Searching for love at the Fair
Despite a smart appearance, Donnybrook disappoints
Cooking? It's about love, isn't it? Last week I spent a morning in the company of people who know no greater joy than to get up close and personal with pristine ingredients and create something wholesome and satisfying for their nearest and dearest. In a roomful of food bloggers, passion, kindled by the consuming urge to alchemise raw ingredients into a tasty dish, was as discernable as the fragrant whiff of a Havana cigar to a man who has given up smoking.
Most keen home cooks I know cook with passion. Most of the professional chefs I've met, likewise. It is an essential ingredient if food is to be raised above the mundane task of filling the belly. Yet, all too many times when I dine out this vital ingredient is lacking. How can that be? The root cause is, I suspect, that most diners like to eat within their comfort zone.
Restaurant economics pays homage to this conservatism. Understandably, as no restaurateur wants to make a loss by providing dishes no one will eat. This conservatism is reflected in the mundane nature of many restaurant menus. I've lost count of the number of times I've picked up a menu and said "Ah yes, chicken breast, fillet, rib-eye, sea bass, plus a token vegetarian dish.
I would exempt the restaurant at Donnybrook Fair, where the Lit'ry Chick and I dined last Friday from this criticism. There were some decent ideas on the menu, notably the employment of the wonderful and under-appreciated samphire as accompaniment to the lemon sole.
At the same time, the execution of many of the dishes seriously underwhelmed and this, in conjunction with waiting staff who gave the impression that they were sleepwalking, detracted considerably from the occasion. A shame, because the dining room is an absolute stunner, oozing comfort and style; quality accoutrements and sparkling glassware contribute to the sense of occasion.
Wine prices are very fair and the list shows signs of being put together by someone who knows and loves the subject.
I opted for the confit of duck spring rolls. The filo pastry was several sheets too thick and the rolls under-baked. The duck was ground almost to the texture of liver pâté and to digest this combo of sog and mush I was pitifully grateful for the sweet chilli cliche that accompanied it.
The Lit'ry Chick got little joy from her goat cheese and beetroot salad, opining that the cheese was too creamy and the beet too bland. I tasted some and she did have a point.
Mains got off to an iffy start due to a slight contretemps with the guy who started the evening as sommelier and finished as a de facto maitre d' (catering, like nature, abhors a vacuum). There was a divergence regarding the meaning of the phrase 'double pork chop'. To me, a 'double chop' is what they call in the north of England a 'Barnsley chop', that is two large cutlets butterflied. No, said your man, a double chop is one cut up to the edge of the next bone. That, I could have accepted, save that the other side had been shaved tight to the bone -- the world's thinnest double chop.
More crucial, though, was the lack of flavour. I expect very little from Irish pork these days and am rarely disappointed, but this chop, double or single, was bland as a Daniel O'Donnell boxed set.
TLC's 'Pan-fried' (how else would one fry?) fillets of lemon sole with shrimp butter, samphire and sautéed potatoes was a better effort, but the sole was over-cooked.
Bread-and-butter pudding, Jekyll and Hyde of desserts, comes in two versions, sublime and inedible. Guess which this was. The Lit'ry Chick's panna cotta you could park a truck on. Our aversion was noticed by the aforesaid sommelier/maitre d' who, bless, struck them from the bill.
All-in-all, a night when the minuses well outweighed the plusses. Perusing the menu, I found no mention of provenance. So was careless sourcing responsible for the want of flavour? Or was it a lack of love?