Monday, May 14, 2012

Dublin in the rare oul' times...

This book review first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail in December 2012

In the late Spring of 1967 Jammet's, the grand restaurant which had dominated Dublin dining since the dawn of the twentieth century, served its last Sole Colbert, dished up its final Avocado á la Russe and poured the last few drops of Montrachet. By the end of the year it would become a self-service café and the city had become infinitely the poorer.

Jammet's was not just a great Dublin institution and a benchmark for French haute cuisine and elegant eating in Ireland, it was one of the world's great restaurants. There were few Hollywood stars or international celebrities who had not graced its tables. The well-heeled of the entire nation made it their destination of choice for eating out; the merely well-off used to flock there for special occasions: engagements, anniversaries, confirmations.

I was too young, unfortunately. I was seven when Jammet's went the way of all flesh. And it was not the kind of place that my somewhat frugal and not very well-heeled parents would have frequented. But like many middle class Dublin children of those times I was often told, when my table manners failed to reach the required standard, "you'll never be let into Jammet's if you eat like that."

By the time I was ten, I did get to eat in what had been Jammet's. But by then, with relics of ould dacency tumbling like ninepins, it had been turned into a Berni Inn. I ate, with considerable relish, my first ever duck á l'orange (actually, my first ever duck á la anything at all) in what had been the Oak Room of Jammet's, though I realise that only now.

I have been wallowing in nostalgia for a time and a place I never knew, thanks to the recently published Jammet's of Dublin 1901 to 1967, by Alison Maxwell and the late Shay Harpur (who had been a sommelier in the restaurant in the 1960s). It is a feast of stories, of history and of memories of Dublin when it was smaller, poorer and a great deal more fun than it is today.

Jammet's occupied the substantial premises which now houses the Porterhouse Central pub and Lillie's Bordello nightclub, running between Nassau Street and Adam Court, the little laneway off Grafton Street.

In the good old days, it comprised the main restaurant, the grill room, the oyster bar, the cocktail bar and the back bar, plus two further areas known as the oak room and the blue room. It was an extraordinary operation and was founded by Michel Jammet in St Andrew Street, moving to Nassau Street in 1926.

Michel, originally from southern France, had come to Ireland to work as personal chef to one of the great Dublin distillers, Henry Roe, who lived at what is now Mount Anville in Dundrum. Michel then moved to the Viceregal Lodge (now Áras an Úachtaráin) and at Dublin Castle under the viceroy Lord Cadogan who loved good food and who entertained on a lavish scale. It is said that Cadogan could detect the absence of Jammet's master touch on the few occasions when he was indisposed and the cooking was delegated to lesser mortals.

On Cadogan's retirement, he encouraged Jammet to set up a restaurant and used his considerable influence amongst the local gentry and aristocracy in order to give the French chef a good start in business.

The aristocracy kept coming, right up to the end. The Hon. Garech Browne, the founder of Claddagh Records and part of the extended Guinnesty, recalls being in the oyster bar at Jammet's in the 1960s with the late Viscount Gormanston when the artist Sean O'Sullivan slumped forward, dead drunk, into his Potage Saint Germain. Nicky Gormanston rushed over and retrieved O'Sullivan's head, thus saving the artist from drowning in the soup.

At Browne's 21st burthday party in the oak room, Lady Mollie Cusack-Smith blew her nose in one of Jammet's fine linen napkins, which horrified fellow guest Brendan Behan. "Isn't that a shocking thing to do?" commented Behan to one of the waiters.

"Oh no, sir," he responded. "That's the sign of true lady."

Myrtle Allen, now the doyenne of Irish food and, of course, the founder of Ballymaloe House, first ate at Jammets at the age of 20, with her new husband Ivan who "knew his way around menus." She was very impressed with how the waiter boned her sole at the table and served it with Bearnaise sauce. "They did things properly at Jammet's," she recalls. And she would often spot ex-Jammet's staff in other restaurants for many years after it had closed, for this very reason.

Her first meal in Jammet's, towards the end of World War II, came to 25 shillings a head which was, as she says, "something of a shocker." That is roughly €3.

