Monday, May 20, 2019

Gratitude: Dining with Piglet

Okay, let’s get down to one of the core travel experiences: the eats.

When my friend was Skyping me his pitchfork to goad me into taking a trip to Ireland, one of the last things he said was, “Do something spendy and nice for yourself.”

Well, this is something I have difficulty doing because reasons, but when I got to Dublin, I thought I might like to treat myself to a nice meal or two, as I did in Paris and Prague last year. My first foray, on the recommendation of Radislaw, the concierge, was not a success. Pro tip: if a pub is named the Hairy Lemon, it’s going to be chockablock with loud, drunk American tourists. And the food will be mediocre. Although Smithwick’s is Smithwick’s.

So I made sure to avoid Radislaw from that point onward, and Martin came through for me. On fairly short notice, he got me bookings at three “fine dining” establishments (= French, pretty much), and on my last night he confirmed the pub recommendation from my Irish friend.


Okay, for some reason I didn’t pull out my camera at Pearl Brasserie between shooting the initial table setting and then the dessert.

But my starter (after an amuse bouche) was crispy Dublin Bay prawns wrapped in spring roll pastry, marinated bean sprout salad, mango and black pepper dressing. Amazing. As was the pan-fried hake with roasted fennel, crispy sweetcorn (think hush puppy) and chicken jus. I was sorely tempted by the honey, thyme, lemon cream tartelette for dessert, but in the end was swayed toward the yuzu tartlette with white and dark chocolate.

Before the place started hopping, I had several chats with the fellow I took to be the maître d’ (French). I did not start with an apéritif because that was the day I’d spent my lunch hour tasting whiskey at Pearse Lyons Distillery. (I made do with sparkling water and a glass of Chablis.) This guy hadn’t heard of it, and in between chats he looked it up and pronounced it very interesting. So there may be some business in it for PLD.

Sadly a Loud American Couple was seated next to me about halfway into my meal—they were certainly good for Pearl Brasserie’s business: ordering top-shelf vodka cocktails, high-end wine, oysters, steak tartare, the €19 lobster starter, lamb and I can’t recall whatever else. They were in town for someone’s birthday party and they were dodging their fellow celebrants for the evening.

The next night I dined at Peploe’s, whose owner/manager was Irish, but whose servers mostly were French. My starter, Lambay Island white crabmeat, pickled cucumber, avocado and dill yoghurt:

It was lovely, if somewhat…small. I was reminded of a comment by a colleague of mine back in the 80s on nouvelle cuisine: it’s the appearance of food, not the substance.

Well, the pan-roasted monkfish with Dublin Bay prawns and teeny-tiny baby mussels and about 12 peas in curried coconut velouté was delightful, and my glass of Sancerre was exactly right.

And the passion fruit soufflé with passion fruit cream and vanilla ice cream was—as I informed the manager/owner on my way out—a little bit of heaven on earth.

They seated a not-Loud American Couple next to me. He ordered a Maker’s Mark, which somehow didn’t fully translate. It came along with a tall orangeish drink, which he looked at somewhat stupefied. He sipped it and said, “I have no idea what that is,” but he didn’t send it back. That will have been at least €10 added to their bill.

On the Saturday night, Martin booked me into Glovers Alley, the restaurant associated with the hotel. (They offer a discounted menu for hotel guests, or I’d never have done it.) This was not my favorite—it was perfectly fine, and I certainly had a lot of attention, but after the other two experiences it was just adequate. With a couple of interesting points.

The woman at the table next to me when I sat down was wearing very glitzy shoes:

When at one point her companion left the table, I leaned over and said, “I purely admire those shoes. They remind me of The Wizard of Oz.” Turns out that she did know that the shoes Dorothy inherits from the Wicked Witch of the East were diamond in the book; MGM thought they didn’t translate well to a color production, so they made them ruby slippers.

(These are Jimmy Choos, by the way, and she bought another pair, flats.)

