The word Michelin conjures up a galaxy of misconceptions in many cases, an assumption of pretension and expectation of minuscule plated artwork prevails for many. However, while the Guide is most famous for recognising a constellation of high-end starred venues, it is also in the business of celebrating those eateries which are well worth a stop without breaking the bank with the Michelin Bib Gourmand, an accolade which celebrates fantastic food at accessible price points.
Having dined my way around much of the Irish Bib Gourmand gang, I have yet to be disappointed with the Guide’s recommendations. I have however, on many occasions, been disillusioned by the use of the term Gastropub by venues pulling pints and the wool over peoples’ eyes as to what constitutes food worth eating. I too, have my preconceptions around certain words, it seems.
The scent from the street – there are steaks charring, I’m sure of it – draws me in to my new local, The Old Spot, one of only two Michelin Guide recommended Gastropubs in the city (the other isn’t hard to find, across the road, The Chophouse) and I am keen to test my allegiance to the Guide’s sage wisdom and hopefully dispel my disdain for the oft-misused term.
I’m well aware that The Old Spot has recently enlisted hospitality royalty in the form of Denise McBrien, ex-Pichet and more recently Old Street, to take over front of house and that there is another Pichet alumnus, Fiachra Kenny, manning the kitchen, so there is a touch of Michelin magic in the air, albeit little standing space on the distressed wooden floors as we arrive to a packed front bar.
Even securing a stool proves challenging even though it is midweek and still bright out – it could be match day as we are just a stone’s throw from the Aviva on Bath Avenue, or the height of the summer, easily.
I even spy with my little eye two of Ireland’s most prominent musicians tucking in to a midweek dinner, shades and all, although the electric atmosphere in the red brick dining room would surely have been present with or without them. First impressions count, and we agree that The Old Spot has character oozing from its hanging wooden beams and as we settle in to a cosy table towards the back of the room, I only hope it has a menu to match.
It does, and we dive head first into a succinct but seductive line up which requires drawn out deliberation, suddenly with plans to resemble the Old Spot’s emblematic pig bathing in a bucket of indulgence. The starter section in particular reads like an all too tempting tale.
Narrowly overlooking Veal Sweetbreads in anticipation of a meaty main, I stuck with Salt Baked Celeriac(€8), that now almost ubiquitous dish. Here, it is far more than a nod to a trendy technique and the kitchen, headed up by Fiachra Kenny, delivers a vegetarian starter which has the resident carnivore a little jealous.
With both earthiness and elegance dancing off the plate, the ugly root is draped in both lithe slivers and chunky slices along with petals of burnt onion, toasted hazelnuts, an appropriate scattering of rocket’s pepperiness (for once!), and a truffled aioli which wouldn’t have been out of place on the plate of a Michelin star holder. A buttery Domaine des Montarels, Chardonnay, Cotes de Thongue, 2015(€8.75) made this a starter well worth lingering over.
Across the table, disagreement on Goatsbridge Caviar comes to the fore, to me the perfect spike of saline seasoning on a superb plate of Earl Grey Smoked Trout and Guinness Bread(€9). We are unanimous on the dish overall – subtle and nuanced tea smoke doesn’t dominate delicate trout and seeded, sweet and malty Guinness bread proves to be the perfect vessel.
Topped with sharp pickled cucumber shavings and a piquant horseradish cream, yet more welcome acidity to cut across the oil-rich trout came in the form of Domaine des Lauriers ‘Prestige’ Picpoul de Pinet 2016(€8.25) – a classic combination, elevated far beyond pub standard and duly demolished.
Now back to that meaty main – grinning almost cartoonish in my delight as Slow Cooked Smoked Pork Shoulder(€24) arrives before me, not unlike sticky bourbon coated and sweet pulled pork, amplified with smoke and falling apart with the tickle of a fork (or both of our forks, regrettably…)
This could scarcely have been more delicious, alongside a stout and crisp handmade sausage roll and accessorised with heart-stompingly buttery Savoy cabbage and puddles of velvety celeriac purée. Rounded off with a glass of Hacienda Lopez de Haro, Rioja Reserva, Rioja, Spain, 2013 (€9.50), bold enough to stand up to the rich and oozing shoulder, this was pork perfection.
I had heard whispers from locals that the Prawns Pil Pil are a must here, but unable to get the scent of steak out of his head my dining companion decides to have it all with the Surf and Turf special of Dry Aged Striploin with Garlic and Chilli Prawns(€32).
Rustic and grilled on open flame, the McLoughlin’s striploin arrives deliciously charred and tender within, so well executed I think there’s a Josper grill involved, but our wonderful server Ash confirms it is just good old fashioned fire and smoke at play, more delicious still alongside a gutsy glass of Tor del Colle, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva 2015, a seductive Italian pairing for the best of Irish beef.
The crowning glory of plump and juicy shell-on prawns came laced with spice and heady amounts of garlic, and if the pil pil offering is similar I can easily see why regulars rave about it.
While the offering here is a distinctly Irish one, we couldn’t resist a shared Pecan Pie to finish dinner on a sweet note – it is one thing Americans did right and yet another thing The Old Spot manages to nail, toasty and buttery crisp along with a golden scoop of salted caramel ice-cream – a fitting finale to what had come before it.
Settling a bill of €119 for two starters, two mains, a dessert and four glasses of wine, we agreed that this is a gastropub which would make dropping in for just a drink feel torturous, with something to tempt most to stay for a bite – with no resemblance whatsoever to the greasy spoons and watering holes the title can draw to mind.
The confident dishes on my side of the table felt more Michelin Bib than Michelin Guide, and perhaps with the investment in McBrien to head up the service team (which ranked among the best we’ve come across in recent times, even in her absence) and the skilled hands of Kenny in the kitchen, that could be the X that marks the spot for this cosy and casual gem going forward. But don’t take my word for it or Michelin’s – see for yourself how this gastropub hits the spot.
The Old Spot
14 Bath Avenue
T: 01 660-5599
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 or RTE Today. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting. Follow me on my pursuit of deliciousness.