Allta Winter House: Back In The City And Soaring Above The Rest
Lisa Cope - 23rd November 2021
What’s the story?
Niall Davidson's Allta opened on South Frederick Street in November 2019 in a rush of excitement. The formerly London-based chef who'd led the kitchen in Nuala, after time spent in Chiltern Firehouse and St. John, had critics and diners almost in a frenzied state with talk of handmade pasta, home-cured charcuterie and a menu with almost everything sourced from Ireland, and it didn't let them down. It felt fresh, different, like it had been picked up in a city far cooler than Dublin and dropped in the centre, and we loved it.
They blazed away for a few months, and then in early 2020 the unthinkable happened and they, like everyone else, were shut down. They never reopened the original site, even when lockdowns were lifted, saying they couldn't make enough profit with the social distancing restrictions in place, but instead focused their energies on Allta Box, which was the smash hit, at home kit of the pandemic. Most of us have memories of the brown, Allta-emblazoned box arriving on a Friday afternoon, the sourdough and shiitake miso butter, the pickled veg palate cleanser, the perfectly labelled and colour-coded pots of pasta, sauces and crunchy toppings, the cookie dough, we'll stop...
We were (im)patiently awaiting news of the restaurant reopening, but instead, in June 2021, they announced they were popping up in a huge tent in the grounds of Slane Castle on the banks of the river Boyne for the summer. When the book of Irish food post the year 2000 is written, 'Allta Summer House' will probably have a chapter in itself, and we left as thunderstruck as everyone in front of and behind us.
It ended in September with diners already trying to book for the following summer, but there was surprise and all round awe when the team announced that their next move would be to the top floor of Trinity Street carpark, for 'Allta Winter House'. Davidson also announced that he had split with his investors, and now he and head chef Hugh Higgins were out on their own.
How do we get up there and can we have a drink first?
Enter the dingy carpark entrance from Dame Lane and head for the lift - there are no signs anywhere, don't panic. Hit level 5, and when you get out all will be okay. Here you'll give your name, have your vaccination certs and ID checked, use a fancy automatic hand sanitizer, and then be brought to your table.
You'll walk through Glovebox, their bar/art gallery which will be serving drinks and small plates and is due to open soon. There's going to be a DJ too - major London/New York rooftop party vibes. Once open you can have a drink here before or after, or head up without a booking in the main space, which is up a ramp (level 6).
Where should we sit?
All of the tables are the same long table set up seating four or six people, and are assigned in advance, but you might want to request being close to the kitchen if you like to see the action, or at the other end of the space if you don't want to be surrounded by other tables on all sides. Despite being in a tent it's not cold - every table has a heater above it, and we had full arms out in November. What they've done up here took real vision and we're sure a lot of painstaking toil to get it ready. It's very hard to believe you're in the same city carpark off Dame Street when sitting on a sheepskin rug under a floral installation eating off Fermoyle Pottery.
What's the food like?
It's a set menu for €95 which is good because you don't have to make any decisions and get to try ALL THE FOOD, but potentially bad because it's a lot of money and you might struggle to get another three or five people to go with you. We've had a lot of messages from annoyed readers wanting to go as a two, but because of the table set up it just wouldn't make sense for them financially, and they can't mix you with strangers at the moment for obvious reasons.
We've been busy trying to match up some of our ATF Insiders who wanted to go but didn't have enough spenny pals to go with them, but honestly this is worth calling up old school pals, the couple who used to live upstairs, your rich uncle - anyone who might join you for what could be yours and their meal of the year.
The menu is going to change often, so we're not going to spend too much time detailing every single course - also it would be a eulogising, adjective-filled overload - but you can see the menu above for the night we visited, and you can expect some dishes (or variations) to show up again and again. You'll start with a broth - our was a sweet and smoky grilled aubergine, with droplets of oil giving it a silkiness.
Next you can expect the softest Cromane oysters from Kerry, which Davidson has been using since he put that mural of the fisherman on the wall at Allta. Ours came with a dressing made with sea buckthorn - a coastal berry that's in season in Ireland right now, and tastes sweet, sour and citrusey.
Next came a crunchy buckwheat cracker with the freshest crab meat, tomato and sea urchin foam (leading to many questions around the table of exactly how one makes a sea urchin foam).
This was followed by one of the dishes we have vivid taste memories of from Allta Summer House - the fermented flatbread with Bán goat's cheese from the Boyne Valley and black garlic. Chewy, creamy, tangy, sweet - if Carlsberg did flatbreads...
