Isabel’s: Striking a high note on Baggot St
Many restaurants have occupied this Baggot Street spot but the latest, under chef Niall O’Sullivan, looks as if it is here to stay
Sweat, blood and tears topped off with lashings of stress are all part of the average MasterChef competition. But take away the cameras and add some talented teenagers and things get a lot calmer. At least they did in a tent in Dublin last month during a young chef competition as part of the Dalkey Lobster Festival. Dispensing with theatrics, the three kids just cooked with a focus that was a joy to watch, producing food that was a delight to taste.
The winner was 13-year-old Niamh O’Sullivan who marinated raw tuna, made remoulade and apple jelly from scratch and finished with sea beets and two kinds of samphire she had picked on the shore in Greystones. I discovered afterwards she didn’t lick her talent off the stones. Her dad is Niall O’Sullivan, the chef in Isabel’s on Baggot Street. Having tasted his daughter’s food, it was time to try out his restaurant.
Isabel’s is in a vaulted basement in a room that has seen more new brooms than a Quidditch World Cup. Names over the door have included the familiar: Peacock Alley and L’Ecrivain, the laudable Moe’s and the forgettable L’Aubergine, Mangetout and L’Épée D’Or.
Since opening in January last year as Isabel’s, the place has been pared back to the brickwork of its Georgian basement, set off with soft candlelight and dimmed chandeliers. Wine shelving is made from pallets. Tables have tops made from wine boxes and are close together. It has a clubby, cosy feel when autumn is creeping crisply round the edges of the evening, as it is tonight.
If there’s one thing that sets restaurant food apart from home cooking these days, it’s where it is on the plate. As a rough rule, a round portion of food in the middle means dinner at someone’s home. If you’re eating food in a line, you’re paying for it at the end. And my starter in Isabel’s does that eat from left-to-right thing like reading a sentence. It’s a plate of carefully finished small bites calmly placed on splodges of squid ink aioli. The inky mayo isn’t so much liquorice black as Mastic grey, but looks aren’t everything when it tastes so good. There are a couple of warm gobstopper-sized croquettes of crab and octopus, rounds of sliced octopus tentacle and lightly pickled carrot strips in rolls with thinly sliced radishes.
The other starter has courgette flowers, those squidgy mouthfuls of petal with the waxy stamen in the middle like a sea creature, and such a treat. There are thin slices of fennel, again lightly pickled and a goat’s cheese mousse.
The mains are a heavier version of the same kind of arrangement; elements bedded into place in a thick swirl of something pureed. I get a wedge of confited pork belly, a cube of pork shoulder that’s been shredded into moist pink strips and cooked in fine breadcrumbs, a large round of soft, crumbly house-made black pudding and blousy yellow raisins with fried wedges of apple to give all those bass notes of pig some sweet counterpoint trills. It’s very good, but a little heavy-going towards the end. Next time I might combine two of Isabel’s sensational starters for a lighter finish.
My friend’s salmon dish has a pan-fried fillet and a mound of tartare sitting on top of marigold-orange saffron potatoes. There’s a green herb sauce, peas and sea vegetables. A stringy samphire is the only misstep (it’s a little on the chewy side). We have three glasses of the Italian Pinot Grigio Villa del Lago and plenty of sparkling and tap water.
Desserts are a chocolate slice that has jumped into the anti-dessert camp as it’s so bitter it has to be taken with a spoonful of a wonderful raspberry mousse. My buttermilk and sweet woodruff panna cotta is simple, a little collapsed like clotted milk rather than smooth silk, but sprinkled with crushed shortbread and strawberries.
I think Isabel’s is here to stay. Niall O’Sullivan is putting the kind of thoughtful food on plates that deserves its loyal following.
Dinner for two with wine, juice and sparkling water came to €116.55
8/10 THE VERDICT: Good ingredients carefully cooked
Isabel’s Restaurant, 112 Baggot Street Lower, Dublin 2, 01-6619000
Music: light jazz
Vegetarian options: imaginative and attractive
Food provenance: no producers named
Wheelchair access: no