In my days as a crime journalist, people used to talk about the water-bed effect. The theory went something like this: when the authorities came down heavily on crime in one area, it sluiced immediately into another district.
And so it is with restaurants these days. As city centre rents rise, chefs have less freedom to cook the food they love rather than the food their accountants do. So new restaurants are trickling into edgier, less central neighbourhoods, going beyond the canals and sometimes even beyond the city itself.
Philip Yeung has worked in his share of boomy city centre kitchens, with Temple Garner in Town Bar and Grill and later in the reinvented post-Stokes brothers Bang Restaurant on Merrion Row.
Now he’s got his own place in a neighbourhood where it’s a bit of a mystery why no one has broken this ground until now. Harold’s Cross has long been takeaway territory. Yeung’s new restaurant is called Craft. It’s in what was the Black Apple cafe, part of an old-school strip of higgledy-piggledy shops, few of which have been bothered by anyone wielding a tin of Farrow and Ball or a mood board.
So Craft stands out like a neatly groomed thumb, all tasteful navy outside with minimalist simple branding, and the cynic in me is suspicious. Is this just another slick clone in the wannabe army splashing itself across the Irish restaurant scene one tin of blackboard paint at a time? One-word name? Yep. Seasonal menu? Yep. Blackboard paint? Gallons of it. We’ve been here before with other new places that turn out to be all fur coat and no jocks, all borrowed style over substance.
Mercifully it’s none of the above, although there are some curious ingredient substitutions over the course of the evening that we’ll get to.
Craft feels like its been here a while, and there is the sense of being in experienced hands. There’s a confidence to the front-of-house staff and we get a cosy table by the radiators set into the white-painted brick wall.
The menu is priced with the pleasant feeling that you’re actually paying for the food rather than subsidising a landlord’s second home in Marbella. Order before 7pm and there are two courses for €20. It’s a proper steal.
House-made brown bread is two lovely things at once. It’s still warm from the oven and satisfyingly savoury. Brown bread with sugar isn’t brown bread in my book. It’s just bad cake. There’s house butter, with a crunchy flake of sea salt on top.
The first dish is the simplest thing. It’s a bowl of spring pea soup, greener than a Disney princess’s eyes and tasting beautifully of peas, which is a welcome combination of warmth and summer in bowl. I get a slice of the chicken terrine, solid chunks of tasty meat with the remoulade made of cabbage rather than celeriac. Okay cabbage and mustard work well. But what happened the celeriac?
My gurnard is a beautiful plate of food. The fish comes with a leek sliced not into rounds but into a long silken length, lightly charred to keep its sweetness in check, and the plate is dusted with leek ash. There are small juicy mussels scattered over it and fingernail-sized broad beans which repeat that fresh green trick of being food that is good for you and also tastes so very good.
The vegetarian dish is wild garlic gnocchi, which don’t taste particularly garlicky but are good nonetheless, roast squash, toasted hazelnuts and an egg yolk to bring sweet and savoury together with a slick of the simplest umami. Long-stem broccoli comes with an excellent anchovy-laden caesar dressing, my kind of surf and turf.
And roast potatoes have all the wicked crunch of a scalding duck fat dousing before they hit the oven.
To finish there's an apple cake where the promised tarragon (Intrigued? So was I) has morphed into a fennel frond balanced on the icing sugar-dusted sponge. The apple element has been deconstructed into a puree and some chewy, slightly stewed slices, with some toasted oats tossed over it to finish. There's a dark chocolate and peanut mille feuille (the Cork friend tells me this is called milly filly in certain parts of the second city), which isn't quite as airy and soft flaky as well as crispy flaky as I'd like my milly filly to be.
The next day the friend copies over a letter that was sent to neighbours by Philip Yeung, introducing himself. It’s a cheerful letter with a liberal sprinkling of exclamation marks, which finishes with a generous offer of a 10 per cent discount to anyone bringing a copy in with them.
It’s a classy way to mark your arrival in the neighbourhood. Harold’s Cross is a better place to be thanks to the arrival of Craft. Desserts need a bit more work, but the substitutions didn’t make me feel short-changed. They’re a sign of a young kitchen thinking on its feet, like any resourceful home cook.
At these prices you can eat from a laminate menu with precooked dishes arriving frozen from the back of a white van. Or you can go somewhere like Craft where they’re simply doing it better.