Variety Jones: Some of the Most Exciting Cooking in the City Right Now
Lisa Cope - 5th February 2019
What’s the story?
We'd been hearing about Variety Jones for months before it opened, but all we knew was that it was going to be a boot-strapped operation (i.e. no money men) on Thomas Street from the ex-Luna and Locks head chef Keelan Higgs. Keelan himself was regularly seen walking to and from the site, power tools in hand, so we had a (good) feeling that this was going to someone doing things on his own terms.
Where should we go for a drink first?
The location feels a bit like you're near nothing, but there are actually loads of options around. Lucky's is just around the corner and has craft beer, wine on tap and great vibes. For more craft beer and cocktails you've got Drop Dead Twice on Francis Street, and if you want to step back in time head down the hill to The Brazen Head, officially Ireland's oldest pub, dating back to 1198.
Where should we sit?
The room is long and narrow with tables, bar seating, and a "chef's table" edged right up against the pass. We'd definitely try to get nearer the action, and the bar is great if you just want to stop in for a few plates. We would try to avoid the table closest to the door, especially on cold nights, as the wind from the door opening and closing can be a bit intrusive. Saying that, we'd take whatever table we could get to eat here.
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They were originally supposed to open in September, but after a raft of delays (an all too common story this year) we were edging towards Christmas and the doors were still shut. We were starting to get a bit anxious for them, but finally on the 20th of December, the doors swung open and the open fire at the back of the kitchen was burning.
What's good to eat?
The menu is small, with much of it cooked over burning embers in an open hearth at the back of the kitchen, and if that's the key to make everything taste this good, we're going to have to figure out a way to do it at home. It's divided into snacks, small plates, pasta and family style sharing mains, and when we were there, the snacks consisted of an oyster with Vietnamese dressing and an artichoke filled with comté custard. Both excellent, even for a non-oyster lover, and anything with comté custard is a winner in our book, particularly when it comes inside a chewy artichoke skin.
The hearth grilled vegetables with barley and goat's curd was another dish we ended up fighting for the last spoons of (seriously, smoke and fire take everything to another level), and the chicken liver and foie gras parfait with crispy, sweet and sour onions and potato bread (made in a waffle iron) was super rich with loads of layers of interest from the different components.
For mains, there were two choices of hearth grilled brill or venison loin, both sharing platters for two. There's been mixed feelings from diners and critics about only having shareable mains, as it is limiting if you're a table of two and want all the food, but we were a four so got to try everything, and at this stage were running out of superlatives to describe how incredible everything tasted. Both the fish and the meat are cooked over burning embers in the open hearth, and it felt like we were being fed by Francis Mallman. Take us back to the time before electricity and gas when everything was cooked with flames and smoke. The brill had tender flesh and blackened skin in a herby cockle and mussel sauce, with kale unlike any we have ever tasted (also cooked over the embers), and officially the best potato salad in the world, which came with smoked eel through it and reminded us in the best possible way of smoky bacon crisps.
From the small plates, the one we've really struggled to stop thinking about (like everyone else it seems) was the char-grilled cauliflower with burnt yeast, sea trout, brown butter and fish roe. We'd had a few messages from people before we went talking about 'undercooked' cauliflower, but the slight crunch of the florets just added another element of texture to frankly a masterpiece of a dish, and we loved every bit of it.
From the two pasta dishes, we went for the comté ravioli with hearth roasted mushrooms and mushroom broth, and very much regretted sharing one between four. Keelan perfected his pasta making at a two-star Michelin restaurant in Tuscany, and this really was special. We were advised to eat the ravioli whole so they burst in your mouth, and the deep, rich flavours from the cheese were a brilliant counterpoint to the smoked and pickled mushrooms.
The other main of venison loin came with a generous amount of perfect meat, hearth roasted celeriac (once again, the best version of celeriac we've ever tasted), blackened cabbage (ditto), wild mushrooms, and peppercorn gravy. We're very much on board with eating less meat of a higher quality, and we'd cut it back to once a month if all of it tasted like this. There wasn't so much as a scrap of food left on any plate.
There was no cheese on the menu but they brought us a selection of what they had in the kitchen, along with homemade bread and seedy crackers, and two large spoons of honeycomb and acacia honey, which was a lovely addition and something we haven't seen here before.
There was only one dessert on the menu both times we visited, and the two incarnations we've had have been much in the same vein (and made from the same cake mould). Between the apple cake with caramelised apple and brown butter custard, and the Jamaica cake with caramelised pineapple, and vanilla and coconut cream with sarawak pepper, we'd have to give it to the Jamaica cake for nostalgia if nothing else, but both were very good.
What about the drinks?
Sommelier Vanda Ivancic has worked hard to put together a wine list full of interesting bottles that you won't find in every other cool spot in town. It was immediately obvious how invested she was in her list, so we left it up to her to bring us wine matches for various dishes, and loved the whole experience. We tried so many new and unusual wines, all of which we enjoyed (probably in part because of her obvious love for all of them and ability to sell us the stories behind the bottles). The wine list is well priced for Dublin, with everything under €60, and everything is poured by the glass which is brilliant and so rare to see, but there were no glass prices on the menu when we were there so it's easy to get carried away and not know how much you're spending. If you're in groups of 4 or more it would make more sense to drink by the bottle, but either way we'd advise putting yourself in her hands.
And the service?
Faultless, these are pros at work. Keelan's brother Aaron is front of house along with Vanda, and they make a polished pair. Often the chefs bring the dishes to the tables themselves and explain what they are, which is great as you can ask any questions you might have about what you're eating.
We try to avoid hyperbole, but this is undoubtedly some of the most exciting cooking in Dublin right now. Higgs is taking it back to basics, and reminding us why humans have cooked with fire for the past 1.5 million years. Electricity might be convenient, but it doesn't turn out food like this. If you eat all the food and drink all the wine you could end up with a hefty enough bill, but in terms of value for what you're getting, we'd pay it every week. We're hearing that a weekend table at Variety Jones is difficult to come by at the moment, which isn't surprising after the raft of great reviews they've had, so we recommend taking any booking you can get as soon as possible, because you deserve to try this food.