Syrupy daiquiris and their atrocious associates are on their deathbeds, and this craft cocktail revolution is a funeral we will happily toast to. Innovative elixirs are the order of the day and are taste experiences in themselves, to be sipped and savoured.
The best cocktail menus are those which make committing to just one far too difficult, as we discovered on a recent trip to Dublin’s newest mixology Mecca – Bonsai.
Housed in what was formerly Bar Rustic, atop Rustic Stone and below Taste, the masterful Dylan McGrath has put his mark on Bonsai, giving it its own distinct identity.
Bonsai is considered a Japanese art form, and McGrath has the craft of creating irresistible venues down to a fine art. Bonsai is no exception, and each detail, from the extensive and eye-catching Saké collection to flaming red neon signs, Bonsai is a sultry and seductive space with enticing menus to match.
A quick perusal of the cocktail menu and we were hooked – McGrath has worked with two Japanese mixologists to create a bespoke offering unlike any other, as carefully considered as you would expect from a notorious perfectionist.
A devout Old Fashioned lover, I couldn’t resist the allure of the Kanto Old Fashion (€12) and I was glad I stuck to my habit – this Nikka “From the Barrel” Japanese Whisky-based concoction may be one of the best in Dublin (and believe me, I’ve done my research), perfectly pitched with palm sugar and grapefruit zest. Bourbon who?
Across the table, a Tokyo Fizz (€11.50) with pear vodka, spiced rum and pear purée was met with approval as a lighter tipple and a Plum and Marzipan Sour (€15) was the Saké based cocktail we had been searching for, utterly delicious with the toasty almond notes of Italian marzipan liqueur. For the Martini lover, the Shibuya (€15) balanced lime-infused gin with a spritz of umeboshi salted plum for an elegant and intriguing shaken not stirred concoction.
As with all libations, thirst gives way to peckishness once quenched and you are left with a dilemma – to abandon the tempting cocktail menu you wish to explore further to source sustenance or to settle for bog standard chicken wings and lack lustre bar fare to fill a hole. Bowls of more-ish wasabi peanuts and crisp puffed nori chips whet our appetites and left us hungry for more.
The art of grazing is something any flavour obsessive practices religiously, and for me, there is nothing quite as enticing as a collection of small bites to dip in and out of, which is exactly what Bonsai offers. The Bites Menu is short, with half a dozen options, but not unlike a Japanese Haiku, each dish is composed of carefully chosen flavour syllables. The results are borderline poetic.
A procession of small but perfectly formed creations which pack far more of a punch than their petite sizing should allow begins to arrive one by one to oohs and ahhs. If you have had the pleasure of a feast at Taste, you’ll know that Dylan McGrath is no pretender when it comes to delivering innovative Japanese fare. Plump Toro Tuna sashimi, mouth-watering Wagyu beef and arguably the finest sushi in Dublin, dinner at Taste can be head-spinningly good, so expectations were high as we had ordered one of each dish.
In traditional Japanese ceremonial style we begin the feast with Bonsai’s house Sake Akashi, we chose our own ceramic guinomi cups, each representative of a different Japanese character on the menu. I’m pleased to hear that my pick is the Handsome Japanese man as we sip the light and floral Akashi – smooth, easy drinking and the perfect introduction to the increasingly popular rice wine.
First up was a vegetarian option which ticks all the boxes for the ladies looking to save their carbs for cocktails (guilty) – Nashi Pear (€4.50).
Crisp disks of pressed pear act as a vessel for creamy avocado purée, sharp fermented umeboshi plum, radish and sesame to create a refreshing bite which even had the devout carnivores at the table grinning from ear to ear, taking the hell out of healthy.
What came next was quite simply an umami bomb – Wagyu Beef (€9) burger style bites which had been torched for charred deliciousness, mirrored by the smokiness of bonito flakes.
Earthy and intense truffled miso and crispy shallots crowned these towers of utter temptation – I’m not sure anyone has a jaw mighty enough to conquer this bite in one, but my God it makes you want to…
Crab Claws (€5) landed next – a beautiful shell-like conch almost too pretty to eat. The kind of prawn cracker you will never find in your local takeaway, cloud-like puffs encased flaked crab claw meat – the sweetest part of the crab and a treat in itself – tossed in citrus-like ponzu and teriyaki.
Topped with pearls of saline salmon roe and house pickled ginger, this bite was four explosive mouthfuls tickling every part of the tongue in a very good way. A strong contender for dish of the evening.
As things aren’t always as they seem, Akame Tuna (€8) looks at first glance like nigiri but is draped over a crisp kimchi filled croquette rather than sushi rice – an adaptation I can definitely get behind. An indulgent cured egg yolk adds a hint of creaminess to this perfectly pitched bite.
In a similar crispy and crave-worthy vein, Black Cod (€4.50) mingles with smokey aubergine in panko crumb and plump, tender Octopus (€5.50) tendrils manage to achieve peak crunch while remaining juicy within – cover your eyes rubbery calamari, there is no room for you at Bonsai.
With the same seductive combinations fans of Taste have come to crave, Bonsai’s bites are table-clatteringly good and pack far more of a punch than their petite size should allow, mirrored by an entirely unique cocktail offering you will want to explore fully. Dylan has done it again.
But he’s not finished yet. As we wind down our evening, Dylan comes out for a chat and explains that there are more changes afoot – a Japanese snow cone machine, a cherry blossom tree feature, more menu innovations. It is just the beginning for Bonsai and Dylan has that spark in his eye that suggests his genius is at work once again.
Bonsai is far more than Taste’s little sister and the dishes are anything but run of the mill bar bites, it is a slick standalone casual dining destination that will have you coming back for more and purring with contentment – I’m pretty sure it was love at first bite. Kanpai!
The total for all bar bites and cocktails shared between four people came to €90. To reserve your table at Bonsai, call 01 526 7701.
17 South Georges Street
T: +353 (0) 1 526 7701
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake Off and am passionate about discovering and creating delicious things – I can sometimes be caught in the act on TV3’s Six O’Clock Show. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting.