to stingily ask-no pressure to go bottled, very nice indeed.

We decided to share a Greek Salad (E.7.50) to begin, to give us plenty of time chat and sip our wine. Having booked the table for 8pm, we were put under absolutely no pressure to vacate the table, granted it was a Wednesday night. The traditional salad, dressed with a little olive oil and lemon juice was a nice palate cleanser. It was brought to life by the Feta and some toasted pine nuts, both of which were plentiful. Unusually, the Feta had a creamier than crumbly texture but its quality could not be doubted. It is very tempting for restaurateurs to cut corners when offering meals at reasonable prices by using supermarket imitation brands, but it’s disappointingly obvious when they do.

For the main course I had the Moussaka with spicy potatoes. At E14.95 this was exceptional value for what was delivered. Of course the ingredient components of the dish are not too costly. But to pay staff to prepare and wait, as well as to cover overheads at these prices and make it economically viable, all without the relief of corkage most restaurants enjoy is a puzzle that would surely leave David McWilliams and co dumbfounded for once in their lives. Served piping hot in its own large ramekin the dish retained its heat while I happily deconstructed it. I was more than pleased with the offering; however I must stick to my critiquing guns. The Moussaka was covered with a thick layer of melted cheddar. I am not sure how traditional this is, but in my view the b├ęchamel layer should more important than the cheese layer. This was not omitted altogether, though the cheese overpowered its delicacy. The minced lamb was well seasoned and plentiful, but to the detriment of the aubergine. As one of the central features of the dish its scarcity was noticeable. Despite these issues I still thoroughly enjoyed the dish. However I was particularly impressed with the included side of spicy potatoes. Like mini roasties, they were crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, without the greasiness of a chip. A generous sprinkling of cayenne gave them the kick that made them special. Even when they went cold I was still happily munching away on them.

The gallivanter went for the okra done in a tomato, coriander and garlic sauce (E13.95). Although I did not try it on the night, I have had this before and it is the best thing I have tried on Keshk’s menu so I would highly recommend it. The okra is al dente and the tomato sauce juicy and flavoursome. A squeeze of lemon juice and the coriander (not overpowering) gives it a fresh zing. It is a dish that is virtuous, yet hits the spot.

Having no room left for another bite, we both skipped dessert which has a range of offerings from the customary baklava to the usual run of the mill (and usually bought in) chocolate fudge and carrot cakes. Again the baklava gets thumbs up from me from one of my previous ventures. Whoever came up with the idea of interspersing layers of filo pastry with chopped pistachios, walnuts and almonds and then drenching the whole lot in a sweet sugar syrup was a culinary genius! It’s more an indulgent teatime pick-me-up in my view though than a standalone dessert.

Space is a little tight in Keshk, with tables crammed in against the walls meaning that some may find it uncomfortable. But this is a minor quibble from two happy customers who will be doubtless back for more good food and great value-as long as Keskh can manage to balance the books that is!