Japanese drinks and small plates in Temple Bar
What's the story?
Daruma appeared quite suddenly in October in the old Fish Shack site on Parliament Street, with an Instagram post heralding their arrival one Sunday, and doors opening to customers two days later. After a bit of investigating we heard there was a connection to Big Fan and our ears perked up (turns out they have a backer in common), and the two owner/operators are former managers of Musashi, the Japanese sushi chain. The discussion of why Dublin has no high end, ultra exciting Japanese restaurants is an ever-ongoing one amongst food circles, and there was some hopeful whispering that this might be the one we've all been waiting for.
We loved the Japanese pub with small plates vibe they were selling online, but unlike Big Fan (which has been one of the biggest restaurant successes from the past two years), it didn't seem to be built around a particular chef and their talent. We also couldn't find anyone Japanese who was associated with it - not a pre-requisite for opening a Japanese restaurant, but it tends to go in their favour when someone has a strong connection to a cuisine they're trying to showcase. Between this and the lack of a website containing a menu/opening hours/online booking (basic in 2022) The jury was out before we'd gotten in.
Where should we sit?
Most of the tables are at the front, with the best one at the window looking out onto Parliament Street. There's also bar seating which looked ideal for a solo pint and some small plates.
What did you eat?
We covered quite a lot of the menu over two visits, so let's lay out the good, from the not so good. There are four sections - raw, robatayaki, bites and sides.
Daikon 'saibaizu' (which we presume is meant to be 'sanbaizu', a Japanese dressing with rice wine vinegar, sugar and soy) was refreshing and crunchy, an excellent palate cleanser, while charred edamame were pointless, the additional heat adding nothing except over-cooking. They were also criminally under-salted - we asked for more and fixed the problem ourselves.
Garlic chilli cucumber was another lip-smacking refresher, smoky and spicy with plenty of sesame and crunch.
Fresh oysters came with a lovely, zingy apple and mustard tosazu dressing (a fermented rice wine vinegar), but we wished we knew where they came from, and whether they were Irish. There's no provenance information on the menu.
Tuna tataki with candy ginger and wasabi daikon had great flavour and some really interesting elements, but the tuna tasted soft and woolly. At €13.95 for six pieces we expected better fish
Our favourite dish (and one we ordered both times) was the flamed salmon nigiri, with kewpie mayo and hazelnut furikake. The salmon is just cooked, and between the sweet, nutty dressing and the slight crunch of the hazelnuts, this is the kind of innovative sushi we want more of.
We had a pain in our faces trying to find out what the daily sushi omasake roll was, and after almost having to hold our waitress's hand and lead her in the direction of the kitchen, she came back and told us it was eel. "Is there anything else?" we asked. "No, just eel". It didn't seem likely, but we were worn out so just let them bring it, and we still can't tell you what was in it. There was some fish roe and kewpie mayo on top and what we guessed powdered seaweed, but apart from that it's anyone's guess, and it was lacking flavour and texture.
Crispy almond ebi with mango chilli sauce (€12.45 for three) were huge and we loved the combination of flavours, but there was a bit too much batter. The almonds did add an interesting element though.
They do two types of ribs - beef short ribs with black garlic butter, and plum wine short ribs with creamy onion mochi. Both were incredibly tender, the beef sweet and pungent from the black garlic, the pork sweet and fruity from the plum wine and the onion. We would order both again tomorrow, but we'd really like to know where the meat came from.
A third of their menu is given over the Robatayaki (like Japanese BBQ where food is cooked over charcoal), so we were surprised that this was the most disappointing part of the meal. It started with the waitress not knowing what was on the 'Daruma Selection', and seemingly not wanting to ask, and then when it arrived each was more lacklustre than the last.
None of the headline stuff like scallops or ox tongue is on there - we got chicken thigh, minced chicken, pork belly, and two different mushrooms (which felt like a cop out) and none of it had much flavour other than a teriyaki type marinade. If charcoal ever went near this meat, we couldn't taste it.
There's no dessert on the menu and when we asked if they had any our waitress didn't know, and didn't seem to want to find out. After pushing the issue she returned and told us they had mochi, but it was clear they were coming from a box in the freezer, so we passed.
What about the drinks?
They're serious about their sake in here, and have clearly taken time over the menu. They have seven sake cocktails, and had another two on special when we visited, and they're all low alcohol, so don't expect to feel the usual cocktail buzz. An 'Ichigo' with sake, strawberry, chilli, lime and sugar was pleasant but punchily sour, and serving it in a Champagne flute felt wrong.
A lychee special with sake, lychee juice, lime juice, sugar and egg white was a world better, and so easy to knock back we almost had to place it out of reach. There's Asahi for beer and an average wine list, so we'd stick to the sake.
We also tried a couple of straight sakes (a Kidosumi and a Gassan) and they were excellent - it's obvious they're not dealing with supermarket stuff or the big brands found in most Japanese restaurants in Ireland.
How was the service?
Friendly but lacking in actual service. We were almost turning blue waiting for answers to the questions we had about the menu, with the same waitress on both occasions saying she didn't know, and pleasantly looking back at us as if that was the end of that. We had to straight out ask someone to go down to the kitchen more times than we'd like to admit to find out what was on the robata selection, what was the sushi roll of the day, did they have any dessert - it was very tiring, and service training is badly needed.
And the damage?
€57 a head (to be exact) for dinner before tip, with three drinks each in that. €30 a head for lunch with no drinks.
What's the verdict?
Is Daruma the Japanese restaurant Dublin has been waiting for? No. Not yet anyway, but there's plenty of decent food and sake to kill a couple of hours. They're got more interesting options than a lot of Japanese restaurants in the city, many of whom stick to the same menu of gyoza, sushi and the wok/rice/noodle dishes we're all too familiar with, but it does somewhat kill us to imagine what it could be like with a culinary tour de force (like Big Fan's Alex Zhang) in the kitchen.
For now enjoy it for what is it - a pocket-friendly, laid back Japanese bar, where you can order as little or as much as you like, and drink really good sake.
13 Parliament Street, Temple Bar, Dublin 2