It's a time of change for Dublin but, as our food critic Aoife Carrigy explains, there is plenty of newness in the city. She headed to one of the latest arrivals in the south of the city, Mister S, and gave us her verdict.
It was quite the week for the Camden Street neighbourhood, eh?
Last weekend saw two very different openings add 270 new restaurant seats to the hood – the latest opening from monolithic entertainment group, Press Up (the 220-seater Doolally) and the second opening from the Featherblade folk (the 50-seater Mister S).
Then came Bodytonic’s announcement that the Bernard Shaw pub will close after 13 years, with the Richmond Street property to be sold. Cue much Insta-grieving for the city we seem to be losing, fast. To paraphrase one post, there’s always evolution, but the closure of the Shaw and eviction of its side-kicks, including Eatyard and the Big Blue Bus, feels more like an extinction.
Of course, the energy that made the Bernard Shaw such a hothouse of creativity hasn’t been extinguished. Like much of Dublin’s creative energy, it is certainly being displaced by the juggernaut of ‘progress’ barreling down our capital’s thoroughfares. But, unlike many creatives being squeezed out of the city, that energy has already found a new Dublin outlet (pending official announcement), making the closure less Dublin’s loss than Portobello’s. Yes, there are other places to eat and drink and dance in this neighbourhood, but the Bernard Shaw lead the way in terms of doing things their own independent way.
READ MORE: THE REVIEW: Gursha
All of which makes the opening of Mister S especially welcome, as emphasised by the bowl of crack cocaine served as a welcome snack last Saturday once me and two pals had managed to order from their concise barbecue-and-smoked menu. (We wanted it all.) By crack cocaine I mean ridiculously delicious crispy chicken skin seasoned with mushroom salt. And by chicken, I mean some of the best organic – and therefore, by definition, free-range – chicken available on this island, courtesy of Sean Ring of Castlecomer, Co. Kilkenny.
The top-line USP here is a bespoke robata-style grill built by Tom Bray of Country Fire Kitchen to a design from owners Jamie O’Toole and Paul McVeigh and head chef, Daniel Hannigan. (Formerly sous chef at Richmond restaurant, Daniel is also founder of Food for Thought, a series of pop-up dinners that raise awareness and funds for suicide prevention, and a finalist in this year’s Eurotoques Young Chef of the Year. But I digress.)
If you don’t know your robata from your asado, rotisserie or Josper grills, you can climb the few steps up from Mister S’s high-ceilinged dining room to gawk at the open-fire shrine to all things barbecued and smoked, with its adjustable-height cooking platforms and its central pit of charcoal and wood. They use different sources, depending on what’s grilling or smoking: mostly birch and oak, but also lemon, orange and olive woods for when the former might overpower.
That lemon wood, for example, gave subtle nuance to the smoked crème fraiche that accompanied our charred mackerel starter (€7), the flesh of which was cured rather than cooked for sashimi-style texture. Shaved fennel added crunch while a forest-green herb oil bound the dish together, flavour-wise. A second starter of juicy, seed-scooped courgette (€6) – yellow and green, buttered and smoked – sat atop tangy black garlic yoghurt sprinkled with crisped freekah (whole-grain durum wheat). Lamb skewers (€8) featured crumbed sweetbreads (slightly flabby but still moreish) and shoulder lacquered in a sweet-sour glaze with fresh tarragon lifting the flavour further.
Lifting flavour further is something this kitchen excels at, as exemplified by an extra starter sent to us from the kitchen after my persistent questioning about the provenance of that chicken, which for some reason they were failing to shout about on the menu. Organic chicken is so rare in restaurants, never mind being sourced from one of Ireland’s top producers, and served at phenomenally generous prices. What read on the menu as ‘smoked chicken, romesco, €7’ translated as a succulent breast of brined, smoked, top-notch chicken, crispy skin on, with a banging romesco sauce (a Catalan classic featuring red peppers, tomatoes and almonds). That skin was as finger-licking as its crack-cocaine cousin. Seriously good eating that I would happily pay more for.
