I don't subscribe to comedian Frank Skinner's assertion that eating an oyster is "like licking phlegm off a tortoise". I love the slippery-slidey little beggars. Every time I decant one I'm reminded of my seafaring ancestry -- it's believed the Whalleys, like their genealogical cousins the Waleys, Whalens and Whelans derived their name from their occupation, that of whale fishers.
What I don't appreciate is the holy reverence fellow oyster mavens accord the native variety, a reverence that's reflected in the prices charged for these minuscule morsels.
At Matt the Thresher, Dublin's latest attempt at a fish restaurant, they were charging €16 a half dozen for the tiny Clew Bay natives, and €6 for the fat, fleshy 'rocks' (aka Gigas or Pacific oyster). Lefty and I opted for six of each to compare and contrast. My guest, a relative blow-in on the oyster-supping scene, got it right when he declared. "They both have about the same amount of brine". And so they do, difference being that the Mayo molluscs also carry an iodine overload some find appealing whereas the rocks, to my mind, carry more delicate nuances (though native fanatics might decry them as 'bland').
Matt the Thresher is located off Baggot Street in what used to be the Pembroke pub. It's in the same ownership as the pub of the same name in Birdhill, Tipperary, on the old road from Dublin to Limerick. Owned by Ted and Kay Moynihan since 1987, Matt the Thresher, Birdhill was one of Ireland's earliest notions of a gastro pub. It got famous; then crowded, then by-passed. It soldiers on, picking up an award for best gastropub in 2010.
The Dublin incarnation is run by Jimmy and Margaret Lyons. Styled as a 'seafood bar and grill', its menu features mainly seafood, with a saving-bet option of steaks. The kitchen is led by 'chef and seafood connoisseur' Stephen Caviston, lower-profile brother of the voluble piscatorial crusader Peter. It's an attractive bar, with a traditional long counter, a smart black-and-white tiled floor and a mezzanine, where Lefty and I sat down to dine. The amusing mock modern baroque chandelier from the pub days has been retained.
After oysters we chose other items from the fishy side of the menu. My chowder disappointed. It was average pub grub at best. Lumbered with the grainy, floury texture that comes with insensitive thickening, an overload of smoked fish unbalanced the dish. Still, I did better than my guest.
Lefty's 'ten whole grilled soft prawns' were a flavour-free zone. Soggy too, as though they'd been grilled then rinsed under the tap to cool. Bewildering.
The lad wasn't having a good night. His fish pie turned out to be a tribute to quiche Lorraine. Not the one you got treated to at 1970s dinner parties by hosts who'd belatedly discovered Elizabeth David but the 1980s mediocre pastiche sold by any shop with notions of being a delicatessen.
In contrast, my grilled fillet of hake was absolutely superb; a big, glistening piece of fish, cooked with precision, came accompanied by baby potatoes. We shared a side of some rather good chips, too.
I'd put in a good word for the wine list. Someone had taken pains to assemble a collection suitable for teaming with fish. Prices, too, were not extortionate. We found it hard to choose between a Picpoul de Pinet and a Trimbach riesling. I could, however, have done without the bulls**t: 'The provocative rose & litchi aroma of Elysium resonate from the black muscat grape' --give us a break!
The desserts on offer were a yawnfest and we chose 'it'll do' quality lemon tart and creme brulée.
Sadly, Matt the Thresher is resoundingly mediocre. Totally formulaic, it struck me more as a pilot for a dining chain rather than a restaurant bent on celebrating the glory of the catch.
With the exception of my hake and the oysters, the whole meal veered between the unremarkable and the barely edible.
Shame, for Dublin has a crying need of a good fish restaurant.