And that was just the snacks. For our first larger plate we saw the resurrection of Allta's sweet and juicy scallops with gooseberry beurre blanc and hazelnuts. It was stunning then, and it's stunning now. Particularly with the added ribbon of kolhrabi for extra texture.
Then came Jerusalem artichokes with Cais na Tíre (a Tipperary sheep cheese) sauce and artichoke crisps, like something fondue dreams of being when it grows up. Also, why are Jerusalem artichokes not on more menus? We're starting a petition. Also for this to be the new definition of 'comfort food'. You can keep your burgers and ribs - we're choosing cheese covered artichokes every time.
Then, just as we were wondering whether we should cover each other with coats to lick the plates, they arrived with that sourdough to mop it all up, and a bowl of the shiitake miso butter. If you haven't seen someone taste it for the first time, sit back and enjoy - the ooohs, aaahs and omgs are quite entertaining.
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When you're feeling nicely full your sharing mains arrive. First up we tackled a striking side of ocean trout with sea herbs, mussels and goat's milk whey. You should gently peel off the crispy skin before dividing it up, scooping up the sauce and flavour bursts with a suitably large spoon.
After a few bites of the fish, the attentive staff told us we shouldn't leave the Tamworth pork sitting around, and you don't have to tell us twice. We had this dish in Allta Summer House, with the pork coming from the Rock Farm pigs in the adjoining field, and we presume this has the same provenance as Tamworth pork is not easy to find here. The sweet, soft meat is topped with sweet, crispy skin, and it was sitting in a pool of tangy fermented pumpkin. If you're of the "eat better meat less" camp, it's hard to imagine it getting better than this.
Unexpected sides arrived (maybe they didn't have enough space on the menu) of romanesco and cavolo nero on romesco (we wished we'd saved some sourdough), and lightly dressed potatoes with herbs, and we had to take a few leftovers home in a lunchbox because we were close to being defeated, but also can't abide food waste.
A semi palate cleanser arrived as the first dessert, of apple cider jelly made with the good stuff from The Cider Mill in Slane, apple ice and apple ice-cream, before the most scandalous mini doughnuts with brittle crème brûlée toppings, like the outside of a well made toffee apple, filled with a sort of thicker crème anglaise. We now understand why people used to queue for 90 minutes to get into the Allta Bakery.
What about the drinks?
The wine list is extremely well curated and has so many of the best wines on the Irish market right now, but prices are high - those high end tents and dried flowers don't pay for themselves. We love Tuffeau's champagne style sparkling wine (€50 on the list here), as well as the Spanish Ubé from Bodegas Cota 45, and the Portugese Prazo de Roriz from P + S (both €60-€65), but there was so much we would have loved to drink - especially if we had deeper pockets. Wine glasses are Riedel too - what else would you expect.
And the service?
So personable and friendly. Everyone seems to really enjoy being a part of this, and we can't blame them. It feels like a rocket ship on the ascent.
And the damage?
€168 a head for the set menu, three bottles of wine between four, four after dinner drinks and service charge. Pricey? Yes. Value for money? 100%.
What the Allta team are creating and delivering, whether in a tent on the roof of a carpark or if they move into a bigger, less edgy space next year, is undoubtedly a defining event in Irish food. Ambitious projects like this set new standards for the industry as a whole, show others up, show diners what they could be experiencing, instead of another lacklustre meal of goat's cheese salad and chicken supreme.
A chef from another restaurant joked recently that restaurants and chefs lacking in creativity wouldn't bother copying Allta, because who would put that much work into each dish, and you can taste the weeks and months of curing, fermenting, aging, planning, tasting - flavours like this don't come from packets or bottles or chefs lacking in skill. There are no shortcuts here, no cost cutting measures. Their only goal is to make their ingredients taste as extraordinary as possible, and shake things up while they're doing it.
There's a relatively small cohort of restaurants and chefs across the country pushing the industry to new heights, but their importance on the larger scale of defining what it means to cook and serve 'Irish food', or even just 'food cooked in Ireland', can't be underestimated, both at home and abroad. Either can their ability to turn out the next great chefs in the country.
Allta Winter House is as impressive a definition of Irish food as you'll find anywhere in Ireland in 2021, served in an atmosphere crackling with talent and drive, in a space that took major vision to bring to life. If you do one nice thing for yourself in the next few months, get a booking here, and experience it for yourself.
Allta Summer House
Trinity Car Park, Trinity Street, Dublin 2