In London a few years ago, I sat beside the most chilled lone diner. He had ordered brat (the Basque slang name for turbot) in a rather famous restaurant called Brat, and he was perfectly happy to wait the 40 minutes it would take to cook (he’d been warned). He sipped wine, read his book, and the fish eventually landed before him in its grilled-on-the-bone splendour.
We left before I could see if he’d demolished the lot. He had an American accent and I assumed he was a tourist, the way you do with people sitting next to you in a restaurant – categorising them as first date, last date, just friends, or random vacationer. It was only when we were outside that my husband mentioned that it was the character actor Stephen Tobolowsky (you know him, even if you don’t recognise his name – he has 290 acting credits on IMDB). His restaurant etiquette has landed him top of my fantasy celeb dinner party list.
The point is, people will travel for great fish, and the tradition of cooking over embers is a big thing, led by Etxebarri in Axpe outside Bilbao; Elkano in the fishing village of Getaria, outside San Sebastián; and Francis Mallmann’s 1884 restaurant in Mendoza in Argentina. Asador, in Dublin 4, was, to my knowledge, the first restaurant on our shores to harness the transformative power of the parrilla grill when it opened in 2012.
Word on the street recently had it that there were a few changes in Asador, with Robert Sabongi heading up the kitchen (the brother of Niall Sabongi, the restaurateur and fish wholesaler), so I was interested to see what else might be new.
The room is much the same, and we opt for a table close to the bright open kitchen where you get a full view of the custom-made grill managed by chefs with hands that are seemingly impervious to licking flames.
Grilled Galician octopus (€16) speaks of the pulsing heart of northern Spain, so we of course order it, and it is very good, beautifully charred, but there is just one tentacle. There are extraneous bits, like sweet potato puree, on the plate, but we’re yearning for a bit more of the star attraction. We are perhaps a bit unlucky, because we soon discover that it’s not a restaurant that is short on generosity, although our server is clearly new to her job and needs a bit of encouragement.
Five large gambas (€17) taste of the grill. They’re from Spain, which is the home of truly amazing prawns, but these are just a bit lacking in head juices to suck. They arrive in Ireland frozen, and it’s perhaps the luck of the draw, but the tail meat is good with the smoky flavours from the embers.
For main course, you could rack up quite a bill if you opt for Delmonico or fillet steak, but the 10oz picanha for €29 is delicious, and I quite enjoy a bit of texture in my well-charred but rare-in-the-middle meat, which is exactly how it arrives, with very good chips and excellent chimichurri.
The special of grilled halibut steak (€34), we have been told, is cooked on the grill and finished in the oven, so there’s no pulley action moving the grill up and down. In fact, it feels like the place runs like a machine, which is understandable, but takes a certain amount of the magic out of the experience.
The halibut is charred from its time on the grill and cooked nicely, served with Basque peppers, some micro leaves and a black squid ink sauce. A side of sautéed baby potatoes is generous; you’re going to be well fed.
Dessert is simple and perhaps a little over-priced for what it is, a lemon tart with blueberry sorbet (€12).
So has Asador changed? I’m not sure. As ever, the sourcing of the produce is commendable, the cooking is solid and it feels like consistency is at the core of the offering, delivering what people want, which is a good thing. It’s a tough time for restaurants, but it’s also a time where innovation wins out.
In the past, Asador has featured aged dairy cows on the menu and it would be lovely to see more of that energy, and perhaps turbot cooked whole on the bone too. This would go to the heart of what its potential could be. It needs soul as well as fire.
Dinner for two with a bottle of wine was €147.
THE VERDICT: Solid cooking with a nice lick of flames
Music: Aretha Franklin and good funk
Food provenance: Pat McLoughlin’s beef and free-range chicken, Metcalfe Park Farm artisan beef, Sustainable Seafood, Caterway
Vegetarian options: Ricotta and spinach ravioli, cauliflower steak, porcini and truffle risotto, and plenty of veg sides.
Wheelchair access: Accessible with accessible toilet