Faoi Thalamh

A friend of mine is editor for the magazine Hospitality Ireland and recently got an invite to an event being run by Thorntons sous chef Gary Bell which was sort of a cross between a supper club and popup restaurant; knowing how big a fan I am of the restaurant (it’s my favourite place in Dublin that I can’t afford to eat in) he invited me along as his plus one. It’s called Faoi Thalamh (Irish for ‘underground’) and you can read more about it here but basically the idea for this night was to get a group of people together who didn’t really know each other in an unconventional venue (it was actually one of the organisers’ home) and let them share a top quality meal and hopefully get acquainted.

We arrived at an estate in Rathfarnham as instructed, if a little late, having had some issues with the sat nav and somewhat unsure as to whether we were in the right place but we soon saw someone scuttling by us carrying an armful of cream and cooking oil (in containers, obviously) so we figured we’d just follow him; it was a good decision after all because it transpired he was the owner of the house where the party was being hosted.

We were shown in and got a chance to be introduced to some of the other guests and also to have a glass of prosecco whilst we waited on the last few people to arrive. A few minutes later we were served some wonderful canapés of foie gras parfait on brioche as we stood around chatting; I had to stop myself eating too many because I didn’t want to spoil my appetite for the eight courses to follow.

Shortly afterwards we were shown to our seats as the meal was about to start and I found myself sitting beside a chap called Antonio who supplied the the wine for the night and his wife Brenda who were both really nice. The idea for the first course was to encourage sharing, so in the middle of the table was a big wooden platter strewn with fake seaweed on which all the food was placed and the people seated directly in front of it had to pass it out to the rest of us. As you can probably guess from the seaweed, the opening course was seafood based and comprised sautéed scallops served in their shells with saffron aioli and a champagne foam; there were also small tubs of different types of caviar (including an interesting wasabi flavoured one) and a great theatrical flourish where two containers of real seaweed were placed down and had liquid nitrogen poured into them so the whole room was filled with the smell of the sea. Spectacle aside, the food was very good, the scallops were huge and there was lovely hit of saffron from the aioli without it being overpowering.

Following on from this big opening though accompanied by far less extravagance (and no worse for it) was fillet of John Dory with spring pea risotto and pea shoots: the risotto was excellent with a really concentrated flavour of peas and the unconventional but welcome addition of parmesan (see Heston Blumenthal’s article on why the Italian no cheese with seafood rule is nonsense), my only complaint would be the fish was cooked slightly too long and had started to dry out.

Our next dish was my favourite of the night, a single Dublin Bay prawn with an outrageously good truffle mousse that could easily have overwhelmed the delicateness of the prawn but instead supported it perfectly: I would have eaten a big bowlful given the chance. There was a nice touch as well when a white summer truffle was passed around the table for everyone to grate some onto their plates.

The final fish course was very interesting and consisted of salmon prepared several ways – cured with beetroot, cooked sous vide at 40°C and smoked (this was actually done in the kitchen just before serving, we could even smell the burning while we waited!) – with horseradish, watercress and a cucumber jelly. I love the texture of low temperature cooked fish so that was my favourite part but the home smoking process gave an intensity I found a bit strong for my taste; I also really liked the jelly which rounded things out with a nice refreshing note.

We then moved onto the meat with confit belly of milk fed lamb, sweetbreads with tomato and an olive tapenade: normally I prefer the assertive taste of grass fed lamb but this worked well as a gentle transition from the fish to next stage of the meal and it was nice to see a lamentably underused cut being the main focus. The sweetbreads were very good too as was the tapenade but only in small amounts as it quite powerful, if you used too much it completely masked the other flavours on show. The wine we had had that accompanied all the food so far was an excellent albariño from Rias Baixes called Senora de Cruces and it proved extremely versatile given the different types of ingredients it had to pair with.

Before our main we were given a blood orange granite which acted as a palette cleanser and had a wonderfully bracing acidity to help reset the tastebuds. After we’d finished this we were served with another marvelously presented dish, this time stuffed pig’s trotter from a suckling pig, crispy pig ears, pomme maxime and a sublime wild garlic and morel sauce. The trotter had a fabulous glaze on it that added even more richness and depth but my favourite part was the ears as they gave a really interesting texture. The wine selection was the Artuke Maceración Carbónica 2010 from Rioja and as the name implies it can be drank whilst quite young due to the process used to make it; it was a very nice match with plenty of fruit and a lovely bit of acidity to cut through the richness of the pork.

For dessert we had a kind of deconstructed black forest gateau comprising chocolate, a cherry puree, kirsch jelly and fromage frais sorbet: there were lots of intense flavours vying for your attention with this but they were still well-balanced and as someone who’s always loved the cake no matter how unfashionable it’s become I thought it was a fine interpretation. There was also a suberb pairing with a port whose name I didn’t get but given the ingredients and how troublesome they can be to pair with wine I thought it was a particularly astute choice.

By the end of the meal we had been eating for nearly three hours and it was starting to get late (especially as it was a Sunday) and as my friend was driving he hadn’t been able to drink for most of the night so we decided to head home although everyone else seemed to settling in for a long one!  The quality of the food was most impressive, especially when you consider that it was made in a normal home kitchen with no special equipment by only two people; the idea behind the night was really interesting too and it’s great to see these sort of things starting to take off in Ireland: hopefully there’s much more to come.

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