Among the Trees: Plot to plate in ten minutes
Some good home cooking here but a bit more kitchen craft would make it even better: Among the Trees at the Phoenix Park Visitors’ Centre, Dublin
Unless you’re a health inspector you don’t get to wander behind the scenes of a restaurant and eyeball their ingredients. You do at the Phoenix Park Restaurant, or the Among the Trees Restaurant, or the Phoenix Park Cafe. Part of the visitors’ centre in the middle of the park, the place has three names – four if you count the Irish version written on its timber-clad front – and we’re strolling around the restored walled garden after lunch.
The restaurant gets some ingredients from the garden. It looks like a beautiful system: plot to plate in minutes. And it’s been a bloody great year for vegetables. You can see the bounty in large paper bags of spuds and courgettes the size of toddlers’ legs in wooden boxes outside the door, edible memories of that rarest thing: hot Irish sunshine.
So I’m a bit miffed as I prod my way through giant chunks of watery pale tomato. But good things first: no chips, burgers or nuggets in sight. And it’s thronged with families, proving that you can ignore the bottom rung of mass catering and still pull a crowd.
It’s self-service, lining up with trays and moving slowly from salads, past desserts sprinkled with flowers, to hot food and finally coffee. The ground floor feels small and hot with a large, noisy crowd. Upstairs, in a much airier room, a great stag-antler chandelier hangs from a domed ceiling. We go for the full “among the trees” experience on a picnic bench outside.
The boys share two children’s pizzas, plain cheese and tomato on a papery crisp base. Liam’s generous bowl of lamb tagine with cous cous is a good version of this dish, with chickpeas and thready lamb in a rich, cumin-laced sauce, like something you’d make at home.
My vegetable tart has good things going for it, not least the nutty marrow slices, slippery roasted red peppers and a few luscious lumps of Bluebell Falls goat’s cheese. But it’s as if the vegetables in the tart have been hewn with an axe rather than sliced in a kitchen, and the pastry suffers from a similar treatment, a thick, soggy cladding on the bottom and a thick crust on the outside. I’m all for cooking over faffy cheffing, but there is a happy medium, and it involves knife skills. As it all gets cold, the skin on the aubergine slices becomes so leathery we could use it to mend punctures on the bikes we’re using to get round the park.
So far I’ve spotted only one garden ingredient – the marrow – in the tart. Some tasty but undressed leaves come from Wicklow organic growers Gold River Farm, according to the blackboard.
A Coffee Shack in cool corrugated iron outside the main restaurant means we don’t have to rejoin the busy lunch queue for dessert. These look good but lack any great flavour. A lemon drizzle cake tastes dull rather than zingy and a generous slice of tea brack is rubbery.
The first thing we notice stepping into the beautiful garden is how it feels a notch warmer inside these old walls. It’s evident the work that has gone into this place and I spot lots of things I’d love to have seen on my plate – a crop of kale, gorgeous beets – and one lost opportunity. Let she who did not let her artichokes go to seed cast the first stone. But the sight of a crop of globe artichokes turned to dried brown thistle heads would wring out the heart of any French, Spanish or Italian diner visiting the garden.
People are discovering the difference between food grown and eaten locally and the watery flavourless versions that come shipped from afar, and even one dish a day based on what’s good in the garden could take Among the Trees from a better-than-average lunch to one that’s superb. Lunch for five with desserts and coffee came to €50.
THE VERDICT: 6/10 A little more kitchen skill could make this superb
Among the Trees at the
Phoenix Park Visitors’ Centre, Dublin
Facilities: Clean and functional
Food provenance: Good
Wheelchair access: Yes
Vegetarian options: Fine