Why do we eat out? For me it is entirely about being fed good quality food — I would prefer pleasant surroundings, but the food comes first. I want flavour not fashion.
In the last few months Dublin has seen a number of showy restaurants open but also a number of quirky places where food is the focus.
My guest on this review worked as a restaurant manager for years but is now working for a wine importer so has a good perspective on the restaurant business.
Which will win out, she wondered — the ‘experience’ restaurants with posh toilets, multimillion-euro budgets, and boring or terrible food (yes I’m talking about Café en Seine and The Ivy) or funky chef-run spaces where the food is the star — places like Variety Jones.
Variety Jones’s creators are Keelan Higgs, formerly chef in Luna and Locks, and his brother Aaron who runs front of house. Variety Jones was the alias of one of the founders of the dark web Silk Road.
The restaurant is not endorsing his activity but thought the name was catchy and a little edgy — I agree.
Located in a long narrow space on Thomas St, VJ is just far enough out of the city centre to keep the rent a bit lower and quirky enough to attract a hip crowd.
The menu is short and designed for sharing, with most of the dishes cooked on or beside an open wood fire — the best seats are the ones nearest the fire but we were happy enough down near the door.
My guest arrived first and had ordered a bottle of crisp bright Nicolas Maillet Mâcon Villages Burgundy (€50) from the ‘minimal intervention’ list.
Most of the wines are also ‘natural’ so you will need a very open mind if you want to follow the suggestions of the rather feisty and opinionated sommelier Vanda.
We began with some snacks including a Flaggy Shore oyster which popped with flavour thanks to a Vietnamese dressing which didn’t overwhelm its briny freshness.
Rye bread topped with goat cheese curds and trout caviar also popped and, for contrast, an earthy and richly textured slow-cooked Jerusalem artichoke.
Foie gras and chicken liver parfait (€15) arrived next with thin potato waffles on the side. The foie was creamy with a lovely lightness of touch and the addition of fried and pickled onions added contrasts without overwhelming.
Up next was comté ravioli with hearth-roasted mushrooms and a mushroom broth which raised the meal to another level.
Wine should either contrast food or complement food and the Menti Garganega wine we were convinced to try with this dish had significant skin contact and was rather oxidised, but the flavours did knit in nicely — however, both of us preferred the lively vibrant Mâcon which lifted all the flavours allowing them greater definition.
Our shared main of hearth-roasted brill (€50) continued the high from the mushrooms.
This huge fish was beautifully cooked and could have fed three. The rich translucent flakes had an intense creaminess which mixed nicely with the smoke flavours from the fire.
Crisp juicy cavolo nero greens also had a smoky touch and smoked eel mixed through our warm potato salad added yet more.
Surprisingly all this smoke was kept in check, aided by the bright herbal flavours in the sauce and some flavourful cockles and mussels.
We finished with an apple sponge cake with a big bang of cinnamon, allspice, and ginger and a creamy ‘brown butter custard’ which was the star element in the dish.
There are big flavours in the food here but they are immensely satisfying as they are married so well with classical elements and techniques.
This was overall a rather joyous meal — my guest rubbed her tummy in satisfaction at one point. Flavour wins out over fashion every time.
Dinner for two including snacks, a shared starter, a shared whole Brill, shared dessert plus a good bottle and some extra glasses cost €173
Tuesday to Saturday, 5.30pm-10pm
In a sentence
A short menu, an intriguing ‘minimal intervention’ wine list, and some outstanding cooking — do please visit as this is the kind of restaurant that deserves to thrive.