What’s the story?
When news broke last November that Etto head chef Barry Sun was departing stage left, it was met with shock and surprise from the industry and the Merrion Row restaurant's regulars, but it was short-lived once it transpired that he was opening his own place in Blackrock. We weren't sure what to expect from his first solo outing - Etto's food is somewhere between Irish and Italian, something Sun clearly excels at, but being originally from China would we see more Asian influences when he went it alone?
The original menu looked very much in tune with Etto's Mediterranean sensibility, with a couple of well-placed Asian touches, like oysters with chilli oil and mushroom dumplings in an aged soya broth, and after a PR-fuelled blaze of publicity the critics descended one after the other. Reports were glowing, locals were flocking, and all was right with the restaurant world. Then 'you know what' happened (cue: Doomsday music). They were quick to launch Volpe Nera at home, which was one of our favourite lockdown food experiences, so we knew where we were heading once restaurants reopened.
Where should we sit?
Originally the restaurant was a 50-seater spread over two floors, with table and bar seating, but some of the tables have been taken out and the bar seating is now gone, so we'd estimate it to be more of a 28-30 seater. Both floors feel snug and intimate, and though the grey palette probably won't be to everyone's taste, we found it quite calming. There's slightly more action downstairs where you can see into the kitchen each time the door opens, but upstairs feels a bit more private if you want to have a 'D and M'.
What's the food like?
If you love Etto (does anyone not love Etto?) you'll love Volpe Nera, as the underlying sensibility around ingredients and how they're put together (with taste as the number one priority) is very similar. There are lots of familiar looking dishes on the menu, so much like Mamó felt like Etto by the sea, Volpe Nera feels like Etto in the suburbs - and there are few greater compliments.
Our favourite menus start with snacks (any excuse to order more food) and there's five to choose from here, including bread and cep mushroom butter (we had it, you need to), oysters, smoked almonds and olives. We went for the salted hake and preserved lemon croquettes (is there a more perfect summer snack?) and the unusual sounding Ossocollo Reale al Brulé, which is a type of cured meat made from the neck of the pig.
A light hand with a little olive oil and lemon dressing took the delicate, silky meat to the next level, with the house pickles ideal for cutting through the fat. We're not sure what they did to make the chargrilled crostini with olive oil taste so much better than any other chargrilled bread we've had before, but we've made it our mission to find out.
The stracciatella in Etto has always been a city benchmark for how the Italian soft, stringy cheese should taste, so we couldn't resist it on the menu here. Sun serves his with in-season tomatoes, including a slice of pineapple tomato underneath, basil (fresh and oil), balsamic pearls and crunchy discs of bread, and it's about as perfect a summer plate of food as you can imagine. There's a new stracciatella contender in town.
Our other starter has become something of a Volpe Nera signature (read: take it off the menu at your peril lads), and is the main dish showing Sun's Chinese background (we're quietly hopeful there will be more from this canon over time). Handmade mushroom dumplings come in an aged soya broth with pickled fennel and lovage, and if you're a fan of umami in high doses, this needs to go on your must-try list. You'll be tasting it for days afterwards.
For mains we'd been ooohing over the spinach and ricotta malfatti (dumplings, whose name means 'badly formed') in various incarnations since the opening menu, and on the night we were there it came with confit egg yolk, courgette gremolata, pine nuts and sage. It lived up to its billing, and while the dumplings are dense, the vinegary diced courgette, crunchy pine nuts and silky egg yolk made this dish worth the months of waiting and thinking about it.
Our other main was sucking pig with morcilla, braised endive and romesco, and while meat and veg dishes can all too often be all too boring, this was in a league of its own. If we could cook pork like this at home - pink and perfectly tender - we might never go out again, with the vegetables just cooked, and the morcilla and smoky, nutty romesco adding welcome interest to the plate.
Desserts were enjoyable but slightly less exciting than what had come before. A Granny Smith sponge came with dehydrated apple slices and Calvados ice-cream, and another of poached peach came with roast white chocolate, pistachio and PX sherry. They were both perfectly nice dishes, but you get the feeling that this chef's passion lies more in savoury than in sweet.
What about the drinks?
The pre-dinner drinks list is excellent, which is a good thing as you won't be going to a pub beforehand. Vermouth and soda, white port and tonic and five different types of sherry all feature, as well as Bellinis and Kir Royales. The wine list is very nicely curated with plenty we wanted to drink on there, like Blankbottle's Moment of Silence, Rijckaert's Jura Savagnin, and Raul Perez' Ultreia St Jacques Mencia, but we would have liked to see a few more interesting options by the glass - presumably they're catering for the local market.
We tried the Saint-Veran Chardonnay from Domaine Simonin and the Albarino from Bodegas Alto De Torono, and both were lovely - the Saint-Veran in particular was dynamite with the cured meat and pickles at the start. They also serve Fritz-Muller's very drinkable non-alcoholic Riesling if you're driving from across the city and don't want to be left out.
And the service?
Staff were all masked, but it had no bearing on their warmth and hospitality, and it's amazing how quickly you forget about them. The lack of loud music probably helped too, as we had no difficulty hearing anyone or communicating back and forth. Food was perfectly paced and we never felt in a rush to move (although presumably if there had been someone waiting for our table we would have known about it). This feels like an operation that's very much together, and when a waitress mortifyingly managed to drop a load of plates on the floor, it was met with humour and sympathy as opposed to any type of scolding.
The verdict? Stick Volpe Nera on your bucket list, and make it a point to get here fast. The city is in a very strange place right now, and while the suburbs may appear to be holding up better than the city centre, this is exactly the type of place we want to survive the coming months and spiral ever upwards once things (eventually) get back to normal. We are eminently envious of anyone who has this as their new neighbourhood restaurant, but it's one of those rare ones which makes driving from the other side of the city completely worth the effort.
Volpe Nera 22 Newtown Park, Newtownpark, Blackrock, Co. Dublin volpenera.ie