South Bar and Grill
Paolo Tullio's Review
One of Dublin’s restaurant success stories is Town Bar and Grill in Kildare Street. It defies the common perception that basement restaurants don’t work. It’s long, thin, in a basement with no natural light, it has low ceilings and it’s permanently stuffed with people. Why? Because it offers decent, well-made food at reasonable prices. It’s not five-star and it doesn’t try to be. It aims at four stars and hits the mark so well that it’s been full almost since its opening .
Let me define what I mean by four-star. If five-star means all the trimmings of luxury plus good food, then for me four-star means better than average food but served without all the extras that make up five-star. The sort of trimmings I have in mind are things like a very high waiter to customer ratio, lots of space and large tables, almost Sybaritic levels of comfort and very labour-intensive food preparation.
Not everyone likes cheffy food and even those who do, like me for example, don’t want it all the time. For me five-star is a treat, something for special occasions. The old adage ‘custom dulls the edge of pleasure’ couldn’t be truer. Too much of a good thing leaves you jaded. So for dining when it’s not a special occasion, it’s four-star for me and, it would seem, so it is for lots of people.
Nowadays anyone with a successful restaurant opens another. Itsa Bagel, Jaipur and Lemon Grass can all be found in multiple locations. Town on the other hand has opted for another name for its new outlet, probably because ‘Town’ would sound a little silly in outer suburbia. They’ve gone for the exiguous ‘South’ - simple, direct and describing exactly where it is, which is south city near The Beacon, where a whole new part of Dublin is taking shape.
It wasn’t that long ago that all of this area was green fields. That’s hard to believe looking at all the shiny new buildings that have sprung up. The newly built Blackthorn Road has some architecturally interesting buildings along its length, so it feels more like a boulevard than a road in an industrial estate. South is well signed, but look out for a large red Perspex cube which is pretty well outside the restaurant.
I arranged to meet Gerard Carthy and his wife Deirdre there and with due synchronicity we arrived at exactly the same time. We had a choice on entering of dining at ground level, or downstairs where there was live jazz playing. We decided on a meal with music in the background and ate upstairs. This did have a drawback, as it was a bitterly cold and rainy night and every time the door opened a gust of cold air rushed in to remind us yet again that summer has still to arrive. Another door creating a porch is apparently arriving soon.
South has a clean, modern look to it, and so it should, it’s in a clean modern building. They haven’t crowded tables in, so there’s plenty of space between them. Despite this, South can seat nearly 200 people. That’s a lot of people, so the menu reflects this in its construction. If you have that many people dining pretty much at once you can’t have complicated dishes on the menu, so a balance needs to be struck between something that easy to prepare and still interesting enough to attract customers. I thought the menu struck a good balance. It’s short, seven starters and nine main courses, but there’s a good spread of dishes. There were five simple starters - minestrone, char-grilled asparagus with a poached egg, a mozzarella bruschetta, prosciutto with melon and smoked salmon with balsamic vinegar. The two others, at €11.95 and €13.95, were seared yellow fin tuna and spatchcock quail with puy lentils.
The main courses followed much the same pattern and ran from €21.95 to €26.95. Essentially they are all dishes that can be made fairly quickly: grilled cod, grilled sea bass, grilled pork chop, grilled Hereford rib-eye steak and dishes from the oven, like cannelloni and roasted shoulder of lamb. The plus side of a menu like this is that no matter how busy the kitchen gets, these dishes can be prepared quickly and easily so major hold-ups are unlikely.
The wine list is better than average, reasonably long and listing enough wines under €25 to give a fair choice. I chose the Mezzacorona Pinot Grigio listed at €31, which went well with our choices. Deirdre passed on a starter, Gerard ordered the quail and I picked the mozzarella bruschetta.
The quail was nicely done and presented well. My mozzarella was good quality, but although on the menu it came with basil - as classically it should - on my plate it came with acceptable, but not classical, rocket. For the main courses Deirdre had chosen the cannelloni, Gerard the sea bass and I’d chosen the pork chop. All of these were simple dishes and competently prepared. With the jazz quietly in the background wafting up from downstairs, it made for a pleasant evening.
We finished up with two coffees for Deirdre and Gerard and an espresso for me. As espressos creep toward a norm of €3 - €2.85 in South - I’m beginning to get less patient with bad ones. Even if you buy the most expensive Illy coffee, an espresso actually costs about 15 cents. Buy cheap coffee and it can be as little as 4 cents. With a mark-up like that you should expect, and ought to get, a perfect espresso. In South it was better than most, but I’ll come back to this topic again. The bill for the three of us came to €142.60 without a service charge.