‘Burdocks on the way home?’ A restaurant that left me hungry

Review: This St Stephen’s Green eatery serves not so much small plates as canapés with notions

Sat, Sep 9, 2017, 06:00

   

Urchin at the Cliff Townhouse

  • Irish

In a world where matt lipgloss exists it’s easy to feel we’re hurtling towards peak nonsense. Snow-blindness and tone-deafness set in as we’re jabbered at and sold to at every turn. When a quiet news nanosecond breaks, the futurologists of food tell us that dinner is done. The old French restaurant model – starter, main course, dessert – is withering on its ancient vine. Small plates are the future, coming to the table in an order decided by the kitchen, not the diner who’s paying for them. 

Urchin is a small plate place. Although there are few actual plates and lots of balsa wood boats and other – more bonkers – serving vessels, which we’ll come to later. It’s named after the spiky seaweed-munching sea creature whose orange roe is prized by chefs. Urchin sits in the basement of the Cliff Townhouse on Dublin’s Stephen’s Green, a little sister to the upstairs restaurant. Any notion of being in a Georgian building disappears when you step inside. It’s a Beach Boys song in room form, whiter than a Californian smile then dotted with ice cream parlour pastels, a cheery but slightly bedazzling contrast to the downpour outside. 

They don’t take bookings, so I’m eyeing up a free table beyond some sliding doors. “That’s a private room,” the barman says. All he can offer are the bar stools. There’s a forehead-crimping moment figuring how you book the private room in a place where they don’t take bookings, but I grab a stool. They’re wooden and part-painted as if a giant hand had dipped them into vats of glossy paint and then changed its mind and whipped them out before they were fully done. The large group gathered at the two marble tables in the middle disappear suddenly. They’ve gone upstairs for dinner, it seems. (There is a lesson here, which we learn later.) So I upgrade us to a table with the encouragement of the lovely waitress. 

The menu is a flip chart, starting with cocktails. There’s a collection of glass jars of dried lime and orange slices on the bar beside a selection of gorgeous urchin shells, like a 1970s pot pourri display without the dusty bits. At the back of the menu there’s a Champagne list, with the cheapest bottle starting at €100, so it’s a relief to see the small plates come with small prices. They sound properly tasty and we order what feels like enough food for three and two cocktails. The blue urchin is the most impressive. It’s bluer than a slushy and topped with an ice nest holding yellow balls. They’re passion fruit, the waitress tells us. It’s a chewy pop of sweetness that doesn’t taste particularly of passion fruit. But heck, it looks nice. The drinks come with exuberantly salted house crisps, which look great until I try to snap one and it bends. Crisps should never bend. 

The food is all kinds of things you wouldn’t try at home. A duck liver choux bun (shades of Duck and Waffle’s ox cheek doughnut) arrives on a wire square folded in four that looks like a filter from an extractor fan. The bun is tasty but tough, suggesting it was made a while ago. It’s topped with a tooth-sticking slick of pear caramel, which is more of a toffee and doesn’t taste of pear. 

There is a flurry of “signature small bites”, like a smoked portobello mushroom tumbled in a balsa boat with nicely pickled onions, yogurt and “crunch”, an ingredient that mainly consists of roasted flakes of garlic and onion and shards of shrapnel-hard caper. This tastes like it was made in a big batch to be sprinkled like a salad bar ingredient. There’s a tiny cube of pork belly, smaller than a matchbox, which would be fine as a morsel if it was memorably luscious, but it’s not. 

There’s a marinated sea trout, which comes on a saltstone. The longer we leave it in the stone, the saltier it will get, we’re told. It’s a gimmick that means the tangy marinade and the last cubes of good trout have to be abandoned to the salt lick. The things we do like are the baby artichokes, not fresh but the pickled versions in tempura and served with a great curry mayonnaise. There are juicy chunks of razor clam served on two clam shells with seaweed and pomegranate seeds. And the urchin hollandaise in a china urchin shell with shards of celery at the bottom is delicious. A pair of pillowy bite-size steamed buns come topped with a pig jam of sobrassada topped with a quail egg. Flavours nailed in small bites. 

But at the end it feels like a scrappy affair. These are not so much small plates as canapés with notions. We should have ordered more carbs. “Burdocks on the way home?” my friend wonders. We ask for dessert (there is none listed) and get very ordinary ice cream topped with stale cones. This could be my friend’s fault. We have bad dessert jinx history. 

Urchin is a concept restaurant. Prinks are a thing (the art of pre-drinking at a friend’s house). Urchin gives us prinner: pre-dinner where tasty mouthfuls will leave you wanting more.

“Dinner” for three with two cocktails and a ginger beer came to €86.

  • Urchin at The Cliff Townhouse, 22 St Stephens Green, Dublin 2, 01-6383939

Food provenance: Limited. “Dundalk razor clams” is as specific as it gets.
Music: Funk.
Facilities: Tucked into the coal hole, so not for claustrophobics.
Wheelchair access: No.
Vegetarian options: Limited. 
Verdict: 6/10 A lot of style. Not much substance.