Prices had risen, of course, by 1967. The wine list for that year shows Krug Champagne vintage 1959 selling for 53 shillings and Blue Nun for just under 30 shillings. It's curious to think that vintage Krug these days would cost you over €200 while Blue Nun, if you could find it on a restaurant list, would be a little over €20.

Jammet's was all about excellence and this was enshrined in the thorough training of all members of staff (many of whose stories are related in this fascinating book). Strange as it may seem today, floor staff had to spend three years as commis waiters before they were elevated to the status of being a full waiter.

And Jammet's waiters were legendary for their tact and professionalism, combining, as Myrtle Allen recalls, a perfect blend of formality and friendliness. In a city and a time when many customers would have been daunted by the atmosphere and bamboozled by the menu (which was always entirely in French), they expended a great deal of energy in making people feel at home in a distinctly Irish, peculiarlly Dublin kind of way. The children of many customers now fondly recall being called "Master" this and "Miss" that by the staff, making them feel very grown-up indeed.

Jammet's food was clearly very classic. Their ordinary sounding omelette surprise was, in fact, an elaborate form of baked alaska and their specality version involved strawberry and vanilla ice cream and glacé chesnuts enveloped in Kirsch-flavoured meringue. This was then baked and set alight at the table.

Another Jammet's recipe starts with the immortal words "Take one raw boar's head. Remove the ears to cook separately..."

Steak tartare (raw minced fillet steak served with onion, capers and egg yolk) and dressed crab, on the other hand, were as simple as they were, doubtless, delicious.

Jammet's belonged to an age when great food was considered to be French by definition but it was also an era of high standards, stringent training, impeccable service and common courtesy. Jammet's was a restaurant that was vastly important in the life of the great but shabby city that was Dublin and it is good to be reminded that perfectionists such as the Jammet family ploughed their lonely but successful furrow here well before the chattering classes of Ireland ever gave a damn about Michelin stars.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the fact that Jammet's survived 1916, the War of Independence, World War II and the despondency of the 1950s says much, not just about the people who worked there, but also about Dublin. Our capital has always been more cosmopolitan, more sophisticated in the broadest sense, than we sometimes give it credit for.

The story of Jammet's, although forgotten by many, remains an emblem of that.

Jammet's of Dublin 1901 to 1967 by Alison Maxwell and Shay Harpur is published by Lilliput Press. (ends)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Restaurant review: Hartley's

This review first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail in March 2012

It’s tempting to claim that there’s no recession in the smarter bits of south County Dublin, but it’s not entirely true. There’s an outward appearance of affluence and bustle in Monkstown village, for example, but the spend is certainly well down in the local restaurants.

And, of course, the local restaurants have had to adapt to the new circumstances. Hartley’s still looks the same as it did in the boom times, occupying the vast and rather elegant site that used to be Restaurant na Mara, perched above the Dart station in Dun Laoghaire. And the customers – hordes of them on a Friday night – were much the same too. I suspect that most them live, like we do when we are in the capital, within at least vigorous walking distance.

I had been looking forward to revisiting Hartley’s after several years. It had a very sound wine list (and it still does) and the food was modern, informal, quite punchy in style.

I generally don’t mind loud restaurants. They can be fun. But the expansive hard surfaces here, when the place is busy, makes for irritating cacophony which would be forgivable if the food were really good. But it’s not. It ranges from the careless (squid), through the competent (chicken wings and beef short ribs) to the expensive mistake (fish and chips). It would take a remarkable wine list to compensate for that.

The squid starter, which comes with a kind of oriental dip, comes in rolls (which is what squid does spontaneously if cut like this). It’s tossed in seasoned flour before deep-frying but the problem is that the flour in the centre of the cylinder doesn’t crisp: squid with a soggy centre like this means careless cooking.

Actually, the food took a detour via the pointless and puzzling with a duck starter: thin slices of cold, pink duck breast served with a roasted plum, also cold) and some bean sprouts drizzled with a strange and rather indeterminate brown dressing.  I can understand something of the theory behind it; but did nobody try it before putting it on the menu? It seemed to have been thrown together.

