Just a few months ago, my big sister announced she was moving away; not only from Glasgow, but leaving the UK altogether. Her boyfriend, Diarmuid, had been asked to transfer to Dublin where his employer was opening a new office. As a native Irishman, this meant going home; for Louise, however, it was a chance to discover a new and regularly raved about city.
Seven days after we said our tearful but happy goodbyes, my mum, Aunt Susan, Craig and myself set off for dreary Prestwick Airport at 5am, groggy but looking forward to a weekend in the celtic capital to celebrate Louise’s 30th birthday.
After a raucous flight shared with some lumbering rugby fanatics who were already tanked up for the impending Scotland v Ireland game the next day, we hopped into a taxi where stereotypes really lived up to their expectations; the saccharine lull of Stephen Gately and co was playing out over the radio. I thought things might have moved on since the last time I was in Ireland some 16 or so years ago, when I, along with millions of other confused young girls, was in the full throes of Boyzone mania. I was all too pleased to discover, however, that this was some sort of odd coincidence and we weren’t subjected to that kind of aural assault again.
A February weekend in Dublin was always going to be a cold one, but I hadn’t prepared for the unrelenting, biting wind which tore past us, freezing rain stinging our faces, as we explored the city. For 90 minutes of the open top bus experience – necessity had us sitting downstairs – the cold seeped deep into my bones with no plans of easing off anytime soon. It wasn’t until a new lot of tourists stepped on board, only 20 minutes left of the circuit for us, that the driver thought it wise to turn on the heaters. Having presumed there was no such facility on board, I was just a little bit fuming.
The only thing that could lift my bleak body and mind at this stage was nature’s one and only cure-all: food. On the recommendation of Diarmuid’s sister, we headed to Queen of Tarts on the enjoyably titled ‘Cows Lane’. Stepping through the door, the intoxicating scent of home baking told me that this was exactly what I needed. I opted for the soup and sandwich combo to warm me through. Celeriac soup was served thick and piping hot, just as I hoped it would be. On the side, hearty roast pork loin with apple butter and homemade stuffing on focaccia was exactly the sort of belly-pleasing comfort food my body was craving, with the not-too-sweet but not-too-tart apple sauce ensuring it was moist as well as tender. Bones just about thawed – aside from my perpetually cold feet – we were prepared again to do some more exploring. The sun was even kind enough to kiss our faces for a little while as we strolled through Trinity College, down O’Connell St and along the River Liffey.
After a hot shower back at the hotel which was only a couple of stops on the LUAS train, we were ready to head back out into Dublin. Thankfully, the winds had eased and conditions were a lot more pleasant for an evening out than I’d expected. Leaving plenty of time to have a couple of drinks before dinner, we stopped by The Dawson Lounge, Dublin’s smallest pub, which is essentially a dark, dare-I-say dingy room down a set of stairs through a doorway just off St Stephen’s Square. What it lacked in style and space, however, it made up for in charm. There we enjoyed obligatory pints – or half pints on my part – of Dublin’s most famous export. The last time I had Guinness was on St Patricks Day in Brisbane quite a few years ago and this hiatus was with good reason. However, I did actually quite enjoy it which I can only put down to the Dublin water. Feeling a little merrier, we made our way back to street level and headed for the main event: The Pig’s Ear.
This award-winning restaurant was what I’d really been waiting for all day. Diarmuid had been once before and Louise had also spotted it in Dublin’s Lonely Planet Guide. When she told me that was where she’d booked for her birthday meal, I – impatient as ever – started digging. As they put it themselves on the restaurant website, “At the Pig’s Ear, simplicity, hospitality and generosity are key elements for a warm friendly restaurant. We offer an informal approach, value for money and no frills satisfying seasonal Irish food.” Having retained a Michelin Bib Gourmand since 2009, I was amazed to discover that the Early Evening Menu was available for only €26.95, particularly given this place’s location in one of the world’s most expensive cities.
During our dreaded open top bus tour, I had managed to spot the restaurant as we passed its doorway on Nassau Street opposite the Trinity playing grounds. A glossy, hot pink wooden door was adorned with a large black ribbon tied into a bow, like a luxurious gift just waiting to be unwrapped. For me, quirky touches like this one really amp up the anticipation and I felt genuinely lucky to be visiting one of the city’s most hyped eateries that evening.
Gladly, I was not disappointed. We dined in the second floor ‘Mirror Room’ which was stylishly decorated with – you guessed it – lots of large mirrors and other interesting details. As a pre-theatre style menu, there were three choices per course and all of them were inventive. I’m sorry to have to say this again, but I couldn’t turn my back on the goats cheese starter. To be precise, this was “Whipped St Tola Goats Cheese, Roast Onions, Pine Nuts, Brown Bread”. Having never heard of St Tola before, we asked the waiter of its origins and were told it’s on the west coast of Ireland in County Clare and is made from 100% organic goat milk. As a veteran on the goats cheese starter front, I can say that this was certainly one of the strongest goats cheeses I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. Not for the faint hearted, it brought with it a punchy, intensely rich flavour – a little too pungent for Craig, as it turned out – with a delicious, velvety texture thanks to the whipping process. The chef’s decision to pair it with baby onions became clear at this point as they were able to stand up to the cheese very well, while the pine nuts added a necessary crunchy dimension to the dish. I realise that my photography skills let me down somewhat on this occasion – no thanks to the ‘dining in the dark’ lighting – and the picture below doesn’t look particularly lovely, but in reality this was a dish beautifully constructed with a taste experience to match.
For my main, I took the very rare decision to deviate from my usual carnivorous ways and opted for “Pan-fried Hake, Cauliflower, Smoked Haddock, Brown Shrimp, Samphire, Almond and Caper Butter”. I eat a lot of fish at home and, as a result, the meatier dishes I don’t so often cook for myself tend to catch my eye. However, I’m sure you’ll agree that the description poised fish as anything but boring and it was an easy choice to make. A beautifully cooked, chunky piece of hake was the star of the show – as it should be – and was deliciously complemented with tasty morsels of smoked haddock and brown shrimp. The toasted cauliflower provided a satisfying contrast in texture and samphire, which seems to me to be the green of the moment, gave the dish a real visual appeal.
Having had a lighter main than I might normally have done, choosing a dessert wasn’t a struggle. I went for “The Pig’s Ear Vanilla Cheesecake, Berry Jam, Hob Nob Biscuits”. Served in a kitsch little jam jar with red and white gingham lid included, this was a cheesecake of the deconstructed variety. The crumbly biscuit base was, I’m sure, an oaty biscuit reminiscent of a Hob Nob, but, having had a pretty close relationship with the milk chocolate variety in my youth, I’m quite confident it wasn’t pulverised McVities. This would have been a cop-out on the part of the restaurant, of course, but there’s a reason why these branded biscuits are a mainstay of builders and grannies alike across the country. Believe it or not, 12 or so years ago, our house was burgled overnight while we slept and I woke to discover that one of the valuables plundered was my tub of McVities Milk Chocolate Hob Nobs. Naturally, I felt cheated as well as confused and completely furious. That’s one to talk through with my therapist, however, so back to the dessert at hand. The ‘cheese’ element of the dish was sweet and creamy as you would expect, while the berry jam was a lovely addition, offering enough sharpness to cut through the richness. Admittedly, this wasn’t the best cheesecake I’ve ever had, but it was a very pleasant end to an excellent dining experience in Dublin.
Should you find yourself spending a couple of days in this lively city, make a beeline for The Pig’s Ear. Not only was the food incredibly satisfying and interesting, but it provided us with a robust lining in our stomachs before moving on to explore many of Dublin’s best traditional pubs.