The sommelier was kept quite busy. Interestingly, he did not open bottles of wine at guests’ tables; he opened them at a table and took a taste before taking the opened bottle to table. And the older couple who sat at the other table next to me ordered something that was good enough to be decanted. I don’t think I’ve seen that on the hoof before.

Well, okay, my meal.

The second and third amuses bouches (I ate the first one before I thought about shooting it).

The butter.

Poor under-waiter who was using two forks to serve the rolls had a hard time with my French roll, which slipped away and skimmed the butter. Which he took away and replaced.

My starter, scallop ceviche with tomato seeds, radish and dill:

My main:

Which is listed on the menu as Piglet Belly, turnip, walnut, Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar. I heard a waiter telling another guest that it’s suckling pig, which I personally think would be a better thing to put on the menu, so you don’t think you’re eating Pooh’s friend.

And my dessert was described as “Rhubarb, Strawberry, Lemon Verbena, Mint”, which doesn’t convey a lot to me. According to the server, it’s a parfait. But when it arrived, here’s what it looked like:

The waiter told me the best way to address it is to whack it with the back of a spoon and break the shell, which turned out to be white chocolate.

Voyage of discovery, eh?

All three restaurants served little petits fours after the dessert. I only shot the ones at Glovers Alley.

For my last night, I went to Doheny & Nesbitt, a straightforward pub. I had a grand fish & chips and a pint of Smithwick’s, an excellent way to say goodbye to Dublin.

So on this Gratitude Monday, I’m looking back at some stellar dining experiences, and only one dud.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Climbing through history

In light of the elegance on display in yesterday’s post about Georgian Dublin, it seems appropriate to share my visit to 14 Henrietta Street, a museum that literally walks you through nearly 300 years of Irish history.

When the townhomes on Henrietta Street were first built in the 1720s, they were the height of sophistication in the area that was the place to live if you were part of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy: North Dublin. (Merrion Square was the first outpost of the ton South of the Liffey, in the late 18th Century.) Number 14’s 15 rooms first housed the family of Viscount Molesworth of Swords. (I thought the “of Swords” part was hilarious, like a suit of Tarot cards, but it turns out to be a district in Ireland that nowadays surrounds Dublin Airport, so, carry on.)

After the Molesworths left Dublin for London in the 1750s, the premises were occupied by various Anglo-Irish (meaning: Protestant) notables and then converted to business use, including as law offices, courts and a barracks. By 1877 a guy we’d call a developer these days, Thomas Vance, owned the place. He removed the elegant staircase from the ground to the first floor, and converted 15 rooms into 17 “flats”, each to be occupied by a family.

Interestingly, because 14 Henrietta had an interior water source (pump on the ground floor) and gas laid on, it could legally pass for not a tenement (and thus charge higher rents), but that’s what it was for the next hundred years. Families of up to 14 or so lived in single rooms (that might or might not have been partitioned, but were still less than 300 square feet of space). The last tenants did not leave for other accommodation until 1979.

At the museum, which really consists of the walking tour, you start in three rooms of Georgian elegance, move down into the really rough territory of early tenement life and end in a re-creation of rooms in the 1950s and 1970s. Along the way, your guide ties the space you’re in to the greater history of Dublin—aristocrats packing up to leave their townhouses for spring-summer-fall in their country estates, the Acts of Union abolishing the Irish Parliament, the business activities going on, population expansion leading to tenements as a viable economic model for landlords, the catastrophic Lockout of 1913, the Easter Uprising of 1916, world wars…the whole megillah. My guide Gillian’s command of macro and micro history placed 14 Henrietta Street in context.

And everything was focused on the people—those who lived and died here. Rent records are sketchy, so we don’t have full knowledge of names of the tenement dwellers, but where that was available, Gillian made sure we had the picture.