My chicken wings were fine. They were done in the way popularized in Dublin many years ago by the Elephant & Castle in Temple Bar: crisped and tossed in a sticky, sharp chilli-hot sauce, served with celery sticks and a blue cheese dip. Hartley’s version was a true facsimile but the dip, this being the heart of south County Dublin, had become a Roquefort one. No complaints there.

I continued the American theme with beef short ribs which were generous, perfectly tender and coated in a sauce that was authentically sweet and chastely, mildly spicy. They were as good as any I’ve eaten across the Atlantic but, to be honest, this is not the greatest claim to fame. A slaw of green beans and red cabbage dressed with horseradish was very good.

Skate (or ray as most people call it in Ireland) was perfectly cooked, still a little pink just at the bone. It came with a dressing of capers and little cubes of spectacularly unripe tomato.

On the other hand, the battered halibut had been battered into submission by the simple expedient of cooking it to perdition. It had the texture of cotton wool which, as eaters of this expensive fish know, is not the way it’s meant to be. For €25, the portion was pretty mean too. And, to add insult to injury, the chips were frustratingly within hailing distance of being crisp but didn’t make it. To conclude this expensive tale of woe, we felt that the oil in the fryer, frankly, needed changing.

We decided to skip pudding in favour of Magnums on the way home. We needed a bit of cheering up.

The bill, including mineral water, a carafe of wine and a glass of wine, came to €110.50.

1 Harbour Road
Dun Laoghaire
Co Dublin
Phone: 01 280 6767

The wine list – and indeed the range of beers – at Hartley’s is exceptionally good and quite out of kilter with the food. Prices start at €6.50 for a 175ml glass and €13 for a 375ml carafe (of Domaine Marcé Sauvignon de Touraine or Gran Sasso Montepulciano d’Abruzzo). Highlights for me incude Josemeyer Pinot Blanc (€29), steely, elegant Mount Horrocks Watervale Riesling (€46) and the fragrant Finca La Emperatriz Rioja at a rather steep €34.

Friday, May 11, 2012

This review first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail in February 2012

Brendan Behan used to claim that members of the Garda Siochana were recruited by luring them from the Kerry mountains with hunks of raw meat. I can't vouch for the veracity of this obersavtion as it was way before my time; but there's no doubt that the relationship between the average Irish male and the flesh of animals, is close and lip-smacking.

It's more likely that a GAA or rugby star will take to competitive crochet than veganism. Our teams have been built on meat, and plenty of it.

It is appropriate then that Jamie Heaslip has joined forces with Joe Macken (of Jo'Burger, CrackBird and Skinflint) to create not a lentil bar but a restaurant in which bits of dead animal have heat applied to them.

The cuts avoid the usual suspects. You can have onglet for €24.95 or bavette for €29.95, a flank for €34.95 or a London Broil for €59.95.

Now, I don't know what a London broil is, but the rest are cheaper cuts that require quick cooking and then to be sliced across the grain of the meat. You get chew but you get first rate flavour.

And so it proved with our massive onglet. It would have been sufficient to serve three ravenous Irish males and perfectly adequate to satisfy four normal human beings. We brought half of it home with us.

And how was it?  This monumental piece of meat was nicely charred outside and nicely rarely within, a near perfect exercise in steak cooking. Part of it could have been better trimmed (had this been New York, the stringy bits would have constituted a capital offence) but overall it was a fine piece of meat and full of good, beefy flavour. Indeed, it set one wondering why such a steak experience is so rare - no pun, honestly - in this land of ours which produces the finest beef in the world.

So Bear - this is what the restaurant is called, for no apparent reason - does a good piece of steak and at a fair price. It's a shame about much of the rest.

Jamie and Joe, I have to tell you this. Cold mashed spud mixed with a bit of smoked haddock and dumped in a jam jar is not, by any stretch of the imagination, "smoked haddock skordalia". It's unpleasant, fishy mashed spud in a jam jar and I can't imagine anyone being prepared to part with €6.95 for it.

