The Park Café
The all day dining restaurant that Dublin badly needed
What should we know about The Park Café?
The prodigal chef returns home, bringing all day dining to Ballsbridge, in the site that formerly housed Dylan McGrath's Shelbourne Social. Richard Corrigan owns and runs several restaurants and bars in London, as well as the Virginia Park Lodge estate in Cavan (one of Ireland's most sought after wedding venues) and has been proudly shipping over produce from the grounds to his London locations for years. We're hoping The Park Café will see the majority now funnelled Dublin's way instead.
Corrigan won Michelin stars early in his career, but over the years has successfully turned away from fine dining to just fondly feeding people. His cooking is generous, exhuberent, fun, and this idea of an accessible, easy-going, all-day canteen had all the right people talking before any opening announcements were made. Corrigan's last Dublin opening Bentley's, in 2008, barely lasted two years, but we had a feeling that The Park Café was going to have a different ending.
Where should we go for a drink first?
It's straight up to The Park Bar with you, their upstairs, roomy space full of large booths, high tables and shaded corners to hide away in. The vibe is cocktail bar meets laid back pub, with some of the country's best Champagnes being served alongside pints of Guiness.
We recommend starting with an 'Aperitivo', which are all fairly priced at €10. We tried the 'Park Spritz' with Irish apple brandy, Aperol, Valentini vermouth and Champagne (which reminded us of a white Port and tonic, in a good way), and from the main list a 'Ramos Fizz', with gin, citrus and condensed milk. This one's heavier and next time we'd leave it until dessert.
Where should we sit?
There are banquette-backed tables along one wall, some tables in the middle of the floor, and counter seating too (which was all but empty when we visited so maybe they're being saved for walk ins). We generally prefer a table up against a wall than a free-wheeler, but if there's just two of you the counter looks like a great option too. It's been substantially built out from the Shelbourne Social days.
What's the food like?
It's been pitched as an all-day canteen (it's currently only open for dinner but extended hours to follow), and it's only when someone says it that you realise what a massive hole we've had in Dublin dining up to now for exactly this. It's the kind of place you could pop in at any time of the day or night and hop up on a bar stool for a glass of Champagne and some oysters, settle into a banquette for a Bentley's fish pie, or spend a very long afternoon there, lunch turning into dinner.
They start by bringing homemade foccacia, which had great flavour but needed the accompanying olive oil (also very good). They forgot to bring it until we asked so make sure it arrives for dipping.
You've probably seen the snail omelette doing the rounds on social media, and we're here to tell you that yes it is that good, and yes you need to get over your ick about escargot and order it. Prepare however, to feel like crying that the omelettes you cook at home will (probably) never taste as good as this. If there was an Olympics for eggs, Peter's omelette would run home with gold. The red wine Bordelaise sauce that accompanies it, with pancetta and those snails from a farmer in Cavan called Peter (hence the name) is a bonkers but brilliant combo, and it's topped with Parmesan and chives.
We'd already picked the Frank Hederman’s Smoked Salmon with a Ballysadare Egg, Cream Cheese Ravigote and a Crumpet on the way in, and didn't even notice that on the menu we were handed it had been seriously downgraded to salmon, egg, Virginia roots, shoots and leaves. How could they take our cheesy crumpet!? After the initial disappointment we were able to reluctantly admit that it was still a lovely dish
A fresh crab salad was generous, fresh and aniseedy from celeriac with mustard seeds and mimosa leaves, and burrata and beets (one of two vegetarian starters) could have been more generous with the burrata but the beets tasted like they'd been picked earlier that day, the leaves had abundantly more flavour than anything from a plastic packet in the supermarket, and pickled walnuts are always a good time.
When we visited there were eight mains, with a further two for sharing (pork and steak), and each one sounded better than the last. After a lot of back and forth and horse-trading about who was going to order what, we gave the waitress our final answers.
The 'La Jammet' kebab (named after one of Dublin's most famous restaurants) is a deep dish of pumpkin dahl, raita and halloumi, on top of which sits two sizeable 'Old Castle Hill' lamb chops (we've searched and cannot find out where Old Castle Hill is), a skewer of liver and kidneys, and kofta pickles. It's a bountiful dish, with flavours coming over, under and across every bite, but there is a lot of offal so if you're not that way inclined you may leave a chunk behind. We'd be tempted to order it anyway, the lamb is that good, and it felt like stellar value for €26 (in our current times).
