First Look: Fish and food shop where chefs are in charge

Saltwater Grocery, a new type of fishmonger and gourmet food shop, opens in Dublin

Chefs Karl Whelan (left) and Niall Sabongi in their new venture, Saltwater Grocery in Terenure, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Chefs Karl Whelan (left) and Niall Sabongi in their new venture, Saltwater Grocery in Terenure, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Chefs Niall Sabongi and Karl Whelan are about to change the way we shop for fish. Their new business collaboration, Saltwater Grocery, opens Friday, April 30th in Terenure, Dublin 6. It’s a modest sized premises, but inside the beautifully renovated former Downey’s butcher shop, close to Vaughan’s Corner, shoppers will discover a small but perfectly formed gourmet food and wine shop, with at its heart, a radically different approach to fishmongering.

The aromas of Firehouse Bakery bread and pastries and 3fe coffee greet shoppers at the entrance, and the shelves and chill cabinets are densely packed with the best of Irish and foreign speciality foods, as well as cheese and charcuterie, wine, and a rotisserie. But it’s the fish counters, Himalayan salt fish-ageing fridge, and live shellfish tanks that catch the eye.

Whelan is a classically trained chef, and Sabongi runs a wholesale business, Sustainable Seafood Ireland, as well as fish restaurants. Together they have rethought the business of selling fish, in much the same way Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers did for meat when he brought the process of breaking down and cutting meat out from the backrooms and put it front of stage.

In addition to both owners being chefs, the fishmongers who work at Saltwater Grocery are also chefs. They will be available to share recipes and cooking techniques, give advice on how best to prepare and cook that day’s catch, and prepare it to specific requirements.

Saltwater Grocery in the old Downey’s premises on Terenure Road East, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Saltwater Grocery in the old Downey’s premises on Terenure Road East, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Access to the shop will, for the moment, be limited to six customers at a time due to Covid restrictions, but the interaction may begin in the queue that will inevitably form outside on Terenure Road East. Coffee and pastries can be ordered through the hatch in the front window, which is emblazoned with hand-painted vintage gold-leaf signage that took Mack Signs 70 hours to complete.

“We are looking at doing a ticket system so you could get your coffee or glass of wine and hang around outside; it would be nice to add a bit of hospitality into the queuing system,” Sabongi says.

Once inside, the partners aim to make the shopping experience as pleasant as possible, while no doubt also easing the financial pain factor that might accompany a visit to this Aladdin’s store. The range of larder cupboard supplies is impressive and both artistically and logically displayed, reflecting general manager Aoife Brennan O’Dwyer’s experience with the Avoca group. Bouquets of flowers grown at Bumblebee Farm in Drimoleague are also in the mix.

The chill cabinets are stocked with several exclusive ranges, including Patabrava Iberian charcuterie supplied by a friend of Sabongi’s in Andalucia, and limited-release conservas, or tinned fish products. “The Ortiz family have given us a range that they have only released to a couple of stores in San Sebastian,” he says. There are plenty of top-notch Irish brands on the shelves too.

The shelves and chill cabinets are densely packed with the best of Irish and foreign speciality foods. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
The shelves and chill cabinets are densely packed with the best of Irish and foreign speciality foods. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

A visit to the new shop is not designed to be a rushed experience. “If you come in and want to have a glass of wine while you’re looking around and talking about fish, that’s absolutely ideal,” Sabongi says. When Covid regulations allow, a shellfish wet bar and a cheese and charcuterie counter will make casual dining in the shop possible, and the duo have plans for fish preparation and cookery classes too.

In the meantime, you’ll be buying fish and shellfish to go, but perhaps not without a chat and some cooking tips from one of the fishmonger chefs. The day’s catch is displayed on ice in front of shoppers, who can get up close and personal with the selection. “You’re not behind a counter, you’re in it,” Whelan says.

Catch of the day on display. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Catch of the day on display. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

“Once you pick your fish, we’ll talk to you about how you want to cook it, and how you want it prepared. We are going to make a range of sauces, compound butters and mayonnaises, so you’ll be able to come in and get a piece of fish, a sauce, and the vegetables to go with it,” Whelan says. They also plan to offer a selection of fish-centric ready meals.

Grower Sean Hussey will deliver from his north Co Dublin base for a daily changing “picked at six” selection of leaves and vegetables. Imported specialities such as delicately pink and green Tropea onions from Sicily, giant globe artichokes, white asparagus, rainbow radishes, the last of the Amalfi lemons and the first of the summer truffles, are also on the fresh produce shelves, and will change with the seasons.

Smoked salmon from wild and organic sources will be sliced to order. “It tastes so much better,” Sabongi says, and a fridge specially for ageing fish has been installed. “Exactly like beef, the ageing process makes the fish taste better. You get a more heightened flavour so the turbot will taste a lot more earthy and the salmon a lot sweeter,” he says.

The story continues behind the fish counter, with a passageway leading to another retail space and a charcuterie and cheese counter that Whelan describes as “a nice little zone for a sherry and a slice of ham”. There’s a giant rotisserie here too, awaiting delivery of free-range chickens from Maperath Farm in Kells, Co Meath.

Saltwater Grocery, 97 Terenure Road East, Dublin 6, 8am-8pm, Monday-Saturday, and 10am-6pm on Sundays.

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