Housemade coppa, Osso Bucco and all the views in this charming Italian by the sea
What's the story?
Oliveto started life as a pizza place on Dun Laoghaire's seafront in 2009. After owner Fla Larkin bought the former Kingston Hotel in 2015, he began the slow process of renovating and transforming the building into boutique hotel Haddington House (still ongoing) and part of this was moving Oliveto in on the ground floor.
They've never shouted about what they're doing here, leaving locals and those from further away to organically discover it for themselves, but installing former Michelin-starred chef Cormac Rowe to lead the kitchen, and nabbing Barry O'Neill (Gráinne O'Keeffe's sous at Clanbrassil House) spoke volumes about their ambitions.
During the pandemic Rowe moved on and O'Neill was bumped up to head chef, then Executive head chef, hiring Francois Jacusse (previously at Woodruff) as his second in command. Everything seemed to be coming up roses, with one great report after another, but then in August of this year, Barry O'Neill tragically, and shockingly, passed away from natural causes. Anyone who'd worked with him seemed griefstruck, his funeral service bursting with those in disbelief that this talented young chef at the peak of his career could be gone.
We'd been meaning to get to Oliveto for months, trying once and having to cancel due to unforeseen circumstances, and while very sad we never made it with O'Neill in the kitchen, we had a strong feeling that the team here would be giving it everything they had to keep the standards as high as ever.
Where should we go for a drink first?
There's only one answer to this question, and that's The Parlour Bar. Haddington House's recently revamped cocktail bar is for our money one of the best in the city, and the amount of work and detail in these cocktails is hard not to marvel at (read our two minute review here).
We loved their 'Vico Crest' as well as their take on a Dirty Martini with olive brine, fennel powder and mint, and not making time for a drink here before or after dinner would be doing yourself over.
Where should we sit?
If you or something you're with is still Covid-wary, there are three tables on an enclosed outdoor terrace with sea views and heaters above, but you'll still need a jacket if it's chilly as the front is open.
Inside has the buzzy feel of a New York brasserie, with lots of corners to hide away in, or you can sit in the middle of the action. Some tables at the front have a great view into the open kitchen and towards the pizza station where the chef is spinning dough, but the most in demand will always be the ones at the window, so request in advance.
What did you eat?
We started, as all good Italian meals do, with focaccia, but this wasn't very focaccia-like. It more like a white yeast bread, with none of the oiliness, saltiness or deep flavour we were expecting. It came with chilli oil and 12-year aged balsamic which helped things, but when we told the waitress she flew into the kitchen, then flew back saying the chef sends their apologies and it "wasn't their best". She took it off the bill and we thought fair play, perfectly handled, mistakes happen.
Head chef Francois Jacusse was formerly at Woodruff (charcuterie masterminds), so our eyes widened when we saw "housemade Andarl Farm pork coppa", with pickles and house sourdough. It's pricey at €16, but if you're going to do charcuterie, do it like this. We loved the pickled onions, green beans and fennel on the side, and we only wished we'd eaten it a bit slower.
For our other starter we went for Italian burrata with beetroot and blackberries because we love blackberries but we've never seen them on the side of burrata. Now we know what we've been missing all this time. The roasted almonds on the menu came as hazelnuts (probably better), the lightly pickled beetroot came in slivers and chunks, and the focaccia crisp on the side added yet another texture to a brilliant dish. We would have never have topped it all with dill, but it was a genius addition.
Mains were more limited when we visited than what's currently on their website, with five options and a steak special, but everything sounded a cut above your average neighbourhood bistro. Sausage ragu with rigatoni, aged parmesan and pangrattato had the rich depth that only comes from a long, slow cook, the pasta with a perfect bite, the portion generous.
'Ossobucco Milanese' is a rarely sighted thing in Dublin (see also Pala Pizza and Trattoria), and this "bone with a hole" was a beautiful rendition of the Lombardy specialty. The risotto cooked perfectly with a hint of saffron, the veal shins falling apart with the touch of a knife, the whole thing rich and heady with flavour and scent. The pieces of uncooked tomato on top were definitely not traditional, but actually melded in quite nicely.
We feel it's bordering on illegal to not order Tiramisu in an Italian restaurant, seeing how it stacks up against the rest of the city's iterations, and unfortuntely this wasn't one of the best. It looked fancy, but lacked flavour and tasted artificially sweet. There was something that looked like dehydrated chocolate on top, and it was an unpleasant addition to an already disappointing dessert.
A vanilla panna cotta with Irish strawberries and almond shortbread on the other hand was perfect, creamy and light, although it felt quite late in the season for strawberries. This nit-picking did not affect the taste.
What about the drinks?
The wine list is decent, with plenty by the glass and carafe, and enough to keep both lovers of "house wine" and lovers of something more interesting happy. We drank a Primitivo which did the job with the sausage ragu and the Osso Bucco. Italian is definitely the way to go.
You can also bring in cocktails (and presumably order them from your table) from The Parlour Bar across the way. This is a very good fall back plan if nothing on the wine list appeals.
How was the service?
It felt like everyone in here was being treated like a food critic - it's how the very best do it. It's rare to encounter a team where everyone is so affable, so helpful, like they've welcomed you into their own home and want to ensure you have the very best time while you're there. They couldn't do enough for us and everyone else, and it's the kind of service that builds a fiercely loyal customer base (that and the food).
What's the verdict?
It's hard not to be totally charmed by Oliveto. The place was heaving on a Wednesday night, the room full of animated people sharing food and pouring wine from carafes. The room felt happy, full of happy staff, and happy customers, and while the food wasn't completely faultless we wouldn't hesitate to go back.
So many neighbourhood restaurants are box-ticking and boring, totally missing the subset of customer travelling further afield each week in search of excitement on their dinner plate. Oliveto seems to have struck a perfect balance between an approachable menu that won't scare anyone away, executed in a way that will make even the pickiest diners (guilty) very happy.
Oliveto @ Haddington House
9 - 12 Haddington Terrace, Dún Laoghaire, Co. Dublin