Paolo Tullio, Independent.ie: Food with a Conscience
This was a week for meeting old friends. I hadn’t seen Alastair for maybe 30 years. We used to see one another a lot when he was working in Dublin, but then his work took him to Tokyo and then Chicago, and during those years we lost touch. It was thanks to the wonders of the internet that he found my email address.
His business has brought him back full circle to Dublin again, so we agreed that we’d meet on his next visit. And then, in the same week, I got a phone call from Morrough, who I haven’t seen for a few years since he’d moved to England. Morrough and Alastair had never met, but when I suggested a meal for three, neither of them objected.
I thought long and hard about where to take them. Certainly city centre, not far from their hotels, and somewhere that two cosmopolitan men with sophisticated tastes would feel comfortable. I settled on the Ely Wine Bar in Ely Place, where, if nothing else, I could ply them with good wine. So early on a mid-week night we met up in Ely Place, and it was a real pleasure to meet my old friends again after so many years.
As soon as we were sat, we started to read the bills of fare. I had the wine list and I found it to be encyclopaedic – 20 pages long and very well priced. What seems to be the case is that as the wines get more expensive, the mark-up gets less. That’s a system I’ve been trying to get other restaurateurs to adopt for years.
Trying to make double or treble the wholesale price when that comes to €60 or more is simply greedy. But not here in the ely. A premier cru Chablis for €59 or a Leoville Barton second label 2008 for €59 are both wines that you could easily pay €100 or more for on other lists.
“Let me choose the wine,” said Morrough as he took the wine list from me. Red was the general consensus and he picked us a fine Rioja, the Vina Alberdi Reserva at €39.
There’s an interesting menu in ely, with a lot of organic produce and artisan foods. The beef comes from their own farm in the Burren, so clearly a lot of work has gone into sourcing, and that’s always a pleasure to see.
We all chose from the a la carte menu, although there were two set menus as well to choose from, one at €37.50 and the other at €47.50. The a la carte offered plenty of choice, but at first glance the menu seemed priced higher than usual. The soup was the only starter under €10, whereas most menus have few, if no, starters over €10. This was offset, I thought, by many of the main courses being priced in the low teens. So starters seemed more expensive than normal and main courses cheaper.
Alastair ordered the vegetable soup and followed that with the classic bangers and mash, which in this case meant organic pork sausages with wholegrain-mustard mash, shallot and sage compote and jus. I liked the fact that €1 per banger goes to Barnardos children’s charity.
Morrough ordered the king scallops to start, which came with a carrot and coriander remoulade, a smoked almond dressing and curried clams. For mains, he chose monkfish fritters and beer-braised oxtail, which came with a ragout of summer vegetables and parsley mash.
I decided to start with the duck liver and organic pork ham hock terrine, and when I heard that there was a daily special of steak tartare, I knew that was for me.
We sipped the Rioja while we awaited the starters and found that it opened out beautifully in the glass. It had the classic Rioja balance of fruit and oak, combined with a soft mouth feel and enough acidity to make it a good choice for food pairing.
The starters arrived and we tucked in, Alastair happy with his wholesome and warming soup, me contentedly spreading my terrine on to good bread, and Morrough looking unhappily at his plate. It was very nicely presented, but it contained just three scallops, which Morrough felt was just a tad exiguous.
“Five would have been more to my liking,” he declared. Three may well be enough for size-eight ladies, but for a big man like Morrough it seemed more like a canapé than a starter.
With the Rioja tasting so good, we needed a second bottle for the main courses. Again, the presentation of the dishes was excellent – they came on large, deep white plates, which made a good frame for the food.
The monkfish fritters sat on a bed of parsley mash surrounded by the braised oxtail, while the organic sausages sat on a bed of mustard mash. I’d asked our waiter if I could be served my steak tartare with the various ingredients on the side.
When I was young, that was normally how the dish was served. You got to mix your tartare exactly as you liked it, and for me that was part of the fun.
These days it tends to come to the table already mixed to the chef’s liking, which may not be the same as mine. So this time I was able to mix my own, and I have to say the organic Burren beef was exceptional.
This had been a fine savoury meal and none of us were tempted to desserts. Instead, Morrough and Alastair decided to share a cheese plate, a mix of Irish and Continental cheeses. While they ate their cheese, I finished with a pretty good espresso.
Our bill came to €205.38, of which €78 was wine, so subtracting that you end up with about €40 a head, decent value for the quality of the food.
7/10 value for money
ely wine bar, 22, Ely Place, Dublin 2. Tel: (01) 676 8986