The Irish have helped perfect, perhaps even invent, the pub as we know it. Storied Dublin locales like Gravediggers and Mulligans keep that tradition alive.
The Irish culinary legacy, on the other hand, is still being rediscovered and refined. Dublin is where much of that reinvention is happening, powered by fresh seafood, pasture-raised meat, sharp and subtle cheeses, and a bounty of local produce.
There has long been a small number of globally lauded Dublin restaurants – like Chapter One and Patrick Guilbaud – but in recent years, younger generations of Irish chefs and restaurateurs, many of whom left home and worked abroad, or at least outside Dublin, then returned, have been flourishing in the capital. Some talented foreign chefs have also made Dublin their home. These days, there is a fine range of sophisticated, even surprising, Dublin food to complement all that Guinness, poitín (a traditional distilled spirit) and whiskey.
Assassination Custard – named after a dessert that Irish writer James Joyce gave to another literary figure, Samuel Beckett, when Beckett was in the hospital – is situated near a bustling intersection. Beyond its cafe-like exterior is a functional, yet cosy, eatery where the focus is on preparing extraordinary ingredients in striking ways.
A recent meal there started with crunchy rounds of pickled sunchokes shot through with turmeric and dill. Cold-smoked albacore tuna, sourced from Sally Ferns Barnes, a Scotswoman who has been smoking fish in Ireland’s West Cork region for 44 years, is dressed with curried crème fraîche. Creamy stewed fava beans are served next to sautéed bitter dandelion greens.
Ken Doherty and Gwen McGrath, the husband-and-wife team who own and run Assassination Custard, serve only lunch, from noon until 2pm, Tuesday to Friday. They do not sell alcohol and do not take reservations. The menu is a cursive scrawl on a paper bag, with an occasional shout-out to a supplier and nary an adjective in sight.
Assassination Custard, 19A Kevin St. Lower, Portobello, Dublin 8. Lunch for two runs about €60
Though nestled inside what was once an old drinking den, Spitalfields is not really a gastropub at all – it is a true restaurant. The draw is the combination of cuisine, atmosphere and profound hospitality. The manager and host, Declan Maxwell, is a 17-year veteran of one of Dublin’s first high-end, fine-dining restaurants, Chapter One, and here he presents the warmest of welcomes. The front area, once a “snug” – a traditional room where women could drink, back when they were forbidden to enter the main barroom – has been transformed into a small, secluded dining space. The open kitchen in the back is built around a beautifully designed wooden island that, though much more modern, fits the aesthetics of the Old World, wood-covered space.
On my visit, I stationed myself at the bar, where the bartender poured organic Beaujolais and obscure sweet wines from Cadillac in Bordeaux. My meal began with beef, long-stewed in red wine until tender and rich, then wrapped in a warm, butter-glazed brioche pastry. Tea-smoked sea trout from Kilkenny was a maritime interlude before my main course, the crown jewel of the menu: cock-a-leekie pie. The dish is a creative transformation of a traditional Scottish soup made with chicken, leeks and prunes into a two-person savoury pastry that is served as a main course. The elegant latticework atop the crust mimics the wooden ceiling of the Spitalfields space. It is a perfect distillation of the restaurant’s spirit: drawing on the inspiration of the old, creatively refining it, then presenting it as something new, but also comfortingly familiar.
Spitalfields, 25 The Coombe, Merchants Quay. Dinner and drinks for two, about €180
It would be an error to think of Fish Shop as a place that serves only fish and chips; it would also be a mistake to visit here and not order that famed plate. Mussels, a fish burger and a whole grilled sole are also offered as mains, and there are stellar snacks and appetisers. Almost everything is seafood. Much of it is local, with a subtle Spanish influence: cockles cooked with just enough sherry and chorizo; squid sautéed with garlic and served, pintxo-style, on a wooden skewer atop a thin slice of toast.
My choice of fried fish is meaty hake (there is also flakier haddock) with a crisp, feather-light breading and, alongside it, fries that offer a satisfying crunch from multiple passes in the fryer.
The short but nearly perfect wine list includes such gems as a rare Beluard white from an obscure Savoie grape.
Fish Shop, which is owned by the husband-and-wife team Peter Hogan and Jumoke Akintola (who recently opened Bar Pez, also in Dublin) sits just north of the river Liffey on a somewhat forgotten and slightly forlorn stretch of Benburb Street, in front of a tram line, blocks away from the now fashionable centres of the Stoneybatter and Smithfield neighbourhoods. It is good that people have to go out of their way to reach Fish Shop’s tiny space. It makes it feel even more special – and perhaps makes it easier to nab one of the 14 stools inside.
Fish Shop, 76 Benburb St., Smithfield, Dublin. Dinner and drinks for two, about €140
I first met two of the owners of Uno Mas – Liz Matthews and Simon Barrett – in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, an Andalusian town in Spain’s Cádiz province, the only place where manzanilla sherry is made. They were prospecting, researching, trying to figure out how their second Dublin restaurant could do for Spanish food what their first, Etto, did for Italian. A few years later I visited Uno Mas, expecting a stalwart Spanish traditional restaurant, serving the usual tapas standards prepared with Irish products.
But the chef and third owner, Paul McNamara, is not cooking traditional Iberian cuisine. Ajo blanco, typically served as a simple cold soup, is here reimagined as an accompaniment to fresh fruit and vegetables. Charred leeks, thin slivers of Jerusalem artichokes and crispy slices of pear are all complemented by the pleasant bitterness of the walnut pesto that enlivens the almond and garlic base. Irish scallops, lightly cured, are bathed in a Mexican-inspired marinade of carrot juice blended with lime and slightly spicy espelette pepper.
The wine list places a special emphasis on the Spanish regions of Galicia and Bierzo. It also offers a superb sherry selection, including hard-to-find bottles from Callejuela, a small Sanlúcar producer now making some of the finest sherry in the world.
Uno Mas, 6 Aungier St. Dinner and drinks for two, about €180
D’Olier Street, housed in a former Victorian-era corporate office, comes to Dublin by way of three people – an Australian, James Moore; a Dubliner, Anthony Smith; and an American, Jane Frye – who opened D’Olier at the end of 2022.
A recent lunch there was magnificent, with a fixed menu that both highlighted and elevated Irish ingredients like oysters and duck.
The intense range of colours, the thoughtful placement, and the mosaics of herbs, foams and juices deliver not just aesthetic pleasure, but deeply fulfilling eating. The stark white halibut, brined then baked at a very low temperature, was accompanied by a Thai red curry that used the flesh of the fish as a vessel for spicy intensity, balanced with sweetness. Four small dessert plates included an orange blossom cruller that persuaded me that crullers are wasted on breakfast.
D’Olier Street, D’Olier Chambers, Dublin. Dinner for two with a multicourse tasting menu and drinks, €250 – This article originally appeared in the New York Times