Small plates and all the wine on Camden Street
23 Jul 2019
What’s the story?
Unless you've had your head under a rock for the past two months you've probably heard of Frank's, the new wine bar serving small plates around a communal table, from the guys behind Delahunt a few doors up. Industry chatter for months before they opened was about how they were going to bring a better value wine offering to Dublin, and that the inspiration came from London wine shop and bar P Franco in East London, which has a similar set up.
Where they differ, is that Frank's don't really want you sitting at the communal table unless you're eating, so in effect it's only a wine bar if you're happy to perch on the ledges either side of the window (or maybe if it's not busy - we certainly wouldn't attempt it at peak times on Friday or Saturday night). And if you were planning on pitching up and snacking on olives and almonds your plans might be scuppered too - you can only order their smoked almonds with a glass of amontillado sherry, as apparently people were coming and just ordering those. Smoked almonds and sherry are a great match, but it seems like an oddly constraining rule to come up against on a night out.
The other thing it's really important to know before going is that you can't book, it's walk-in only, and they won't take your name and let you go off for a drink (there's no phone), so you just have to hang around. This wasn't filling us with joy when we arrived just after 19:30 on a Friday evening to be told there was a two hour wait for seats. There's also no wait list, so you're just counting on the staff to remember who got there first, which seems unnecessarily anxiety-provoking (and will surely end in a scrap one night). We decided to have a drink (sherry, because we were starving and needed those almonds), and thanks to at least one waiting couple giving up and leaving we were sitting down after an hour, which goes by fast if you've brought someone with good chat.
Where should we go for a drink first?
The queue here is where you will be having your drink, because no one wants to risk an hour long wait for food while already tipsy, and they have good wine.
Where should we sit?
You'll likely have no choice unless you're first in, but if you do it's the dilemma of whether to go close to the action where the chef is cooking and risk leaving smelling like your dinner, or back away and sit closer to the window, standing a better chance of keeping your perfume/cologne on. Either way communal dining won't be for everyone, but if it's your thing you'll love it.
What's good to eat?
We can vouch for the wait snacks of almonds and gordal olives, and after that we just told them to bring everything - blame the queuing time. The menu has been changing a lot, and every review we've read has featured different food, so it could be totally different by the time you get there, but we imagine they'll settle into some favourites after a while. Head (and only) chef Chris Maguire had previously been the head chef at Locks, and before that worked at two-Michelin starred The Ledbury in London, so you know you're in good hands, and the same over-riding focus on quality produce is the main driver for the menu.
From the six main small plates (not including cheese or dessert) the standouts were the chargrilled squid with a padrón pepper sauce and violet artichokes (a pretty perfect plate of food, in flavour and texture), and the hen of the woods mushrooms with charred corn and smokey chicken wing meat, which we would have ordered another of if we'd had enough time. What a dish.
Burrata with heirloom tomatoes and pickled onion was simple but obviously made with quality ingredients, including tomatoes that tasted like they were grown on sunnier shores, and mackerel with gooseberry and horseradish would give that unfairly judged fish a less stinky reputation, just barely fried and still pink in the middle, lifted by the tart gooseberries, although we couldn't taste the horseradish.
We'd been eyeing up the whipped chicken liver with pickled strawberries and brioche on Insagram all week, and while it was pleasant we felt like the chicken liver needed the flavour turned up, or maybe a bit more seasoning. It was hard to imagine the pickled green strawberries or the brioche getting any better. The only plate we didn't love was the morcilla with salt-baked beetroot and cherry, whose flavours seem to fight against rather than compliment each other.
Dessert and cheese ended things on a high, as all meals should. We'd been daydreaming about the peaches, ricotta and brown butter crumb, and we're still daydreaming about it. The peaches were like none we've tried here before (maybe we're going to the wrong fruit shop) with an almost cartoonish, over-exaggerated flavour, smooth, creamy ricotta mellowing out the sweetness, with the brown butter crumb adding a rich savouriness and texture. It's already on the "best things we've eaten this year" list.
Cheese was a perfect rectangle of Shepherd's Store from Tipperary, with a vivid looking and tasting purée of dried raspberries, which beats any chutney we've tried recently by a long stretch.
What about the drinks?
If you like wine you will not go thirsty in here. There's an extensive selection of sherry, sparkling wine, white, red and dessert wines at very reasonable prices, which is one of their hooks. We spotted wines that are €9/€10 on other city centre wine lists on here at €6.50-€7. You will probably end up drinking more rather than spending less, but the wines are great with that minimal intervention slant that tends to result in less of a hangover, so that's okay.
The serious value seems to be in the glass selection, but they do have an additional few pages of bottles (including magnums that we could see ourselves having some group fun with) and we'd advise just telling the staff what you like and letting them make suggestions. You're unlikely to go too far wrong - we tried a lot of different glasses and there wasn't one disappointment. One thing you should be aware of is that you'll be holding onto the same glass for the night, so if you're switching from sherry or red to white or fizz you might want to ask for a rinse.
And the service?
Pretty to the point at queuing stage but warmed up considerably once we managed to sit down. Staff were happy to chat and recommend wines, despite being run off their feet, and dishes were delivered by the chef, although we would have liked a bit more chat in terms of what we were about to eat - to be fair he's pretty busy in that solo kitchen so we get it. This is a very lean operation and they have to be given credit for keeping things running as smoothly and calmly as it was when we were there, and keeping smiles on their faces throughout.
Frank's has brought a lot of things to Dublin that it was in desperate need of - somewhere that you can always (attempt to) walk in without a booking, non-gouging wine prices allowing us to drink better while spending the same money, and the kind of counter, communal dining that's so popular in other cities but which we're lagging behind with.
We would love to see things loosen up a bit to the point where you can just go in for a bottle of wine, but at the same time understand that priority needs to be given to people who want to eat, so for now there's the ledges on either side of the window. If they can improve their wait list system it will do much to alleviate any queuing-related anxiety you may experience while trying to eat and drink there, but once you sit down all is likely to be forgiven.
22 Camden Street Lower, Dublin 2 www.instagram.com/franksdublin