Woodruff: Ambitious Appetites In Stepaside
Lisa Cope - 22nd February 2022
What’s the story?
Woodruff opened in Stepaside, at the foot of the Dublin mountains, in late 2019. It's the first restaurant from Colm Maguire (owner/manager) and Simon Williams (owner/chef), and it was clear that ambitions were high from day one. In his previous position as head chef in The Gables, Foxrock, write ups of Williams' cooking praised his attention to detail when it came to the ingredients he was buying and foraging, and it felt like this was going to be the theme of Woodruff too, but turn that dial up to the max and you'll get the idea.
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A mission statement on their website sums up what they do: "cook with the seasons | sustainably source direct from farms | ferment | forage | cure | minimise waste". It's very easy to throw these words around, it's much more difficult to live them, but they are. You think of a food product - the chef's made an inhouse version. You think you know what can be foraged in Ireland? Labelled jars around the restaurant contain edible plants, fungi and herbs you've never heard of. You think you know Irish food? Sit back and get a lesson on the best meat, seafood, cheeses and vegetables that we as a country produce.
The over and above efforts here are bound to have played a factor in their very quick addition to the Michelin Guide for 2021, who praised their menus "packed with local produce – including plenty of foraged ingredients", and their "delicious food" and "super-friendly service". Its location and Dublin's abysmal public transport options mean that it's probably difficult for a lot of you to get to, but we wanted to see if it was worth the special effort.
Where should we sit?
We love this room. It feels modern and slightly industrial, but at the same time warm and comforting with all the wood and velvet. It's sleek and somewhere we'd be very happy to sit back and relax for a few hours. During covid they got permission for outside seating too, so hopefully that makes a comeback when the weather gets warmer. We do love a window seat so that's always first choice, but sit close to the back and you'll be able to look into the open kitchen watching the chefs at work.
What's the food like?
There's just one á la carte menu for lunch and dinner, so be aware, lunch will set you back dinner prices. This is not a casual, quick stop kind of place, it's an occasion. While we think they're missing a trick not doing a set lunch menu at a more wallet friendly price, we were selfishly happy to experience the evening menu without attempting a trek home from Stepaside late at night.
When a menu says homemade breads (plural) with cultured house butter, you must order it. Woodruff's sourdough will make home bakers want to weep into their starter - what child must we sell to get a crust as chewy as this!? - while the brown is on the sweet side so best just eaten with mounds of butter, and what butter. So much of the homemade stuff is weak - under-salted and lacking in flavour - this one is worth every churn. They also kindly brought us a sample of their in-house charcuterie as we'd gone back and forth about ordering it. We'd had it takeaway during lockdown and thought was some of the best in the country, and fully stand by those comments.
Our other starter was also picked because of a single listed ingredient - scarlet elf cups, a bright red mushoom that grows on decaying wood, with a firm, chewy texture, again foraged by the kitchen. They came on the side of just-seared tuna , young wild garlic (which grows next to the mushrooms), house soy (that's right, soy sauce made in the restaurant), chilli and sesame. This was more fiery than we expected with a good kick from the chilli, but the flavours were toppling over each other, in a good way.
We love a good snack, and Woodruff's plate of house-cured (obvs) Goatsbridge trout with horseradish creme fraiche, chicory and Guinness crumb was a very good snack. A beautiful slice of fish, bags of flavour all tangled up together, and a clever crumb crunch to top it off.
We've never met a 63 degree egg yolk we didn't like, so the mushroom tart fine was happening. The thin, crisp dish of pastry came topped with black truffle, hazelnut and tarragon mayo, and was an elegant, beautiful to look at dish, but slightly dry. It just needed an extra slick of mayo or oil, but the flavours were all there.
As we were sitting next to a large jar of preserved Alexander Stem, we couldn't resist the John Dory with ink fregola, Alexander stem, romanesco and a Vietnamese coriander and lime sauce, and what a plate of food (it's also enormous, and could easily be shared with some smaller plates). The fish came on the bone meaning you've got to be careful about picking out the bones, but it was perfectly cooked, and once again, so many flavours spinning around one plate.
Ink fregola is officially our new favourite grain, it's chewy texture perfect for helping to scoop up that zippy, fragrant sauce, while the romanesco and Alexender stem added two more interesting elements, mainly in texture for the former, and flavour for the later..
We always think the vegetarian option is a good test of a kitchen's skills, and Woodruff's gets an A from us. You might think gnocchi is overdone, but when it's St. Tola goat's cheese gnocchi, with crown prince pumpkin, red kale, organic pear, preserved walnuts and wild capers - it's so very not. It was half carby comfort food, half peppy salad, all wiped clean from the plate. At the start we thought it was going to be a case of Chanel - take one thing off - but everything had a reason for being on there.
We also tried the house fries with roast garlic and saffron aioli, which were good and clearly homemade, but could have been a little crispier.
For dessert there was a white chocolate mousse with blood orange, meadowsweet meringue, pistachio and chocolate crumb, of which the star was the perfectly ripe blood oranges, sweet red juice spilling out over the plate each time they were cut into. The mousse was definitely the canvas for everything else going on, but it was a pleasant dessert that felt like a light way to end a big meal.
We also had the Basque cheesecake with gooseberry sauce and Jerusalem artichoke ice-cream, which was definitely not a light way to end a heavy meal, but in for a penny. We find slabs of Basque cheesecake on their own a bit boring, but the tart gooseberry cut through the creaminess like a knife, and the Jerusalem artichoke ice-cream was a genius addition - who knew the sweet, flatulence-inducing vegetable could be used in so many ways.
What about the drinks?
There's as much care and attention in the wine list as there is in the food menu, and the only problem here is picking what to drink - we wanted everything. We would have liked to see a few more wines by the glass because we knew just it was ripe for discoveries, with manager Colm eager to recommend bottles and talk you through winemakers, vineyards and grapes. These are not wines picked for maximum margin or crowd-pleasing, they're picked because it's what they want to drink, and when we're in someone's restaurant, eating the food they want us to eat, that's what we love to see.
And the service?
Faultless, but on the midweek lunchtime we visited it was very quiet so we can only judge on that. It's hard to imagine standards slipping though.
And the damage?
€70 a head for bread, a snack, three courses and a glass and a half of wine each - hefty by lunch standards. We'd love to see them introduce a dynamic, good value offering during the week, a simplified set menu with little or no choice that we think would pack them in.
Woodruff is the type of restaurant Dublin (and Ireland) needs more of. In a world of "crowd-pleasing" menus aimed at maximum return and little purpose, Woodruff sits in the top tier of restaurants, doing what they love, and hoping the rest of us will do. The ambition and effort happening here is rare and remarkable, and we have no doubt that if they were in the city centre there would be a lot more talk about them because a lot more people would be paying them a visit. In the meantime we just hope Stepaside knows how lucky it is.
The Village, Unit 7, Enniskerry Road, Dublin 18