Taste of Tuscany
On his second visit, Ernie Whalley finds a lot to recommend about Tuscan restaurant Il Primo -- not least its use of a largely forgotten cut of beef
Ileft one thing out of last week's review: olive oil. Hugo's provided startlingly good, spicy, interesting olive oil with the bread. It got you in good humour for the meal. This week at Il Primo, we kicked off in the same vein, though the oil was vastly different in character -- lighter and more fragrant, complimenting the excellent focaccia which tasted authentically salt-free.
I reviewed Il Primo a couple of years ago. Re-reading my earlier piece I wondered if I'd been a tad harsh with them, so I decided to re-visit. Il Primo occupies an unlikely location in Montague Street. It's on two floors, spread over three rooms and the solitary waitperson must get home at the end of a night absolutely cream-crackered, the only consolation being he or she had a free aerobics lesson. I should say from the outset that the duty guy (he might have been the proprietor) did an extremely good job the night we ate there.
The room we dined in was plain. I thought it might be too plain for Sibella but no, she approved of the modern paintings and liked the intimacy of it.
Il Primo is an Italian restaurant. Actually no, it's a Tuscan restaurant. The food of that province is restrained, largely unadorned by saucing yet full of bold flavours. There's a huge accent on the quality of materials. Salt (except in bread), black pepper, rosemary, sage and wine play a conspicuous part. As do truffles.
Sibs restrained me from doing the full Italian -- sorry Tuscan -- four-course thing with a pasta dish twixt starter and main. In return I extracted a promise that I could help with her crab lasagna. The tagliatelle with pan-fried chicken livers and onion was a total 'me' dish. I love the pungency and the soft, velvet texture of properly cooked offal. I can never understand why some people reject the most flavoursome parts of the beast. This dish was unadorned in extremis -- minimal cream and maybe wine to augment the pan juices; that was about it. But the whole dish, gossamer-light pasta and all, slid down, leaving tongue and palate coated with delicious flavours. Sibella took the balsamic duck and radicchio tartlets. It was actually 'tartlet' and, yes, she could have eaten two but maybe better to have a little less of something really good than a hunk of the average, and this was really good. The radicchio was crunchy crisp and the styling as good as anything on the walls.
I craved Sibella's main, but she got there first. The crab and fennel lasagna was an absolute knockout. I'm presuming Il Primo makes its pasta on the premises; if not, the chef really knows where to source ingredients. Meanwhile, I was doing cartwheels over my slow-cooked beef cheek, served with duck-fat roasted potatoes and root vegetables. After years of ignoring, even rejecting it, chefs have come to realise that beef cheek is a top-class repository for flavours, soaking up the essence of whatever it's cooked with -- onions, veggies, wine -- and storing them for subsequent enjoyment by the diner. It's not rocket science -- our grandmothers knew of this years ago and fettled many a tasty pie or casserole from this plebeian cut. Unfortunately, what many chefs have not learned is that beef cheek can also be a conduit: if the process is overdone the flavours vanish into the sauce, leaving the diner with a hunk of compressed cardboard tastealike. If ever there was an object lesson in how to get it right, here it was on my plate.
Portions of both lasagna and beef cheek were generous in the extreme so we wimped out and shared a dessert -- panna cotta tart, a good one, with fresh berries. If I'd been dining with someone other than the custodian of my waistline, I'd have had the cantucci with Vin Santo as well.
The wine list is resolutely Tuscan. They'd sourced a robust and value-for-money Chianti from the unfashionable end of the denomination that partnered the beef cheek perfectly. I took a sip of Sibs' glass of Vermentino and thought it a tad ordinary and overpriced at €8.50.
Since my earlier visit, the cooking at Il Primo has improved measurably in precision, and prices, presumably adjusted to reflect the times we live in, now represent better value. I'm happy to up Il Primo by a further star and declare it Dublin's best Tuscan, even Italian restaurant.
Verdict: Superb authentic Tuscan food. Prompt and friendly service. 20% off wines, Monday to Wednesday.
Il Primo, 16 Montague Street, Dublin 2, Tel: 01 478 3373