Catherine Cleary: It’s on Nights Like These That I Love My Job

ely wine bar has a new kitchen and menu, so it was time to take a new look at an old haunt, writes Catherine Cleary – food critic with The Irish Times.

WE’LL BEGIN WITH the broad beans. There’s a bowl of them sitting at home on my kitchen counter. They are waiting for someone to winkle them out of their velvety pods, blanch them and pop the waxy (slightly toenaily) outer skin off each individual bean, to be rewarded with fresh summer on a plate. But I’m in ely wine bar on Dublin’s Ely Place, where someone in the kitchen has done all that finicky work and there’s a beautiful, bright green mound of them on top of perfectly pan-fried sea trout.

It’s on nights like these that I love my job.

I got a slightly hurt email a few weeks ago from the people behind ely. Why weren’t they included on the list of places I would recommend, when they were doing so many good things? The reason was simple. I’d visited one of their outposts in the Docklands and found it fine, but not brilliant. But before I clicked the email closed, I noticed a few intriguing ingredients listed on the bar food menu in the original wine bar, a place that had slipped off my radar.

The ely chain began its life in Ely Place in Dublin 2, providing something no one else was doing at the time – a place for an after-work glass (or seven) of good wine, with good food. It was an elegant, wintry kind of wine bar, a kind of playground for suits to let their hair down.

Its success led the ely husband-and-wife team, Erik and Michelle Robson, to expand into two huge barns on either side of the windblown Docklands. Now Fallon Byrne’s wine bar has stolen its clothes as a casual buzzy place for a nice glass with a plate of something meaty or cheesy, or both.

So how has the original ely weathered it all? Down in the cellarish downstairs space (upstairs feels much more grown-up), I remember my own baggage. I had a Difficult Conversation with someone the last time I was here. The standout memory is how she removed the well-padded cushion from behind her back in the deep-armed chairs so that she could sit further from me when we took our seats.

It’s water long under the bridge, although the chairs and cushions remain. And I am in good company tonight: three friends, all coming from work, and one birthday. As the night goes on, a Mexican wave of Happy Birthdays is sung, starting at one side of the room. A rendition from our table would make us seem like copycats, so there is no singing, much to the birthday boy’s relief.

Instead, we eat. There’s a new kitchen and a new menu with seasonality at its heart. The prices are keen, and a sign outside says the wine bar now does breakfast, and cakes and coffee throughout the day. This feels a bit like your favourite debauched nightclub hosting afternoon tea dances. In the evenings, two courses squeeze in at €19.95, three at €25.

The great hits of the evening are my sea trout, with those lovely, summery broad beans and a portion of mashed potato. My starter of an heirloom tomato salad with cucumber and salted pineapple reads much better than it eats, feeling like a large plate of under-flavoured roughage. A goat’s cheese terrine is just “cheese on toast” as Jeanne and Marisa agree, with a mild-to-the-point-of-cream-cheese spreading on two toasts and some mandarin segments and nice toasted hazelnuts.

But then things pick up. Gerry’s lamb sweetbreads are small but wonderful, served with a celeriac and horseradish remoulade, the small kick of horseradish a perfect substitute for the mustard tang typically used. He also scores on the main courses, with the Irish chicken supreme with pork belly. It’s a slurpy, soupy bowl of flavoursome chicken stewed slowly on the bone, with the pork belly confined to small shards of meat in the delicious brown broth laced with tarragon. Chicken stew for the soul.

There are two perfect rib-eye steaks (which each come at a €4.50 supplement) and good chips. Desserts are a delicious chocolate and caramel marquise with a slightly-too-sweet morello cherry sorbet and an excellent passion fruit and raspberry vacherin with basil ice cream. The selection of ice creams and sorbets falls down by being just sorbets. But overall, everyone’s impressed. Between us we get through five glasses of Tin Pot Hut sauvignon blanc.

At these prices, you could come here even when it isn’t someone’s birthday. ely’s original wine bar has moved its food up a notch. There’s some patchiness, but the broad theme is of very good food at excellent value. Dinner for four with wine and one espresso came to €169.