I call these ‘starters’ because that’s how we treated them, but the menu is divided into nibbles, a ‘smoked and grilled’ section, plus sides and sweets. Everything is cleverly plated for sharing, including the sensational smoked angus short-rib (€17) that we ordered as one of three ‘mains’. It came on the bone, blackened to bejaysus with a black garlic and balsamic glaze, but with beautifully rendered, fall-apart flesh cut into bite-sized pieces, apart from little crunchy crusty bits left on the bone for prizing off. It came with a smoked béarnaise which was as good as it sounds.
From the same section, we had grilled skate wing (€16) that was super-fresh, expertly cooked and served with a clever dashi beurre blanc for that signature layering of flavour, albeit on a subtler level. Another star was the succulent Andarl Farm tomahawk pork (€15), again cooked on the bone and served in shareable bites, and another flavour-bomb thanks to a punchy marinade. This pork chop of dreams is a steal of a dish given the high-end menus Andarl pork turns up on. If the USP of that bespoke wood-fired grill is what will bring us in the door, it’s this kind of consistently impeccable sourcing that will keep us coming back.
The sides (all €4.50) were equally good: charred wedges of hispi cabbage with feta and a slathering of sobrasado (an Italian spiced sausage meat); fat green beans on cashew-almond butter; and the crunchiest, most umami-tastic roasties I’ve ever met, in a genius brown butter and miso coating. Their accompanying dip of homemade harissa in sour cream was one case where that extra layer of flavour proved superfluous.
We ordered both desserts for the hell of it, and were glad we did. Strawberries and elderflower (€7) arrived shrouded in a sabayon that amplified the delicacy of the flavours beneath. Bubble pudding (€10) was described by our waiter as like a bread and butter pudding, somewhat a disservice. The three ‘bubbles’ were like a pudding hybrid of brioche and milk bread, swimming in a moreish salt caramel sauce with an excellent banana ice-cream. Definitely one to share.
All of this excellence is matched by a well-conceived wine list that gently leads the customer into lesser-charted territory. Their Perlage Pinot Grigio, for example, is a quality drop and certainly not the cheapest option. We treated ourselves to a carafe of Winelab's Folk Machine Pinot Noir from California (€44), which has a touch of smokiness and ample acidity to match this food. Several beers, cider and aperitifs (try the Ramona Grapefruit Wine Spritz) broaden the offer.
Vintage crockery and dusky pink walls temper the industrial feel of the pared back room, which includes a lower-level communal table perfect for an impromptu gang (they’re sticking to their walk-in only guns). These lovely touches – along with that primo supplier list – remind you that this is the antithesis of restaurant-by-numbers. These are young professionals who are cooking from their hearts, and they’ve put so much of themselves into getting Mister S to where it’s at. Now it’s up to Dubliners to choose what kind of restaurants we want to support. I know where my money is.
The bottom line: We spent €70 a head including a tip for a splash-out three course meal including all the sides, aperitifs and lots of lovely wine. You could equally share that smoked chicken starter, short ribs, sides and beers for under €50 between two.
Mister S, 32 Camden Street Lower, Saint Kevin's, Dublin 2; tel: 01 683 5555.
Author: Aoife Carrigy
Aoife’s first proper work experience (if you don’t count a formative stint as the milkman’s assistant) was a TY placement as a commis chef in The Wishbone in Glasthule, where she caught the restaurant bug. From her teens and through her 20s she worked front-of-house in restaurants around Dublin and beyond, before a freelance gig as restaurant columnist for the Dublin Event Guide and then Totally Dublin turned into a five-year full-time editorial stint in FOOD&WINE Magazine. She has been freelance since 2010 and keeps herself busy co-writing and editing cookbooks as well as writing on food, drinks and travel. Aoife is WSET-trained and is currently researching a Masters on ‘Cultural Representations of the Irish Pub’ at TU Dublin.