Now lads, "toasts"? Well where do we start? You shouldn't have to be told this but there's an ocean of difference between bread (even good bread, as it is here) that has spent a few moments in a toaster and thus become tepid and, you know, toast. Crisp, er, toasted toast. Tepid bread is unpleasant.

Not quite as unpleasant as cold, fishy mashed spud in a jam jar, admittedly, but not nice. At all.

Lads, I don't know if you'e ever had actual skordalia but bear in mind that the conventional version, made with breadcrumbs, needs a lot of really good olive oil and either almonds or walnuts to make it work. They use spud in Cephalonia and they have to try even harder to make it taste good.

Your "salt and vinegar fries" turned out to be slices of fried, unpeeled potato which managed to be sweet, flabby and overbrowned (all because the wrong kind of spud was employed). They were revolting and we sent them back. "Fries" were at least chip-shaped but equally unpleasant because, again, the spud was wrong.

There are potatoes that make good chips and potatoes that should never be used in this capacity. Honestly, you shouldn't have to be told this.

Look, if you're doing really good steak at a decent price, is it too much to ask for a crisp, properly made chip? And while you're at it, what is steak withhout bearnaise sauce? You have a few details to work out, lads...

With four glasses of wine, our bill came to €77.

34/35 South William Street
Dublin 2

Oh dear, it's one of those wine lists that seem to have just happened without any reason, rationale, point... It's been a while since we saw any Bulgarian wine in Ireland. Taste Domaine Boyar Cabernet (€18) and you will understand why. It's foul.  Domaine Boisson Cotes du Rhone is OK at €25 (or €6.50/€8.50 for a small/large glass). Bear in mind that Chianti Corale (€23) is not made by Badia a Coltiuono as claimed here.

There's no arguing with the value offered by the shared grills.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

I wrote this piece for the Irish Daily Mail way back in 2007. I joined the Church of Ireland at the age of 21, having been brought up by very devout Roman Catholic parents and educated, up to a point, by Jesuits. My parents were not pleased, but took it on the chin. The Jesuits didn't express an opinion.

It’s almost a quarter of a century since I gave up on the Roman Catholic church into which I had been born and signed up as an Anglican.

The reasons for this decision were probably less complex than I thought at the time. The fuse had been lit when my mother, a wonderful woman whom I loved deeply, asked me (rhetorically) when I was 14 "Who are you to disagree with the Magisterium of the Church?"

By the time I was studying the Reformation at school, I had decided which "side" I was on. I couldn't understand the need for celibacy, was astonished that people should have their sex lives ruled by unmarried men and, much as I was enthralled by the Sistine Chapel, failed to fathom how Jesus Christ could have founded a very rich and power-obsessed Church.

Despite the many flaws in the Anglican Communion - and they are legion - it seemed like a good idea at the time to make the switch and I’m still a member of the Church of Ireland, albeit not a very ardent one; but I long ago abandoned the notion that any organisation, religious or not, has got it right. There are times when I’m more comfortable with Buddhism or Quakerism than with Anglicanism. And so, I’m neither bothered nor surprised that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a group of celibate men appointed by the Pope, has announced, yet again, that the reformed churches, such as the Church of Ireland, are not actually churches at all but mere “ecclesial communities”. Like voluntary prayer groups, I suppose.

This is because, according to the Vatican, we poor Anglicans (and Methodists and Presbyterians and so on) don’t have the benefit of apostolic succession. The Roman Catholic church is the only real church because its clergy and hierarchy have all been ordained by bishops who in turn were ordained by other bishops all the way back to St Peter. Ordination has been handed down, generation by generation, from the rock upon which Jesus is supposed to have founded his church (if you believe that he was in the business of founding churches, which I rather doubt.) Some of the reformed churches point out that apostolic succession is a bit of a red herring while Anglicans protest that we do actually have apostolic succession even if most of us never give it a thought. On the other hand, we get a bit tetchy when the Roman Catholic church says we don’t.

