Our restaurant critic Aoife Carrigy dines out for her birthday celebrations in one the south Dublin seafood and steak restaurant that has been shortlisted for Best Restaurant in Dublin in the 2019 F&W Awards.
It’s quite something for a small neighbourhood restaurant to appear in one Top 10 list in Ireland’s most prestigious restaurant awards, let alone five. Chef-proprietor Gareth ‘Gaz’ Smith, manager Tahla Pasha and their team at Michael’s have been shortlisted for Best Dublin Chef and Best Dublin Restaurant in this year’s F&W Awards, plus Farm & Sea to Plate awards in the national category, Best Sommelier (Tahla) and Outstanding Champion (Gaz).
With four weekends to go until the winners are revealed, it seemed a fine time to shine the spotlight on what makes Michael’s so special. Plus, what better celebration of a sunny birthday Tuesday than a date with some of the best seafood in town?
I’ve been reviewing restaurants for almost as long as F&W have been doling out restaurant awards (19 years in their case) – long enough to know two key rules of professional food criticism. The first: fly under the radar to get an everyman experience. The second: order two starters, two mains and two desserts to give the kitchen a fair go.
I failed on both counts, though I blame the Michael’s team, who are pros to the last and generous to a fault. This is the team who won local loyalty with their Seafood September challenge to local children to try something fishy at Michael’s – free of charge. At their new sibling establishment, Little Mike’s wine bar, they have a ‘don’t like em? no charge’ policy for snacks of Lambay Island whelks in ginger, garlic and lemon butter.
In a previous life, Michael’s Food & Wine (as it was for many happy years under Michael Lowe) was a go-to for pizza, pasta and superbly sourced antipasta. Though the offer has shifted to seafood, steaks and pasta, that attention to sourcing remains king. When Gaz took the lease, he convinced Talha to stay onboard as the front-of-house face. Today’s combo of Gaz’s sure-footed cooking and Tahla’s consistent welcome has made a table at this 30-seater restaurant hot property.
Having booked under another name, we snook in past Tahla – initially – though his presence greeted us with a page of his wines of the week atop the cluster of menus. It’s a clever example of how this team work hard to keep their relatively tight food and wine offer fresh for regulars, and how opening Little Mike’s three doors down allows them rotate new dishes and wines into the mix (and allows locals enjoy a spontaneous bite at Mike’s counter space without pre-booking).
Menus comprised of a la carte, daily chefs specials and a 'Two-Course Tuesday' menu (€22 all evening, but with a €12 supplement for premium seafood and chargrilled steak). This abundance of reading material was made overwhelming by way too many capital letters and underlined bold font.
Happily, our breezy waiter appeared with a platter of today’s fish specials so fresh that they spoke for themselves: wild French sea bass (a rarity in Ireland), black sole and John Dory landed in Skerries by day boat fishermen with whom Gaz has fostered a working relationship. Their signature seafood platter for two (€34 per person sharing) comes with a choice of two fish, accompanied by a list of deliciousness so long and lovely that it’s near impossible to resist. Like sensible folk, we decided to share a starter and go the whole hog with the mains.
Having navigated some decent bread and very odd butter (caramel-flavoured butter should come with a warning) and a delicious aperitif of Ramona, a Cali-cool spritz of organic wine and grapefruit, we tucked into some text-book arancini (€10.40). Often stodgy, these Sicilian-style fried risotto balls had a brilliant outer crunch and inner yield of rice and buffalo mozzarella, and rich duck and wild mushroom flavours enjoyed umami enrichment from some aged Balsamic and just a touch of truffle aioli.
Then Tahla appeared with a complementary course of their Tempura of Soft Shell Crab & Prawn Fritti, Chilli and Garlic Dressing, Lime Aioli (a take on a Little Mike’s dish), and I knew my cover was blown – not to mention our appetites. They were magic though, encased in an exemplary tempura batter, and they paired beautifully with our Saumur ‘Elegance’ 2017 (a complex Loire Chenin Blanc from Domaine du Vieux Pressoir, €37.50) which was starting to reveal some lovely caramel richness behind its mineral and citrus brightness.
Then that glorious platter of perfectly cooked fillets of John Dory and black sole, Dublin bay prawns and tiger prawns with that delicate bite that they have when handled right. There were little intense clams, plump Lambay Island crab claws, sweet and subtle Roaring Bay Mussels and a fish cake of lobster, crab and smoked salmon, commendable crispy if overly smoky for those other subtle flavours. All of this beauty was bathed in a butter and lemon sauce and came with decent chips that we mostly ignored. Still, to our dismay, we filled up before we could dispatch the lot, amounting to one of the poorest performances of my professional eating career. But boy did we enjoy what we could manage before calling a pot of excellent Tea Pigs mint tea (€3.90) to the digestive rescue.
Our lovely waitress, who had been brimming with pride all evening, didn’t bat an eyelid when I suggested ordering dessert (€7.95) to go: a dense eclair-shaped ‘cake’ of chocolate praline ganache, served with whipped cream and macerated berries and delicious the following afternoon. I can also recommend the zingy lemon sorbet, which appeared as a pre-mains palette cleanser (and may or may not have been a critic’s special).
Skip starters, treat yourself to that stellar signature platter and something delicious from that lovingly curated wine list – and start planning return visits to sample everything else that this near-perfect little pair of local eateries has to offer.
The Bottom Line: €142 before a tip for one starter, the signature seafood platter, one dessert, wine, an aperitif and sparkling water.