The museum has an excellent digital component—periodically Gillian would turn us over to the presentations, from Georgian life to children’s games in the 1950s. She also updated us with stories of former residents who’ve come by since the museum’s opening in September last year, and shared their experiences. Largely, they viewed their lives at 14 Henrietta fondly, with a sense of community that was lost when they were moved into housing with all mod cons.

Here are some images from my visit. I did not think to shoot the first couple of rooms, but here’s the entrance to the museum. During its tenement days, the staircase was removed and a family of 11 lived here.

(I took this before they instructed us that we couldn’t shoot video. It’s the only one I took.)

Here’s a bed built for the Molesworths:

One of the interesting things is that this (and other furniture) would have been disassembled, packed on carts and carried with the family as it moved between country and city houses. Pre-IKEA flatpack, as Gillian said.

This staircase would have been the servants’ during the viscount’s time, but it became the only way up or down during its tenement days.

This was a basement flat, set up as it would have been in 1913; it’s every bit as dire and oppressive as it looks.

As we wended our way up to the mid-20th Century, Gillian was able to relate more information. For example, the Child of Prague was frequently placed over the doorway to protect the family.

But one of the residents of this room, which had partitions (sorry, I didn’t get a shot of the markings, but it was divided into four spaces), in response to her question about privacy, told her that every Saturday their parents sent all the kids off to the movies, and when they got home, all the religious paintings were covered by tea towels.

Here’s a fireplace from the 50s, and some representative child paraphernalia.

Note the wallpaper. Gillian showed us a sample of the original that they copied. You can also see elements from the Georgian origins.

The last stop on the tour is this recreation of a flat from the 1970s. Check out the lino, which again is a reproduction of the original.

Eventually, after many governmental studies, residents of 14 Henrietta and similar tenements were moved to modern housing, like these flats behind the museum.

Much of the new building was in the suburbs, however, which were alien lands for North Dubliners. Community ties were broken up, women in particular were isolated, costs of food, other goods and transportation were higher (one newspaper flashed on the presentation showed that eggs in town cost two shillings the dozen, but in the ‘burbs they were three shillings; that’s a big bite out of your budget). People had a hard time adjusting to all the space they had, both within the walls and beyond.

As a veteran museum-goer, I have to say that 14 Henrietta Street knocked me out. I only knew about it because James, at Pearse Lyons Distillery, had recommended it (along with a couple of others) when we were chatting at the whiskey tasting bar. As a historian, I’m impressed with the presentation. When they get their feet further under the table, I’m sure they’ll add on things that will enhance the experience, but I’m very grateful that I lucked onto this on my trip last week. If you’re going to Dublin, put 14 Henrietta on your must-do list.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Circling the square

Dublin is famous for its Georgian squares—parks surrounded by townhouses dating from the four English kings named George, 1714 to 1830. The elegant architectural style appeals to me, so on Sunday I walked over to one of the first such to be built south of the River Liffey, Merrion Square, to admire the doors. And the knockers.

(Why does spellcheck red-line Liffey? Is no one at Microsoft Irish? Or even familiar with geography?)


Most of the buildings are commercial establishments, and the 21st Century has intruded:

It’s the detail that makes these doors so spectacular, though.

This door was interesting:

Primarily because it’s so hopeful about junk mail:

This guy’s door was quite the break in pattern:

Maybe because he’s something to do with real estate:

That he dressed it up:

It wasn’t just the knockers that were spectacular; several door knobs were also quite ornate:

Not all the brass was polished; some establishments were clearly slacking off. (They probably have clapped-out washing machines in their front gardens at home.) The Slovakian consular office didn’t shine their door hardware at all:

Although they did marginally better with the plate on the wall:

I thought some of the stairs down to the basement were interesting:

And there was some kind of photo shoot, with a really stroppy crew:

The park part of the square, which at one time would have been open only to residents, has a splendid playground, and statues honoring some of the famous inhabitants:

This runner was putting one of them to good use:

And some magpies were enjoying themselves.

Next trip I’ll have to take a look around Mountjoy, Fitzwilliam and Parnell Squares; I love this stuff.