Etto, 18 Merrion Row, Dublin 2, tel: 01 678 8872.
Chef: Barry Fitzgerald
Those who found quiet solace in the little Govinda’s cafe on Merrion Row will be sad to hear of its passing. The vegetarian restaurant run by the Hare Krishnas was a welcome, good value spot in a normally pricey area. But weep not, Govinda’s continue to trade on Abbey Street and Aungier Street.
Anyone setting up in their place would need to be just as convivial and as easy on the wallet so I set off to see what Etto had to offer. The space is small, with an infinitesimal amount of space between tables (more of which later), the décor is simple to give a feeling of space and at the back there’s a bar area with stools for a more casual experience and seating at a shelf-table along a wall for a truly discreet dinner.
I was early and my companion was late (30 minutes to get parking, what recession?) so I amused myself with an amuse bouche of the most exquisite smoked almonds I have ever had (€4.80). Things were looking good.
For the most part the menu is Italian but somewhat more sophisticated than ‘pizza ‘n’ pasta’. Dishes flow from nibbles of olives (€4.80) and taramasalata with radishes and rye toasts (€6), to charcuterie featuring regional Italian delicacies like finocchiona (€7), a Tuscan salami with fennel notes. Starter sized dishes include deep fried oysters (€12.50), and steak tartar (€10).
To start I had the burrata, grilled pears and walnuts (€9). Burrata is a mozzarella cheese filed with cream, an ideal soft match for the earthy nuts and seasonal fruit. This was a delicately flavoured, light starter too, often missing on menus.
We also ordered the chicken liver, lardo and prune terrine (€10). Never in the field of terrine-making were so few words used to describe such voluminous layers of flavours. We agreed that this was the winner dish so far and would happily return for this alone.
Our waitress returned to fill our glasses and then left. We soon noticed an odd smell: the napkin at the table next to us was on fire. In chatting to us the waitress must have knocked the candle behind her and set the napkin alight. We quickly put it out but our little drama went unnoticed, as the manager was busy dousing the flames at the back of the waitress’ apron. Thankfully nobody was injured. I have a weakness for close-fitting tables as you can often earwig on the pyrotechnics of people’s relationships but setting staff on fire is probably a spot of entertainment too far.
For the main course I ordered the smoked haddock stew (€16). The smoking was done professionally rather than through the burning napkin and apron method. It was served with brown shrimp and a crispy egg. I had thought the egg would have a soft centre to mix into the dish but that was a minor complaint as the other flavours sang of quality and style.
The wine advice came into its own here with our bottle of Ariyanas, Moscatel, Sierra da Malaga, Spain 2012 (€45). The normally sweet grape is used to great effect here – aromatic, mineral notes and richly textured. (Though some descriptions on the menu would work well for customers).
My companion had the lamb shoulder with sweet onions, spelt and rosemary broth (€18). This was another magic dish which allowed individual flavours to sing, so no hiding bad ingredients here by overwhelming ingredients with one-dimensional sledgehammer flavours. This is a chef who cares about sourcing and taste.
For dessert we ordered the elderberry and apple jam doughnuts with crème fraîche (€7), which was tasty, tart and sweet. We also ordered the red wine prunes with vanilla mascarpone (€7), such a simple sounding dish and yet so filled with luxurious flavours. Very moreish.
Etto is doing an excellent job at delivering quality, regional Italian food. If you think pizza and pasta is where it’s at then Etto is probably not for you as they are all about authenticity without too heavy a price tag. Staff are very obliging too and although they went through something of a baptism by fire on my visit I’ve been assured that ritual burning is not normally on the menu.
This first appeared in The Sunday Business Post, October 2013.