Niall Davidson's Wild Wine Bar Comes To Setanta Place
Lisa Cope - 10th December 2019
What’s the story?
Oh we do love when a chef who's been a hit elsewhere prodigiously returns home, bringing bits of other cities in their armour and implanting them in our own. One thing is guaranteed, it's not going to be boring, and it's most likely going to be something brand new for the city - especially if they're coming home from London, scene of some of the most exciting cooking in the world right now, where unexciting/average/samey just doesn't cut it. So colour us fit to burst when the news broke last summer that ex-Nuala chef/owner Niall Davidson was coming back to Ireland to open a restaurant in the capital.
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What's good to eat?
The menu is a food sharer's dream, starting with snacks and moving onto a variety of plates, most of which include pasta. They've also just introduced a chef's menu for €48 per person where you get practically everything, but you will have to choose between the spider crab bigoli and the BBQ lamb pappardelle - a choice no one should ever have to make. Cromane oysters come with rhubarb vinegar and are of the dissolve in your mouth variety, with added zip from the vinegar, and the subject of the mural on the wall is the oyster fisherman in Kerry that they buy them from.
Anyone who grew up in Dublin was probably raised on ray (or skate as all the cool kids are calling it now), and they've done a very clever take on it with their crispy skate wing and seaweed cream. The bone is used to pick it up (a fish first for us) and it was perfectly crisp, tender and seasoned.
They also sent out an extra dish that's not on the menu yet but will be soon, and form an orderly queue. Hand-dived scallops are flash fried on the pan, then put back in their shells, topped with gooseberry beurre blanc and hazelnuts and placed on top of some smoking juniper wood to finish cooking at the table. Will any scallop ever taste this good again? How did we not know that scallops and hazelnuts were meant to be together? Where has gooseberry beurre blanc been all our lives? So many questions.
Where should we sit?
The long table down the centre of the room is half kept for walk ins, with the other half used for groups. On the side nearest the kitchen the tables are all for two with extremely Instagram-friendly lights above, but there's one light-free 'date table' in the corner if you like things a little dimmer. The tables nearest the window are all for four, so plenty of options. There's also a private dining room downstairs (due to open any day) so if you did want to have your birthday/anniversary/leaving meal there it's a possibility.
Then come the pastas. If you've heard about anything it's probably been the chicken scarpinocc, a stuffed pasta filled with chicken liver mousse in a foamed sauce topped with crispy shallots. It's rich, it's luscious, it's perfect. You will groan - unless you really don't like chicken liver pate, or butter (in which case we can't be friends).
Where should we go for a drink first?
You're definitely not short of options around here. 9 Below (pictured), Peruke & Periwig and The Sidecar (our fav) are all a few minutes walk away if you're after a pre-dinner Martini/Mezcal Smash/Manhattan. For a proper pub head for Kehoe's or Davy Byrne's, and for a good glass of wine head for Isabelle's on South Anne Street, basement wine bar La Cave or La Ruelle.
The spider crab bigoli is the dish with theatre attached, and another must order. The bigoli pasta is topped with spider crab and an egg yolk when it comes out, before a chef holding a spider crab shell filled with bisque pours it over the top. It's every bit as good as it sounds, with the flavour of the crab coming through on so many levels. The pasta here is faultless, with the perfect amount of chew, and everything combined makes this a very special dish.
Nuala was pegged as a 'modern Irish' restaurant using the best produce from the British Isles, and Allta (Irish for 'wild') was pitched much the same (with Irish substituted for British), but from early on they referred to it as a wine bar, and much of the talk was about small plates and handmade pasta (both of which we like a lot). Davidson brought ex-Luna head chef Hugh Higgins in as head chef and partner, along with Christine Walsh (ex-Loam) as sous chef, and the trio spent months leading up to the opening travelling around the country meeting producers, and testing recipes in a Terenure test kitchen. When they finally opened last month our readers got first access to the soft launch, and they had so much interest their system crashed. When reservations were released until the end of the year they had over 1,000 bookings in 24 hours. Safe to say people were excited about this one.
A small plate of grilled broccoli, pickled green tomato and goat's curd had immense flavour, and had us kicking ourselves for stripping the leaves off broccoli all of these years. Here they topped the dish like smoky crisps, with the broccoli stems beautifully chargrilled and tender, the goat's curd creamy like the inside of a ball of burrata, and the pickled green tomatoes the perfect foil to lift it all up.
Speaking of special dishes, say hello to the BBQ lamb with seaweed pappardelle, Cáis na Tíre cheese and wild marjoram. Mayo lamb is salted, confit then smoked over birch and glazed with their own Irish BBQ sauce, black apple purée, brown butter and salted cherry blossom vinegar. If you need to take a minute to process that go right ahead. You'll need another one after you've eaten it. Sticky, smoky, crunchy lamb, wafer thin strips of pasta, that cheese sauce... Swoon...
For dessert they're keeping it simple, with ice-cream or cheese, but obviously not just any ice-cream, 'nitro' (nitrogen) ice-cream, with smoked honey, sea buckthorn and white chocolate chunks. As you do. It's a pleasingly nostalgic end to a stellar meal, and one that won't have you leaving thinking you overdid it. Cheeses when we visited were Coolea or Young Buck, but they had run out of bread due to an issue with their flour supplier, so maybe check beforehand if you feel cheese without bread is like a weekend without wine.
What about the drinks?
The wine list is full of interesting bottles to drink but the prices are very punchy, so there's not much in the way of value. If that doesn't bother you or someone else is paying you'll have fun exploring it. We found the glass list offered more bang for your buck and lots of interesting wines are open so we'd stick to that. There's also a selection of wines on tap that are slightly more pocket friendly. The by the glass list is not separated into sparkling, white and red, but instead by genre, which those who don't have much wine knowledge might be uncomfortable with (especially considering there's a lot of unusual grapes), but just ask sommelier Ian Fitzpatrick or any of the other staff to point you in the right direction. The chardonnay based sparkling Tuffeau is a great meal opener at €8.50, and we also loved the Czech Krasna Hora rosé (€10.50) with the crab bigoli.
And the service?
Manager Gráinne Bates is well known in the industry having managed Etto, Forest & Marcy and Piglet amongst others, and her hospitable, bubbly nature is infectious, with other staff equally lovely. The chefs bring the dishes to the tables themselves and explain what's in them, and everyone seemed very chilled and on top of things, making for a very relaxing experience.
Despite only being open a couple of weeks, Allta is already one of the best restaurants in the city, and we look forward to seeing what the team get up to next, both with the menu and with the second more upscale site that's in the plans down the line. With what feels like a weekly increasing awareness of the importance of eating what's around us, and the sheer amount of world-class produce coming from our small island, places pushing as hard as Allta are going to be instrumental in taking Irish food and restaurants to the next level, and finally shaking off the global image that there's nothing to eat here but potatoes.