Review: Mood food rather than good food at Camden Exchange

The menu sounds great but the food falls squarely into the bar food fodder category

Camden Exchange
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Address: 72 Camden Street Lower
Telephone: (01) 559 9028
Cuisine: Turkish/Middle Eastern
Cost: €€

Our waiter has spent a lot more time on his hair than either of us. There’s a food truck parked up beside us, even though we’re in the depths of a handsome stone fronted building. When the heat lamps come on in the hatch they’re a helpful reading aid to decipher the menu in this dark place.

All of these might be signals that we're not the target market for the Camden Exchange. We're not the office workers unwinding with cocktails and "street food" at whom this new restaurant is so clearly aimed. I'm not clear this is a restaurant so let's see. Camden Exchange's most recent incarnation was as a building pretending to be something it wasn't. The slightly over-cooked RTÉ drama Raw used the exterior as its pretend restaurant. It was a bank until the late 1970s, according to a press release. One of the three men who have turned this fake restaurant into a real one is quoted saying they hope to create "a space which celebrates originality, creativity and provides an incubator for newness".

Except we’re surrounded by quite a lot of oldness. Nostalgic Instagrammable oldness. There’s that putty beige corrugated Citroen Hy delivery van parked beside us which met its end in the shape of an angle grinder and an interior designer. Condiments are stowed behind drop down hatches as if it might be about to rev up with a belch of black smoke and drive off in search of more customers. But then the waitress opens the door and stacks some plates in the space where a driver might have sat and we’re back in the world of let’s pretend. We might have been better off sitting in the roomier front of the restaurant. It’s a handsome room with stools to let you sit at the window.

We’ll start with what works here. There’s a great coriander-laced dip with two tender lamb koftas, minced lamb on sticks. It’s a bit of mystery guest as it’s not listed on the menu, but the lamb and the dip taste deeply of themselves, like the best street food. Secondly there are lots of Irish food producers listed on the reasonably-priced menu.


But here’s where things start to wobble: Gubbeen is not a cheddar, lads. The Gubbeen “cheddar” features in an enamel cup of gobstopper-sized croquettes which have the consistency of builder’s expanding foam and don’t taste very much of cheese.

A mezze of three dips comes in three mismatched shot glasses. There’s a lemon hummus where the lemon element is ramped up and strange, more washing up liquid than a fruity tang. I like my hummus a bit sloppy and soupy. Here it’s as solid as cold mashed potato. There’s a muddy glass of something else which must be the “kale Parmesan”. It tastes fine but has been processed to baby food gloop. A watery shot glass of romesco (typically a rich nutty red pepper and tomato concoction) tastes of tomato and chilli and little else. The crispy chickpea cake is another menu mis-description. The triangles of stodge are about as crispy as a well thumbed banknote. They’re slotted into a towering mound of rocket leaves, onion and slices of roasted courgette.

There’s a Kilner jar of “honeycomb cheesecake” which doesn’t taste any way cheesy, and a chocolate mousse with a mealy tart mouthful of sponge at the bottom that must be the “brigadeiro twist” – a Brazilian truffle.

So my conclusion? If this is street food then I’m a monkey’s great aunt. In my book it’s bar food, mood music to the booze. I admire their menu-writing skills and use of good Irish producers. I even admire the jokey van in the room. But Camden Exchange still isn’t convincing me that it’s a real restaurant where everything starts and ends with the food. It’s a bar where you happen to be able to get some food with your drink.

Dinner for two with desserts and two gin and tonics came to €63.55.

VERDICT: 5/10 Lots of menu promise. Very little flavour delivery.

Camden Exchange, 72 Camden Street Lower, Dublin 2 Tel: 01-559 90280 Facilities: Exposed piping and piped music Music: Hip hop Food provenance: Good. Toonsbridge, Corleggy and Gubbeen get cheesemaker billing Wheelchair access: Yes Vegetarian options: fine

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary

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