A new restaurant needs time to find its feet, some say. Ernie Whalley, however, couldn't wait to try out the latest venture to hit Dublin 4.
SHE WAS AN AMERICAN GIRL, raised on promises," sang Tom Petty as we entered the tiny dining area. Not tonight she wasn’t. I couldn’t promise anything, for the first time I had heard of Juniors was that morning.
Alerted to the presence of a new eating establishment close to home by a poster on my website, I decided, on a whim, to review. I rang a food writer friend, hereinafter referred to as "Tulsa" to ask if she’d accompany me.
Juniors is located at the foot of Bath Avenue, at the junction with Grand Canal Street, hard by Slattery's, one of Dublin 4's better pubs. Juniors is run by two brothers, one a chef, the other front of house, though the latter admitted it was his first excursion into the hospitality industry, having formerly been a stockbroker. The kitchen is open-plan, the layout reminding me of the place I used to own, where I paid homage to the fresh and real and harboured secret ambitions to make the aubergine Ireland's new national dish. Fat chance: the punters, all except a gourmet few, referred to the purple pleasure as "de black tings" and petitioned me to take moussaka off the menu.
Some people in the business, both chefs and critics, are uneasy about the ethics of reviewing a restaurant until it's had a 'bedding-down' period. I used to be so myself, especially when I was editing Food & Wine Magazine. People don't buy a €5 glossy to find out where they can have three bad meals, do they? Latterly I've come round to thinking "Why should we let these people rehearse at the diners' expense?" Damn it all, if you bought a 30-quid watch, you'd expect it to keep good time right out of the box. Shouldn't you have the same expectations of a €100 meal?
Now I'm writing for a weekly, if I give a new place a couple of months grace, all the other gimlet-eyed food hawks will have got there ahead of me. In this instance Tom Doorley, who also saw it on my site, walked in just behind me. The poor brothers must have been crapping themselves.
Tulsa and I sat down at one of the small tables on slightly bum-numbing chairs. Presumably cushions will come when there is a few bob in the till. The atmosphere was nice and matey. It's an "Italian momma diner" whispered Tulsa and, indeed, the menu had a distinct Mediterranean focus.
I was intrigued by the thought of sweetcorn soup with crispy duck. It was very enjoyable but could maybe have benefited from being made from stock with a more pronounced flavour. Tulsa tucked into an enormous antipasto plate of charcuterie/prosciutto and cheese -- pecorino, I think, and mozzarella di bufala, with really good toast. The wine list was small but well-constructed -- nothing over €30 and all available by bottle or glass. I detected the sure hand of Ben Reynolds of Liberty even before they told me he was a friend. I took a glass of viognier, Willunga 100; Tulsa, a fresh rosé.
Tulsa gave a short dissertation on why pork crackling isn't crispy any more. Apparently it's all do to with the defoliating, skinning and curing methods used in the pig biz nowadays. By the time she'd finished I wasn't expecting much from her crispy slow-cooked belly pork but it was actually rather good and served with big, fat, creamy butter beans too.
My own fish stew was, I have to say, an absolute bloody triumph. White fish and salmon bedded down alongside new potatoes, palourdes (clams) and mussels in generous quantity in a rich spiced-up saucey soup, or was it a soupy sauce? By this time we'd both switched to red, a Monastrel from 'the New Spain' -- huge, soft and well able to keep the chillies at bay.
Maybe it's the Damon Runyon fan in me but I love that New York-via-Vienna style of baked cheesecake, far removed from the omnipresent ghastly wobbly muck. Junior the Chef's was a brilliant exposition of the art of proper cheesecake, set off by a tart red-berry compote so nice I'd liked to have cadged some for my morning toast.
Coffee disappointed. I was maybe misled by the gorgeous Elektra Barlume machine, a wondrous art deco 'caffeine piano' with a frontage like a 60s Cadillac. Lads, the secret lies in the cooling flush if the machine hasn't been used for a bit.
Junior the Maitre d' presented the tab. He'd knocked off the coffees because, as he said, unprompted: "There was rather a wait." We both felt this was a very decent gesture, somehow symptomatic of the restaurant's honesty which will stand it in good stead in these 'draw the wagons into a circle' days. Juniors is essentially 'a restaurant for now' and customers will appreciate the keen prices as much as the unpretentious tasty food.
The damage: €82, ex-service for two starters, two mains, one dessert, five glasses of wine.
Ambience: HHH II
Juniors, Bath Avenue, Dublin 4 Tel: 01 664 3648