IN the days before Dearly Beloved and I were blessed with those small, nocturnal creatures that subsist on a strict diet of hard cash and parental resolve, we were fond of Star Anise for a little mid-week morale booster.
It may be small but like the spice for which it is named, a little goes a long way — warm, welcoming décor, even warmer, more welcoming service always ensured cosiness even on the quietest nights.
Well, it doesn’t get quieter than the very midweek night on which the Siberian Freeze hits Ireland.
Arriving for the later sitting, we anticipated monastic solitude, but a large party have fetched up to jointly celebrate several birthdays, filling two long tables and injecting a most enervating fizz into our sleep-deprived torpor.
Our waitress was smilingly indulgent, very patient as I dawdled over the excellent wine list.
Opting for a Rioja Tempranillo, (Vina Bujanda Crianza 2008) but still harbouring strong feelings for a Languedoc Merlot (Domaine St Rose 2009), she duly opened the latter to taste. Very nice, silky, supple, fruity with an airy lightness, I liked it a lot and many restaurants, having opened the bottle, would have left it at that.
But she then insisted on opening the Tempranillo. I secretly preferred the Merlot but was too embarrassed at her largesse to say so. Anyway, the Tempranillo too was decent — drier with a spicy, leathery nose but light enough to live with our seafood starters.
DB’s Verrine of crab, avocado, salmon roe & pink grapefruit was layered in a glass and served chilled, probably best left for dining al fresco on a warm summer’s day. But it was so well-executed, I swear sunbeams came streaming through the restaurant window — at 9.30pm. Mashed crabmeat, perfectly ripe avocado and the sharp/sweet tang of pink grapefruit all humming in gentle harmony, with occasional sprightly solo turns from glistening orange pearls of salty salmon roe — from Cork to Cannes in a single mouthful.
Turns out it was tiger prawn in my brochette of prawn tempura with rocket, shaved fennel, orange and mint salad, with citrus aioli but it was so carefully defrosted and perfectly cooked in light crisp batter, I could have sworn it was fresh. “Call yourself a restaurant reviewer, you charlatan!” scoffed DB, scoffing half my brochette.
My Morrocan lamb tagine and confit lemon tagine, glowing like red-orange embers, came with a delightfully fluffy, nutty pomegranate couscous and a splash of coriander yoghurt. An already high, spicy kick was further elevated by powerful citric jabs from pickled lemon, but the meat was a tad north of the tender required for one of the world’s great comfort foods.
Fritto misto of tempura prawns, calamari and monkfish was nicely done, particularly some tempura onions, and came with a lovely pinkish, chilli aioli, a class of Marie Rose sauce on a daytrip to Tijuana.
When DB and I contemplate dessert, we invariably try to influence the other’s decision while also making our own — what some dub pathological greed, I call a sweet tooth. Star Anise render the wrangling redundant by offering a tasting plate of five desserts, dearer than two, cheaper than three. When it arrived, we could only laugh — beaten before we started, but we’d go down fighting. While I tackled a pleasant vanilla crème brulée, DB enthusiastically engaged with a panna cotta with mixed berries. Exchanging tastes, we both favoured the creamy panna cotta. A spoonful of an unctuously decadent chocolate brownie and a luxurious carmelised banana and pecan cheesecake saw the white flag go up before they were tinfoiled for the babysitter. We then managed to offhandedly consume the last of the famous five, vanilla ice cream.
Though I went ‘off-piste’ from the keenly-priced early bird menu (available all night, several nights a week) to the steeper slopes of á la carte, Star Anise is very good value; putting a price on the wonderful hospitality and ambience is a taller order. No, I hadn’t been ‘outed’ as a critic to be buttered up —it’s how they appear to treat all customers.