A wine bar at an art gallery? Yes, I was a bit sceptical. The colour-by-numbers version is no doubt panini and cheap coffee by day, and questionable vino and charcuterie by night. Wine that perhaps hasn’t been properly chilled, if my experience of exhibition openings is anything to go by. But the people behind Margadh at the Royal Hibernian Academy on Ely Place are somewhat more discerning. And with a growing portfolio that includes Mamó and the original Margadh in Howth, Jess D’Arcy and Killian Durkin come with some provenance.
The double-aspect glazed room offers views into the contemporary gallery on one side and a terrace of handsome Georgian houses on the other. White shelves house rows of interesting wine bottles, breaking up the neutral ground with Mondrian-like precision. Wooden tables, dotted with flowers, have a similar minimalist aesthetic, and we find ourselves at a high top that is sizeable for two but would be tight for four.
The food here adopts the small plates and tasting menu approach. At a reasonable €42 for an eight-course tasting menu, there is little evidence of the price increases that are ripping through the hospitality industry. The liberal notion of choice is entertained with an a-la-carte menu, with nibbles starting at €3, and there are a significant number of wines in the often empty quarter of the €30-€40 price bracket.
I am not sure I have ever savoured each nibble of a single anchovy so much
Being happy to share and curious to see what sort of evening would transpire when taking a very lean line through the menu, we go the a-la-carte route, starting with smoked almonds (€4.50), because they just feel like the perfect accompaniment to a glass of Callejuela Manzanilla (€8). A Carlingford oyster with wakame (€3) is fresh and restrained, a taste of the ocean with just the slightest bit of acidity kicking in with bonito vinegar.
Cantabrian anchovies (€4.80) have some sort of alchemy when paired with sherry, and it is no surprise that Pujadó Solano, the maestro who has put his canning skills to honourable use for these prime specimens, is name-checked on the menu. I am not sure I have ever savoured each nibble of a single anchovy so much, and the finger of scorched Firehouse Bakery sourdough with a few dabs of preserved lemon aioli adds a lovely crunch.
Grilled baby leeks and large scallions are something we’re starting to see on menus in Ireland, much like you see calçots in Catalonia in Spain, the sweet scallion-like onions that have protected geographic status under the EU PGI system, and are celebrated as a delicacy. The wilted baby leeks (€13) on the plate before me are a glorious celebration of late summer, strewn with a perfect dice of smoked eel and Granny Smith apple, and a puddle of fennel puree for dipping into. As is the burrata with young broad beans and sweet peas (€14), which lies beneath a flurry of summer truffle and toasted hazelnuts. These are the sort of dishes that you get in Italy, where the menu in every restaurant reads of the same regional, seasonal ingredients, yet tastes that little bit different.
We are drinking well from the by-the-glass list of four whites and four reds (150ml pours); an El Castro De Valtuille Mencia Joven 2020 (€7) from Raúl Pérez, one of Spain’s most visionary winemakers, and Doravante Bairrada 2017 (€9). James Brooke, the sommelier who manages the wine list here, tells me that due to space restrictions in the restaurant, much of their wine is housed in the gallery’s storage area, along with paintings. Rather fortunately, the environmental conditions for storing fine art also happen to be perfect for wine.
Margadh RHA is a truly charming wine bar, where the cooking, using seasonal-led produce, is precise and delicious
We finish our savoury courses with Flat Iron steak tacos (€15), which are more South American than Mexican-influenced, charred, rare and deliciously juicy, topped with chimichurri, pickled chilli, nigella seed, and crispy shallot crumb. And for dessert, we share a sizable slice of tiramisu (€7), which is rich without being heavy.
Margadh RHA is a truly charming wine bar, where the cooking, using seasonal-led produce, is precise and delicious. It also helps that many of the wines on the carefully chosen list are affordable. The flexibility of being able to pop in for a glass of wine and a few plates of food, or opt for what must be the best-value tasting menu in the country, means that it is offering something quite special.
Dinner for two with four glasses of wine was €90.30.
THE VERDICT Margadh has the wine bar genre down to a fine art.
Facilities Clean and compact
Music Low-key mix of jazz, The Kinks and Steely Dan
Food provenance Kish Fish, Higgins butchers, La Rousse, Caterway
Vegetarian options Limited, could include heirloom tomatoes, basil and pine nuts; and burrata with Mooncoin beetroot. Vegan options with advance notice.
Wheelchair access Accessible, with accessible toilet