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Saltwater Grocery: An exceptional restaurant in very unlikely location

Shop by day, restaurant by (some) nights – this is an unexpected gem

Saltwater Grocery
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Address: 97 Terenure Road East, Dublin 6
Telephone: None
Cuisine: Irish
Cost: €€€

A south Dublin crossroads that is typically described as bustling is being pounded with a vengeful level of rain, and as we schlep inside the door of Saltwater Grocery in Terenure the scene outside is like an immersive Renoir Les Parapluies experience, with luminous cloches of TK Maxx umbrellas.

It's a corner with a bit of provenance. James Joyce's mother, May Murray, was born in Vaughan's Eagle House across the road, in 1859, and Saltwater Grocery, which opened in 2021, was once home to John Downey & Son, regarded as the first butchers in Ireland to go fully organic. That business closed in 2017 and the shop sat empty until Niall Sabongi of Sustainable Seafood Ireland and Karl Whelan, the former head chef and co-owner of Hang Dai, hoisted up an Imperial red awning, vintage gold-leaf signage and set about trading as a fishmonger and gourmet store.

More recently, it also opens as a weekend restaurant serving a €65 tasting menu on Fridays and Saturdays, and occasional pop-up dinners with some of Dublin’s top chefs on Sundays.

Surprisingly, the store transforms quite seamlessly into a restaurant with a slightly underground speakeasy energy. It feels like you’re in on a secret. Shelves of De Cecco pasta, Mutti tomatoes and olive oil line one side of the room, a large fridge displays whopping carcasses of dry-aged fish and a communal table for eight sits perilously close to the glacial stainless-steel stretch of the wet counter, which doubles up as a spot to chill our Altos de Torona, Albarino (€32).


Perhaps as an acknowledgement of our remarkable handwashing skills after more than two years of practice, the first taste of the evening is served on the back of our softly clenched mitts. This, Whelan tells us, is “caviar à la royale”, which has a ring of Pulp Fiction to it but dates back to the Tsars who had the wisdom to put a hand-wielding taster between them and potentially poisoned food. The Oscietra we’re served is not Russian but Chinese. It warms for a few seconds on our flesh before being delicately slurped up and rolled around our mouths, releasing the iodised flavour from the tiny brined beads of roe. If this is a post-pandemic “let them eat caviar” thing, I’m all in.

Fish or sea vegetables are incorporated into almost every course, but it’s the added, unexpected elements that show the underlying skill at work here.

So, a bitesize tartlet with brown sardine and Sardinian tomatoes is dusted with powdered olive. A Flaggy Shore oyster is the loveliest combination of citrus and floral notes dancing in the chlorophyll freshness of a komatsuna (Japanese mustard), sorrel and chervil juice, topped with a magnolia granita.

Even more delightful is the unexpected prickle of heat from a sushi-sized piece of dry-aged Clare Island organic salmon that has been brushed with yuzu kosho and fermented green chilli, and topped with soy gel dotted with crystalised yuzu.

Lough Neagh trout sits below pickled radish and nori, followed by a salad of Jenny McNally’s komatsuna leaves, topped with crunchy curried onion rings. As the hot dishes arrive, the flavours gain momentum. Little bubbles of fregola sarda, a couscous type pasta, are tossed in squid ink and topped with fried squid and razor clams that have barely been kissed by heat. It is a stunning dish.

Red mullet landed in Castletownbere has been cooked over coals, sucking up the burnt sea flavour of the kombu kelp it is sitting on, its skin lacquered and earthy. An asparagus spear is laced with squid ink, and a dollop of black garlic acts as a sauce for both the red mullet and asparagus. It is a powerful dish, like something you might be served at Noma in Copenhagen.

A dessert of macerated strawberries with sorrel ice cream is just the sort of zingy finish you need to a meal like this, the liquid shortbread on the bottom and milk crumb on top adding complexity to the dish.

Whelan has pulled off the seemingly impossible in this compact space, particularly when you realise that his kitchen rig is limited to an induction ring, a small oven, a blow torch and a Konro grill on the footpath outside the shop. A tasting menu is complete madness in this sort of set-up. But somehow it works. Whelan celebrates fish, adds energy charged elements and has the skill and maturity to keep everything in balance. This is a very serious restaurant indeed.

Dinner for two with a bottle of wine plus 10 per cent inclusive service charge was €178.20

THE VERDICT 9/10 A meal that far exceeds expectations

Facilities It’s a shop, so clean but very basic staff quarters

Music Mixed up tempo tunes on a 1971 Kenwood HiFi

Food provenance SSI, Caviar Paris, Clare Island Organic salmon, Jenny McNally, Caterway, artisan

Vegetarian options Vegetarian and vegan menus with advance notice using seasonal vegetables to stay close to the equivalent fish dish

Wheelchair access The room is accessible and a low table can be provided but there is no accessible toilet.

Corinna Hardgrave

Corinna Hardgrave

Corinna Hardgrave, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes a weekly restaurant column