The present Pope and his rather more charismatic predecessor belong to that deeply conservative tradition that seems to overlook an awful lot of facts in order to believe that you can’t change church teaching. Because what was taught in, say 1200, could not possibly be wrong. The Roman Catholic church doesn’t do “wrong”. But I wish it would make up its mind. It took away the Latin Mass and now the present Pope has given it the green light again. Limbo was fully up and running when I was a child and now it seems to have been abolished. Under Pope Paul VI Anglicanism and Methodism, for example were “sister churches” but now “cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called ‘churches’ in the proper sense”. So, if you believe the Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Paul VI – not a wacky liberal if I remember correctly – was in pretty serious error.

What bothers me about all this is not the breathtakingly arrogant assumption of superiority – especially when you consider some of the less wholesome episodes in the history of the Roman Catholic church – but the sheer rudeness. It comes out of the same blundering, tactless school of Roman Catholic thought (or teaching if you prefer) that lead Archbishop Connell of Dublin to describe the Eucharist that President McAleese shared in at Christ Church Cathedral as “a sham”.

At the risk of sounding like an American evangelical (from whom Heaven preserve us) it might be a good idea for everyone to stand back and ask “What would Jesus do?” Gratuitously insult your fellow Christians? I don’t think so.

While the Vatican was doing so, something inspiring was happening in the Church of Ireland Cathedral of St Patrick in Dublin. Dr Alan Harper, the Primate, installed two non-Anglican clergy as Canons of the Cathedral, the Roman Catholic theologian Professor Enda McDonagh and the former Methodist leader Ken Newell. In Dr Harper’s sermon he referred to division among the people of God as “a permanent scar on the body that is Christ’s”. Dr Harper added “we…recognise that, in placing them here as part of the capitular body of the national cathedral, as a church we are incomplete without them.” So, who decided to appoint two non-Anglicans as canons of St Patrick’s, notwithstanding all the “arcane theological and doctrinal disagreements”, as Dr Harper called them, between the churches?

It was the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, the body that represents all Irish Anglicans, that did so. Unanimously. Of course this hugely significant event will get very little exposure compared to the Vatican’s effectively saying “sorry, but there’s only one true church and that’s us. Christian unity is highly desirable and as soon as all of you guys accept that we’re right and you’re wrong, that’s what we’ll have.” Of course, it was put in rather more elegant language but I’m afraid this is what it boils down to: “we are not only superior, we are the only real church.”

It is, of course, some consolation that most of us, Roman Catholic, Anglican, whatever, are unlikely to pay a great deal attention to what these elderly bachelors in Rome are saying. We are probably more concerned with trying to forge a system of belief that sits comfortably with the 21st century, with our natural and healthy scepticism and the fact that so much of the Bible is…let’s be honest here…just plain weird.

The Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu enchanted me when he was talking about dying (he was very ill at the time but thankfully has recovered) and how he looked forward to being reunited with many friends in heaven. He was confident of getting there because, he said, “God has very low standards”. In a recent interview in The Irish Times, Tutu said “God is not a Christian” because if he was, “he would be a very small God. If God is Christian, what was he before Christianity?”

One wonders what the Vatican would make of that? The Vatican’s God is a very cranky God, a very legalistic and unyielding God, and a God that is frankly not really interested in the spirit but in the letter. One can’t help thinking that the Vatican’s God, in the words of Monty Python, gets quite irate when Anglicans take Roman Catholic communion and vice versa. Perhaps it all comes from the notion of an all powerful, conquering king of a God. If God exists, you can be sure it is in a way that we mere humans find very hard to grasp.

I like to believe, in so far as I can, in a weak God, a non-interventionist God, a God that is in every living person.

 During World War II a Lutheran pastor was imprisoned in a German concentration camp when a boy tried to escape through the barbed wire fence. There was a burst of machine gun fire and his young body hung there lifeless. Another prisoner turned to the pastor and asked, bitterly, “where is your God now?” And the pastor pointed to the dead boy and said “there.”

That kind of God is not concerned with apostolic succession or leglastic niceties or arcane theological arguments. That kind of God, one suspects, is concerned solely with love.