Fennel review: There’s a promising young chef in this unpromising location

A very good restaurant disguised as a dive is full of surprises

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Address: Swords Road
Telephone: (01) 7044005
Cuisine: Irish
Cost: €€€

Future hipsters might find this brick building cool. But I doubt it. It has a Centra on one side and four lanes of traffic on the other. The architectural style is best described as Noddy in Toyland does 1990s mixed-use development. It’s a stone’s throw from the Regency Hotel, a lesser-known spot until February when a Dublin man was shot dead at a boxing weigh-in. But despite all this the building might house the best thing to hit the restaurant desert that is this patch of Dublin’s northside in a long time.

The place used to be called the Gallery Restaurant. Now it's the home of young chef Peter Clifford, and has been renamed Fennel. Clifford's father Michael was a Michelin-starred chef who died when his son was 14. Still in his 20s, Peter Clifford has some starry English kitchens under his belt, including Rick Stein's, Tom Aikens and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. Working with food writer Joe McNamee he brought out Clifford & Son last year, a cookbook featuring 30 of his father's recipes and 30 of his own.

Good food experiences don’t tend to happen after you pull into a Centra carpark, but Fennel is much nicer inside than out. There’s lots of dark furniture, chairs upholstered in different patterns, grey metro tiling and enough hanging filament bulbs to light a small moody Scandinavian village.

We don’t get off to the best of starts when there’s no record of my booking. The place is busy but they’ve a high table by the window. So the night is saved. Sourdough bread is announced as it’s delivered to the table. But it’s not sourdough it’s brown soda bread.


Then things start to click into place, starting with a simple one-pager menu, four starters, four mains, some sides and desserts.

This is cheffy food done very well. There’s a beautiful hot white plate dressed with one long carrot still wearing its Mohican of stalks on the top. It’s been sliced lengthways charred and draped with glisteningly lovely lengths of lardo, and sprinkled with carroty orange mussels. Frothy buttermilk foam, the byproduct of the house butter, gives tang. Across the table juicy fat scallops are fried to a sticky finish on the outside and served with a sticky chickeny reduction and hazelnuts (the nut of the night here).

Seeing artichokes on the menu at this time of the year I think globe artichokes but my main is a plate featuring the wintery tubers roasted and fried to the perfect chewy sweetness outside, flesh still delicate and creamy inside. They come with more hazelnuts and petals of pearl onion, that are the star of the plate.

They’ve been pickled with, I’m guessing, a dollop of booze to add a barely-there bitter edge to their sweetness. There’s more artichoke, in a creamily perfect puree. Nasturtium leaves don’t have too much fire and there are finely mandolined slices of pear for a more straightforward sweet hit.

Across the table two small pieces of John Dory have been fried in butter and placed on top of baby peas, some leaves of wild garlic and fingernail teeny brown shrimp. A “prawn sauce” adds a brassy layer of seafood flavour to the plate. Crisp green beans come with a dusting of flaked almonds and postage stamps of fried bacon to make them (almost) as moreish as chips.

I finish with cheese which here, refreshingly, comes without the usual cheese surcharge (the cheese squeeze). They’ve chose well and served it at room temperature so the Young Buck blue is oozing flavour along with a ripe “Tipperary Brie” (presumably Breda Maher’s Cooleeney) and a crumbly triangle of Hegarty’s cheddar. The only downer is the “crackers” which turn out to be toasts made with industrial-style French baguette. Juliana’s yoghurt panna cotta “tastes a little too yoghurty” but is saved by a terrific ginger sorbet on top and crisp curls of gingery pain d’epices.

We’ve seen chefs brought in by publicans to break new ground and turn a place into a restaurant worth its salt. It rarely produces anything worth a visit. They need to work on their bread but Fennel is a very good restaurant disguised as a dive. They’re breaking new ground in this part of the city. It would be trendier to put cooking like this in a barebones warehouse or a city-centre joint. But the drive-by zone that is the Swords Road has now got a reason to stop. Dinner for two with sparkling water came to €87.50

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a founder of Pocket Forests