One thing I am always keen to quiz chefs about is their go-to off duty dinner choice and one name crops up time and time again – Etto. The petite Merrion Row eatery opened by Liz Matthews and Simon Barrett in 2014 to great acclaim, earning a Bib Gourmand after just 8 months and securing its place on the must-try list of many. It is all the more surprising then that until recently I hadn’t got around to trying it out myself.
Determined to rectify this injustice and judge for myself, I decided to kick off my week with a little style and pop in for a quiet Monday night dinner. Seating just 38 at capacity means it is a little tight, but this adds to the relaxed vibe which makes it so inviting. Groups of visitors to Dublin, couples and even a young family blessed with children with adventurous palates meant Etto was close to full when we arrived, and any spare tables were quickly filled. Seemingly, quiet Mondays are not a thing here!
On one of the hottest days of the year, the cool, dark corners of Etto proved to be a perfect choice for a dinner á deux. Dimly lit and dotted with blackboards and wine bottles, the dining space is modest and unpretentious, the tables rustic and unadorned, almost homely. I have to make note of the genuine welcome we received, even though there was no shortage of patrons we certainly felt valued from the moment we arrived. Glass-clinking and laughter is the background music in Etto, with diners enthusiastically embracing Monday – the only blues here are the navy accented walls.
My oenophile dining companion John was immediately captivated by the extensive wine list, noting that it is for the most part firmly rooted in Old World regions – and reads like a dream. In-keeping with the cuisine on offer, it has an obvious Italian affection but features some unique options, a flight of fancy to Slovenia could have taken us! As Etto has invested in wine taps, there is a choice of no less than 8 blackboard-listed wines by the glass which changes daily. This was fantastic news for my good intentions on a Monday.
Etto’s dinner menu reads like a book you just can’t put down, drawing you in and holding your attention with dish after dish of tantalization. Each option was a succinctly listed alluring combination, such as Confit Duck and Pistachio, White Peach and Beetroot and Mussels, Nduja, Celery and Samphire. Chef Paul McNamara, who took over from Bastible’s Barry Fitzgerald, made my decision very difficult indeed. So difficult in fact, that we opted to surrender ourselves to his choice of dishes by sampling the Chef’s Tasting Menu. Composed of a selection of dishes from the main dinner menu, from nibbles to share through to dessert, this menu offers four courses for just €35 per person and is available all night from Monday to Wednesday.
Our first morsels arrived, simple sharing style. Waif-like slices of ventricina, a Calabrian salami composed of pork cheek, neck and shoulder and dotted with almost sweet droplets of fat was generously pepper-spiced and utterly moreish. John’s pick of Austrian Gruner Veltliner (€8) made the rich ventricina sing with its complementary acidity. This accentuated the intense meatiness of the salami, the result of a two month curing time. Alongside some toasted ciabatta, sharp carrot and cucumber pickle and nocoletto olives, our appetites were well whetted.
The only warm element of our pre-starter arrived, unassuming, at first glance just two little croquettes which I expected very little from. I will admit when i’m wrong. These were not croquettes, but Smoked Mozzerella and Tomato Suppli, the Roman street food answer to arancini. Perfectly crisp panko-crumb with oozing sweet tomato and chunks of smokey cheese still intact, we agreed we could have eaten trayful. John hit the nail on the head, noting that simple suppli should never make you stutter, but we were both a little gobsmacked by how delicious these deceptively simple morsels were. I do hope they are a permanent fixture on the menu which changes frequently.
Suitably eased into dinner with our delicious nibbles, our starter of Organic Salmon Tartare, Gooseberry and Horseradish arrived to oohs and ahs, this was a beautiful dish indeed, studded with shaved disks of radish. Served with a wafer-thin rye crisp, plump cubes of salmon were meltingly good. We agreed that a stronger kick of horseradish pepperiness would have been welcome but the sharpness of gooseberries cut across the oil-rich salmon beautifully. An accompanying glass of Condes de Albarei Albarino (€8.50) worked well, with pleasing tartness and cleansing minerality.
Our main was the dish I had pinpointed as the winner on the main menu – Braised Veal Shin, Roast Onion, Lettuce and Anchovy. The onion, taken to the point of char for maximum sweetness, was a stickily delicious counterpoint to the pullable shin, which is one of those slow melting cuts that can’t be beaten by its leaner flash-in-the-pan counterparts. Served with a buttery and golden polenta bar, earthy baby turnip, wilted lettuce and the seductive salinity of anchovy, this was clever, unpretentious cooking delivering whole mouth enveloping flavour. McNamara knows how to extract every last bit of flavour from each ingredient to create dishes with far greater complexity than the sum of their parts.
Dessert of Red Wine Poached Prunes and Mascarpone read like a straight-forward sweet closing act, in a word – pleasant. Lets be honest, no-one thinks of prunes as a sexy fruit, save perhaps when they are doused in Armagnac. I generally see a dessert without chocolate as a missed opportunity but what arrived was dreamy mascarpone studded with vanilla and soft, glistening prunes in a cinnamon-spiced red wine bathing pool, begging us to dive in. This was inexplicably a high point – how can dried fruit be so insanely decadent? This dessert puzzled me, it had no right to be as delicious as it was, this was pared-back perfection.
Having lingered over dessert and coffees contemplating sampling some more of Etto’s wine list (so much for being mindful on a Monday) we eventually brought ourselves to leave after settling the bill. At €100 for four courses, three (don’t ask!) glasses of wine and two coffees, this was the only part of the meal that felt wrong – Chef’s Tasting Menu is a fantastic way of sampling the full complement of dishes at a seriously reasonable midweek price.
Etto in Italian parlance is a measure of weight, roughly three ounces or 100 grams. I can honestly say that there was not one ounce of my evening in Etto that I didn’t enjoy, the ambience, the warmth of the service and stunningly simple yet highly accomplished dishes, each one more delightful than the last. Gram for gram, Etto punches above its weight in every regard, striking the perfect balance of casual and crave-worthy. The only downside? I have no idea how next Monday will compete.
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Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that (and greed) as the ultimate motivators, I quickly realised that home-baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law I undertook a PhD, but a preference for cookbooks to textbooks persisted. As a (self-confessed!) demon in the kitchen, I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, which fuelled my desire to set my focus on food in a serious way. Working with The Taste allows me to satiate this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting. Follow me as I share my food adventures and hopefully inspire others to indulge their passion for cooking and food in the process!