Doing what we do, we are very fortunate to travel far and wide sampling some of the best food in Ireland, however when it comes to staying local we have to be honest in saying our little homestead of Drumcondra is seriously limited when it comes to good dining out options. With a population of almost 9,000 not counting any bordering areas there is a fair amount of mouths that could be fed. So when news spread of a new kid in town called Fennel opening up at the end of April we were both optimistic and looking forward to giving it a go. Housed in a less than glamorous spot next to the Regency Hotel, you have probably drove past this little gem without batting an eyelid. From first glance you would never know the skill and substance that lies beyond the bland facade.
The old adage “never judge a book” was the first thing to spring to mind when we stopped by last Saturday night for an 8pm booking. A slick interior that was both warm and inviting with cloud grey tiles, rustic faux bricks on the wall and bright multi-coloured patchwork upholstered seating ticked all the boxes for a neighbourhood setting. Couple this with the fact that a seriously talented young chef by the name of Peter Clifford has taken up the reigns as head chef and you have enough reasons to look a bit deeper. The quality of Peter’s food had been widely well received by both critics and diners alike in his previous role as the head chef at Stanley’s Restaurant & Wine Bar, which we reviewed ourselves last year so we were keen to see how this would transcend from a busy city venue to a neighbourhood menu.
The dinner menu is like many local spots at present short and sweet, Peter places a big emphasis on sourcing local, with many of the vegetables and herbs sourced from his own garden. His ethos for Fennel is “keep it simple” but we would find it hard to describe the plates or flavours as such. There is a choice of four starters and four mains with most bases covered and a good quality veggie option also.
We decided to test out the “keep it simple” theory with a innocent enough Foie Gras (€10), Peach and Elderflower dish. Picasso like plating transformed this velvety delicacy into a mini triumph, this is not Drumcondra food, this is a dish to rival any of the recently opened hotspots in the city centre. Delicate sprinkling of hazelnuts sat perfectly on top of a thin layer of exquisite cherry jelly, but is was the pickled cherries and tiny shard of cocoa nib that contained a deliciously bitter and intense chocolate flavour that was utterly delectable.
Over the other side of the table were two perfectly cooked Scallops (€11) hidden beneath a treasure trove of leek, girolle mushroom and finely sliced peach, all of which were beautifully balanced by a perfectly reduced trotter sauce. Thankfully we had plenty of bread on the night which came in handy when mopping up every drop of this tasty dressing.
The Quail at €24 was a almost a winner on the mains front but our server on the night Vanda assured us the Turbot was a dish not to miss, as she had steered us well on our wine choice of a bottle of well structured Shiraz Viognier, Willunga 100, McLaren Vale, Australia 2013 (€36) we took her lead and didn’t look back. A plump, pan-fried generous chunk of Turbot (€26) arrived with a thinly veiled canopy of truffle adding a striking depth to the texture, radish poached in butter from Pete’s garden, a light truffle foam, silky leeks and wonderfully sweet garden peas all came together beautifully to create a seriously memorable plate of food.
If you are going to open up a local restaurant serving up a beef dish on the menu is almost a prerequisite. With that in mind we sampled Fennel’s Fillet of Beef (€28), with mushrooms cooked in one of our hero ingredients, fino, we expected a succulent and sensuous cut and it did not disappoint. Cooked medium and simply dressed with some wilted spinach and a luxurious quenelle of foie gras butter, it was pure sinful indulgence.
We ordered one side and if you visit this is a must no matter what main you chose, french beans with bacon and almonds, we gladly would have sat there with a good glass of wine and just these, however desserts were floating by like daring little temptresses so we had other ideas. Keenly priced at €6.50 we ordered one each, firstly a casually plated bowl of Strawberry, Passsion Fruit and a feather light pistachio mousse, more substance over style with all the flavours doing the talking.
Chocolate desserts are something we are rarely drawn to on a menu as they can bit quite heavy at the end of a good meal and can leave you feeling like you may require rolling home instead of a Hailo, however Clifford’s 70% Chocolate bar with a ridge of dehydrated cocoa nib was simply sublime and the scoop of caramel ice-cream was so good we were tempted to steal the tub.
As we sipped the last remains from our glass we selfishly pondered writing this review at all and instead keep this gem a secret for ourselves but the cooking here is just too good not to share. Fennel to us was like a reverse Pandora’s box, each layer revealed a better trinket than the last, one more surprising than the other. Clifford’s cooking has set a welcome tone in this neck of the woods and hopefully will raise the bar for others. Get in while you can.
Our bill excluding service with one bottle of wine came to €124