The Silk Road Café
Paolo Tullio's Review
This year's hugely successful Taste of Dublin' was an eye-opener for many. If ever you wanted proof that the level of gastronomy in Ireland's capital is at its highest level ever, then this display by fifteen of Dublin's restaurants provided it. Of the fifteen participating restaurants fourteen were well known to me, but one - The Silk Road - was not.
You can find The Silk Road Café in Dublin Castle, where it occupies part of the ground floor of The Chester Beatty Library. I'd arranged to meet Kevin Flanagan and Sorcha for lunch there, since it only opens at night for special occasions. All I knew about it was that it specialised in Middle-Eastern cookery.
It did occur to me that while the news was filled with daily reports of the continuing tragedy in Lebanon, now was a good time to see a more positive side of what the region has to offer. I arrived a little before Kevin and Sorcha, which gave me time to take in the surroundings. The café is in two parts; a part is set up where the kitchen is, another part in what would have been outside had the space between two buildings not been covered by a glass roof. It almost feels as though you're outside because the glass roof is three storeys high, so there's a great sense of space at the tables that are set up there.
The Eastern Mediterranean covers a number of countries and to some degree their gastronomies overlap. As well as that they all share the same approach to a meal, which is that the starters are many and varied, and sometimes so many that they in fact make up the meal. The notion of one plate with meat and two veg on it is unknown. In Dublin some compromises have been made by The Silk Road to accommodate the Irish way of eating, but the dishes on offer are authentic and typical of the region.
I don't normally report on the owner when I review a restaurant, but for Abraham Phelan I'll make an exception. You may wonder about his surname, so let me explain. He's taken his wife's surname, maybe because it's more pronounceable than the one he was born with. Anyway, Abraham is a Palestinian and in him his people have a worthy ambassador. He's charming and urbane and as I'll describe, he also makes good food. I spoke to him after our meal and we talked of the tragedy in Lebanon. He was saddened and distressed for those caught up in the invasion, but resolute in his dignity. He told me that in his restaurant he regularly served Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and Lebanese customers. If only their homelands were as peaceful and as welcoming as The Silk Road.
So to the food. While Kevin and Sorcha held a table I went inside to the counter and picked out what would be my starters: humus, falafels and dolmades (stuffed vine leaves). For my main course I picked the mousaka and the spicy red rice. A bottle of mineral water completed my selection. While I sat picking at my starters, Kevin and Sorcha went inside and returned with their spoils. For Sorcha a plate containing a chicken and coriander curry, a pasta salad, some humus and some red spicy rice for her too. Kevin had picked out the Turkish chicken, okra in tomato sauce, cauliflower and red rice.
What struck me while I picked on my starters was that this was probably the first time that I'd actually enjoyed stuffed vine leaves. I've eaten them many times in Greece, but they've always left me feeling rather flat. These were actually good to eat. And that delight in these simple dishes continued with the humus and the falafels as well - they were all expertly done and much tastier than any I've had previously.
We did what all serious foodies do and shared little tit-bits with one another, about the only thing we had in common was the red rice. Sorcha's chicken curry with coriander was nicely balanced, the coriander complementing the chicken rather than overpowering it and I was very taken with Kevin's choice of Turkish chicken. Marinated in lemon juice and turmeric it was bright yellow in colour and the zesty lemon gave it a fresh, crisp taste. Other tastes that were worthy of mention were the okra in tomato sauce which I enjoyed and the simple pasta salad that Sorcha had. A main course with a choice of three side orders is a modest 9.95.
Not so much from hunger, but rather in a spirit of gastronomic discovery we decided to try the baklava. If that name has confused you in the past, it may be because as I discovered from Abraham, that the word is generic - it applies to any dessert with the basic ingredients of filo pastry, sugar and nuts; normally pistachio, almonds and coconut. We tried three different varieties and enjoyed them all, although I'll admit that baklava does give you a major sugar rush.
All this variety of food, our fruit juices, my three bottles of mineral water and our coffees came to just 57.80, which I though was terrific value for what we'd eaten. There are some wines available, but as it's not a feature of the café I won't be allocating marks this week for the wine list.
On a separate note, there's still time to nominate someone you think has what it takes to become the Rosemount Young Restaurant Manager of the Year. The competition is open to full-time restaurant managers that are under 35 years of age, so if you know of one who you think should be nominated check out the national press for nomination forms or contact www.katebowepr.ie for more information. It's a prize that confers much kudos on the winner and also helps to raise standards in general. Get nominating.