By Leslie Williams
ON a cold January evening in Paris in 1938, Samuel Beckett was walking home with some friends after a night on the town when he was accosted and suddenly stabbed by a pimp called Prudent.
The knife narrowly missed his heart and he was rushed to hospital — within hours his friend James Joyce was at his bedside, insisting on paying for a private room. While Beckett recovered, Nora sent in batches of her signature custard to remind him of home and you can find the recipe for Assassination Custard in An Irish Literary Cookbook (O’Mara & O’Reilly).
These days if you google that dramatic phrase you will mainly find references to one of the very best (and certainly one of the tiniest), restaurants in the country. There are just two tables — one square two to three top and one large round table for sharing. Ken Doherty and Gwen McGrath actually opened a couple of years ago and I have been extremely tardy in visiting, but to make up I visited three days in a row.
Gwen previously worked in places like Good Things Café (during the Durrus years) and Ken in Café Paradiso, but their influences are myriad — Italy, Spain, and the Middle East being perhaps prominent. The menu changes daily depending on what has been delivered by the likes of Broughgammon Farm or organic farmer Jenny McNally, recent winner of an Irish Food Writers Guild Award.
The menu is hand-written on a small brown paper bag (just as I’ve seen in cafés in Morocco) and there is no drinks menu, just large bottles of chilled tap water. There is no corkage charge if you bring your own wine or beer — on one visit I dropped into the nearby Mace for a bottle of Santa Rita 120 (€11).
Homemade soft white bread is the first dish to arrive on each of my visits followed by soft ricotta with anchovies or homemade labneh (yoghurt cheese for want of a better description) — creamy and pungent and lifted with pomegranate seeds and a generous sprinkling of sumac.
Panelle chickpea flour fritters (€3.50) are a speciality of Gwen’s — fluffy and nutty and served (on the day I visited) with romesco — this is classic Assassination Custard: why not serve a Catalan fisherman’s sauce of almonds roasted red peppers with a Sicilian street food?
Salad might be pickled beets or a mound of thinly sliced raw Jerusalem artichokes with pomegranate seeds, walnuts and herbs — a perfect foil for some plump Ray cheeks in beurre noisette.
Or it might just be simply dressed swede or white turnips — I’ve never been a big turnip fan but Ken and Gwen can transform them, bitter and earthy as they are, into a crisp nutty palate cleansing salad with good use of oil and vinegar and maybe a slice or two of blood orange.
Endive featured a lot in my visits — I loved the endive slow cooked in butter but I think my favourite dish over the three days was olive oil cooked endive with spiced tahini (sesame seed paste) and hazelnuts. The bitter sweet flavours of the endive worked rather marvellously with the textured sweet nuts and the earthy savoury intensity of the spiced tahini sauce — a flawless dish.
Broughgammon farm rose Veal (€9) was cooked rare and served with a creamy rich dressing and topped with tuna and capers, an unconventional take on Piemontese Vitello Tonnato and arguably more interesting. Kid goat’s heart was also served rare with red onion, roast garlic yoghurt and cherries to add a hint of sweetness — flat leaf parsley gave a herbal undertone and the whole was enlivened with careful use of smoked paprika.
Coffee is sourced from Nick’s Coffee Company in Ranelagh and is some of the best I’ve been served in the past few months — helped by the only piece of fancy equipment in the kitchen — a large old Gaggia. You cannot leave without having some Ugly Beautiful meringues (€3.50) made with fresh fruity-savoury Coriander Seeds or perhaps some Five Spice cookies or maybe a slice of Spanish Almond Cake.
Assassination Custard is a sheer joy to visit, there are very few people cooking in Ireland with such joy and abandon. Go soon and often.
Lunch for two with five shared dishes plus coffee and cake cost €38.
Lunch 12.30pm - 3pm, Tuesday to Friday.
Tip: Watch for the Little Café sign — Assassination Custard is written in the window.
In a sentence: A tiny restaurant open just a few hours a week serving gorgeous Mediterranean food with generous flavours ranging from vegan chickpea fritters to goat heart with cherries and spiced yoghurt.
Assassination Custard, 19A Kevin Street Lower, Dublin 8. Tel: 087-9971513; www.facebook.com/assassinationcustard