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Saturday 3 December 2016

Micro menus are the next big thing for Dublin diners

Eating out

Paul McVeigh, part-owner and chef of Featherblade restaurant, Dawson Street, Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Paul McVeigh, part-owner and chef of Featherblade restaurant, Dawson Street, Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn

There's been a lot of talk lately about single-item menus. There's certainly no shortage of them in metropolises like New York or London, where the ratio of hungry punters per square mile allows restaurateurs put all their eggs in one basket - or their hot dogs, or rotisserie chicken, as the single-item case may be.

The purist take on the single-item offering has been slower to catch on here however, although some have nailed it, as anyone who has eaten in Bunsen can testify. With a choice of a single or double burger, with or without cheese, their menu is so short that it comes on a business card.

But what we are seeing more of are informal eateries hooking their appeal on one or two hero items around which an extremely pared-back menu can be based. Niall Sabongi of Rock Lobster has done it with Klaw, his Temple Bar outpost which draws the crowds with its lobster rolls, and keeps them there for flame-scorched oysters and seafood platters.

And, most recently, two young Ballymaloe-trained bucks are garnering rave reviews with their ode to that unsung hero of beef off-cuts, the feather blade.

To call their eponymous restaurant, Featherblade, a single-item eatery would be to do their kitchen a disservice, the two 30-something owners tell me.

One half of the duo, head chef Paul McVeigh, has worked in some of the best kitchens in Ireland (Chapter One, The Greenhouse) and beyond, including private cheffing for golfer Rory McIlroy and on luxury yachts.

"I worked with some amazing chefs on the yachts," Paul says. "I learnt as much from one particular guy, who used to be Roman Abramovich's chef, as I did in any other restaurant."

And he's collected lots of skills and ideas along the way.

Featherblade's weekly trio of €8 starters might include Sicilian squash arancini (fried risotto balls) with candied bacon aoili, confit crispy chicken with hot sauce and pickled cucumber, or organic Irish salmon in a Hawaiian tartare-style 'poke' ("that's one I picked up on the yachts"). Attention to detail is key to a concise menu that sparkles with little splashes of affordable luxury, such as truffled mac'n'cheese (one of several €3.50 sides).

There's also some nice nods to seasonality. One of the house cocktails (€7.50 each) features a rosehip, star anise and green cardamom syrup made in-house from wild hips picked and delivered to the restaurant by Paul's mum, Frances.

"It's great to be able to work with the seasons," Paul says. "It's what I've always done. Every year, I go pick sloes for sloe gin, so I have something in mind for one of our cocktails at Christmas."

But all of these impressive sideshows are really accessories to the main draw: a damn fine steak, albeit one that many punters won't be hugely familiar with.

"You want to lead with a bold statement when it's such a short menu," explains Paul's business partner, Jamie O'Toole, who swapped the world of finance for food two years ago. "For us, the feather blade encapsulates most of those things that most people want from their steak. It's naturally very tender, it's quite a sweet beef flavour and it's lean."

Currently, the kitchen offers just one other main course - typically another lesser-used cut of beef such as skirt - with both being sold at just €13. If these off-cuts offer such brilliant value, why don't we see more of them being championed in Irish restaurants?

Paul wondered the same thing when he first experienced skirt steak when cooking for staff on a yacht off the southern coast of France: "The taste was amazing."

When he checked the packaging, Paul was surprised to see that the beef was Irish.

"That was one eureka moment, where I thought this is something I'd like to show off to Irish people."

The catch is that off-cuts are more challenging to cook, but for Paul, that's part of the fun.

"It's very rewarding to take a cheaper, more difficult cut and turn it into a really tasty steak."

By sourcing meticulously (such as from FX Buckley's own herd of cattle) and placing them centre-stage, they can afford to give these cuts the care they need to make them a truly great eating experience.

"What we're doing would be a two-to-three-day process," Jamie explains. "At the minute, we've a skirt steak which is marinated for 24 hours and slow-cooked for about 12, so we completely break it down to get the texture and profile of something that people are used to spending €25 or €30 on."

The challenge with feather blade - "the second most tender muscle on the animal" - is that it's a thin muscle that is easily overcooked. Paul marinates it for 24 hours before covering with a special rub to accelerate the searing process and flashing it under an extremely hot grill.

All that time and labour investment is only viable if you know you can sell the food you've prepared, and can keep food waste to a minimum. Offering customers less choice allows their kitchen to focus on getting things right.

"We've both worked in kitchens, and we know how hard they are to staff, and how difficult it is to keep the quality across the menu as high as you would like," Jamie concludes. "If you're trying to be everything to everybody, the quality just suffers."

Feather blade is the new fillet, it would seem, and less is the new moreish.

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