Then came fish. A perfect fillet of black sole (€29) came with buttermilk beurre blanc, broccolini and grenobloise sauce (usually brown butter, capers, parsley and lemon), with a perfectly piped mound of mashed potato on the side. This should be the standard of fish dishes citywide, and at under €30? Practically unheard of.
A yellowfin tuna schnitzel (€24) is a clever spin on the pork version more usually seen around town, and this is one for someone with a mighty appetite (even without any sides). It was another dish executed without fault, from the crispy coating, to the pink tuna inside, to the tangy gribiche. We couldn't finish it, but enjoyed trying.
The only vegetarian main is a plate of hand-rolled kale and potato gnocchi, with cavolo nero and Corleggy Creeny cheese. The gnocchi were like puffed up clouds of potato, the cavolo nero adding a crisp texture on top, and the Corleggy cheese (from Cavan) rounded out its serious savouriness. They could do with at least one more vegetarian option, but in the meantime this won't leave anyone feeling short-changed.
We didn't need sides, but we had to try them (for your benefit of course), and the thin-cut fries were perfection - crisp on the outside, fluffy within, perfectly salted and with immaculate aioli to seal the deal. Roasted roots had their sweetness intensified by a drizzle of honey, and added walnuts gave a pleasing crunch amongst the denseness.
You won't need dessert here. Portions are so big you'll be fit to burst, but you only live once, and as much interest and inventiveness has gone into desserts as everything else.
The most 'grammed is going to be the '99 soft serve with caramelised popcorn - smooth and creamy, with popcorn that keeps its crunch right until the end.
'Jellied winter fruits' came with pear and clementine, 'tipsy cake', and yoghurt, and felt light and fruity, without being an overly sweet ending. We also love that it's a brand new dish that you can only taste here (compared to Chequer Lane where we were able to predict every dull dessert before the menus landed on the table).
A final steamed pudding with custard, cream and giner crumble tasted like something the Granny of our dreams would have made us (we didn't have that Granny but now we have Richard Corrigan so it's all fine). It's unsurprisingly rich though, so if you've done a proper job up to now a few mouthfuls will probably be enough to make you drop your spoon in defeat.
What about the drinks?
The first thing that you need to know, is that if you like to kick off a night with a bottle of bubbles, you won't be doing that here unless you plan to drop some mega bucks. We had this plan, and our faces collectively dropped when we saw that the entry level sparking wine was Prosecco for €74. The next was Piper-Heidsieck Champagne for €116. How they could find nothing that the average person would willingly spend their money on is beyond us, and we can only presume it's a case of limited wine suppliers, who don't have the catalogue of wines they desperately need.
There are some very good producers and cuvées on this list, but prices feel high, and there's shockingly little under €50 (five bottles on the entire list). We drank a Sicilian Grillo, a German Riesling and a red Burgundy, and really enjoyed all of them, but we hope they're looking at adding some better value stat, as it's the only thing we can see putting some people off visiting, and/or coming back, especially if you're with a group for whom 'house wine' is the standard order.
How was the service?
Very pleasant, but we were expecting a bit more of the type of Irish hospitality Chapter One has become famous for. Things felt slightly more stilted, and a few times staff forgot to bring things we had asked for (including dessert wines which never arrived but were on the bill until we asked for them to be removed). There seemed to be some people there from Corrigan's London team to get things up and running, and we hope they can find some service stars in their own right on the ground here as things move forward.
€96 per person before tip, including a cocktail upstairs in the bar first. It's really, really hard to argue with the value for money here considering how brilliantly put together every dish was, even taking into account the price of the wines.
Let us rejoice. After Dublin's last couple of celebrity chef restaurant disasters, finally someone has arrived who's giving the people what they want and need (even if they didn't know it). It's probably only after dining here that you'll realise the hole that existed in your dining life before now, but afterwards you'll be hoping for a Park Café in every suburb. It's not trying to be the very best food in the city, it's not striving for stars, there's no in-built attitude, they're just serving properly delicious, feel-good food, in generous portions, at fair prices. What more could you want?
The Park Café
1 Ballsbridge, Shelbourne Road, Dublin 4