Supper in the Hub

Fast friendly service and a mix and match menu that is perfect for a girls’ night out, writes CATHERINE CLEARY

Fast friendly service and a mix and match menu that is perfect for a girls' night out, writes CATHERINE CLEARY

AS RESTAURANT OPENINGS go, this was generating the sort of buzz for which a publicist would put her granny on Ebay. A cluster of men was primping the shopfront. The new menu showed a long list with pricey mains. The silver tables and chairs outside were just missing women in sunglasses to complete the look. Then a curious passer-by tried to bag a table.

“Sorry,” the men in orange vests said, grinning. “It’s a fake restaurant.” Most of the action for the next season of RTÉ’s Raw has been filmed in a warehouse in Inchicore. But it was “exteriors day” and Raw came to an anonymous grey stone building on Dublin’s Camden Street. The next day it was gone (the restaurant rather than the building), the menu board prised off the wall, the neon flames from the window bubble-wrapped and back in a props truck.

So, from a fake restaurant on a real street to a real restaurant on what still feels like a fake street. It was a Wednesday evening, a hastily-arranged girls’ night out, and I headed down the quays in Dublin to what the Docklands Authority has dubbed the city’s “Dining Hub”. We don’t have a glorious history of Hubs, what with the Digital one up-river. But you can see how it all should have worked. Water, great buildings, red light-up poles, apartments filled with trendy young restaurant customers. More than two years ago several brave restaurants opened. They had to wait until last March for the anchor tenant, the Grand Canal Theatre, to open its doors.

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Grand Canal Square is worth a visit, if only for the feeling of being in another city for a night. It’s a shinier, emptier urban area than the one you leave behind at the snarled-up streets around the bottom of Liberty Hall. We headed to Ely Gastropub in search of a reasonably-priced light meal, a kind of pre-theatre offering without the early start. The Gastropub is the third venture for the Ely business, which has grown from a basement wine bar on Ely Place to a larger brasserie at the IFSC and now here.

First impressions were that this was more gastrowinebar than gastropub. From the smattering of posh ingredients on the menu to the finish on the building, this wasn’t a Yorkshire pudding and gravy joint. There were coloured lights, a riot of wallpapers, and lampshades the size of paddling pools. It’s big, and that night it was busy.

The friends had ordered a bottle of Italian Pinot Grigio/Chardonnay, from Ciu Ciu Tabaldo (€26) and settled themselves in comfy leather armchairs around the back. I decided to try two starters. One friend did the same and the third decided to go main-only.

We had barely sipped our wine and started to compare washing-machine use on holiday – “Remember when we used to read a book every day on holiday? Now we put on a wash every day” – when the food arrived. This was fast and friendly service. My tian of smoked trout (€8.95) looked good, with celeriac remoulade, one of my favourite salads, tomato salsa underneath, and the fish at the bottom. All good ingredients competently prepared, but too fridge-chilly for the flavours to be as bright as they could have been. My friend’s goats’ cheese rolls (€7.95) were tasty – crispy outside and warm and fluffy inside.

The main came in the shape of pan-fried sea bass on an asparagus risotto (€18.95), and was good. The fish was fresh and the risotto was delicious, with chopped up spears that had retained their colour and flavour.

My organic Burren beef carpaccio (€8.95) got kudos for good ingredients, but lacked real kick. A lemon wedge or good balsamic dressing would have made all the difference. The pasta of the day starter portion (€8.95), a wild mushroom and cream dish, was bland. One specimen looked wild while the rest looked and tasted like very tame mushrooms.

As we looked at the dessert menu we spotted a €4.95 mini fish and chips portion listed under bar food that we wouldn’t have minded trying, had we seen it earlier.

Two desserts were ordered, a strawberry chiboust (€5.95), consisting of a disc of thin shortbread, cream and some fresh strawberries. The chocolate special (€5.95) was a mousse and chocolate sponge that was nice, but looked “like something you’d buy in MS”.

Outside, the red poles were showing off their lighting display, while the empty building next door to the restaurant remained in darkness. The event nights will bring the crowds to this hub – to Ely, and to Riva and a branch of Milano. Dinner for three with a bottle of wine came to €91.65.

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