Review: This pop-up restaurant is a farm-fresh feast
This ‘pretend farm’ lays on a special meal using the freshest possible produce
Airfield: brilliant work
We are eating dinner on a “pretend farm”. This is the phrase a woman uses to describe Airfield as we share a long table in the Overends Restaurant. Disneyland with wellies and, tonight, a tasting menu.
Airfield is a 38-acre estate in south Dublin set up as a charity in the 1970s to “facilitate active learning focusing on food, farming and the land”. Through their lives the Overend sisters, Letitia and Naomi, guarded their fields as the city pressed in on them.
Airfield got a big redevelopment several years ago and the modern cafe was built as a glass and timber showcase for farm-to-fork eating. It’s my first nighttime visit and the cafe feels different, tables dressed with a simple runner, with candles and a small jug of winter leaves. Zinc chairs look great but feel slippery. Like a polished slide, there’s the disconcerting feeling that you might shoot off the end at any moment.
Tonight they’ve invited in a chef who put a microfarm on a city building in a far bigger metropolis. Robin Gill installed beehives and grow boxes on the roof of his London restaurant The Dairy in Clapham. This is his wild and game pop-up dinner with Luke Matthews, one of the founding chefs behind the terrific Baltimore restaurant The Mews. Tonight is all Matthews’s work, Gill tells me at the end. And brilliant work it is, too.
The first sensation is a rare creature in Irish restaurants and (like an ageing supermodel) has had nothing done to it other than a bit of knife work. “West coast” sea urchins are sliced open to reveal pink nubbly centres to be spooned out with a teaspoon, delicate as an ocean breeze rather than a slap in the face with a wave. Urchins were last seen in our house on Blue Planet II moving in on a fish’s patch of seaweed whenever he turned his back. Two spiky urchin shells are coming home as a souvenir.
There are other sharing plate “snacks” of cockles from Sligo served in a single cream laced with green beads of oil made with alexanders, a summer hedgerow herb loved by foragers. Cream and green is a bit of a theme running through it all. There are silky Irish escargot, potted with a deft dollop of wild garlic pesto and charred crisp kale and celeriac leaves with an aerated bowl of Coolea gouda that gladdens the heart. All the heft and heartiness of this cheese (made only from milk eaten by grazing cows) magically turned into a fluffy mousse.
We get Airfield sourdough, a tangy springy bread fresh out of the oven, with a pot of more aerated deliciousness. This time it’s duck liver paté with an earthy pile of game rillette on the side of a wooden tree trunk plate. Strips of soft mallard meat, are turned pink on a plate of beetroot with damson. Shoreline and pasture come together with more vanilla-coloured single cream puddled over salty but subtle sea purslane, aster and spinach. These sea vegetables come with a hunk of cauliflower roasted with brown butter to a meaty melt and coated with fermented dulse.
The “dinner” bit of the menu is a plate of venison, tender rounds of meat just seared on the outside and topped with a tangy sauce and slices of grapes. The genius bit is that the grape slices have been smoked. There’s a celeriac ketchup with enough personality to host its own podcast and a game pie that looks like it came from a pantomime props department, a round of pastry glazed to a toffee colour, all butter and crumbly cloak to the meaty innards. Dessert is a grown-up, barely sweet Jerusalem artichoke ice cream made with jersey milk. There are artichoke crisps and a pot of crème fraîche that I’d be happy to eat by the spoonful all by itself.
Gobstopper-sized doughnuts are the only ordinary bit of the night. They’re not bad. They’re just not as special as everything that has gone before. There’s a rosehip syrup to dial them up a notch and then we’re done.
Airfield by night will hopefully become a thing later this year (April or May, was Gill’s best guess) when Matthews will become the resident chef. They might even put a restaurant in the old house. The dream is to eat on a farm, reconnect the dots and tread the common ground between farmers and eaters by reminding us how the freshest food can taste. Pretend farm or not, the hope is that Airfield will end up with a restaurant keeping it deliciously real.
Airfield, Overend Avenue, Drundrum, Dublin 14, 01-9696666
Dinner for one with sparkling water came to €86.50.
Verdict: 8.5/10 Special food in a valuable city enclave of farming.
Music: Inaudible over the buzz of pop-up chat.
Wheelchair access: Yes.
Food provenance: Places rather than producers, Sligo cockles, Wicklow Sika deer and Brittas three-cornered garlic.
Vegetarian options: Would need to be requested, but in these hands a dedicated veggie menu would be a treat for everyone.