Ireland, so recently famous for an economic boom and an attendant uptick in cultural vitality—including culinary cunning—is taking the economic bust with particular difficulty. As one Irish economics student pointed out to me, Ireland's relationship with England is a familiar child/parent role: "It's like you finally grow up and move out on your own and you get your first credit card, and then find you can't manage your finances and you have to come crying to your parents for help."
Tourism numbers are expected to plummet to approximately 6.8 million in 2011, nearly a 30 percent drop from 2007's golden era. The country is lumped in with Portugal, Greece and Spain as one of the primary culprits of continuing instability in Europe.
In Dublin, there's an almost shameful "boomitecture": ostentatious new buildings for the presumed upward spiral that has become a downward drain.
On the other hand, rents are down, education is cheap and a certain breed of Dublin hipster seems to be weathering the storm just fine, if brisk business in the fixed-gear bike shops and quirkier pubs is any indication.
Edible Ireland's hardest hit—at least from the tourism perspective—is evident in the ease with which one gets a table these days.
But Dublin's restaurant scene, famous for its devotion to local produce and proteins, feels a lot like something that's actively percolating toward fuller flavor, rather than suffering greatly.
If anything, the merits of a local value chain are proving robust in the face of international hullabaloo.
Common wisdom claims that buying cheap food in bulk from huge distributors is critical for profit in the rough-and-tumble restaurant world, but it turns out that sourcing from local farms, cooking with seasonal ingredients and paying employees a living wage create their own economy—one with enough insulative powers to keep banking cabals at bay.
A few high points:
The Butcher Grill
In an old butcher shop, still glistening with floor-to-ceiling white tile, restaurateur John Farrell has created a freakishly affable atmosphere. There are plenty of fresh vegetable and fish dishes, but the restaurant’s specialty comes from the wood-fired grill in the open kitchen. King among grill options is a côte de boeuf that makes you want to kiss the hooves of Irish cattle.
Fish & Chips
One can hardly be a credible tourist in a place like Dublin without having fish and chips at least once. It’s worth skipping the greasy chippie on the corner and taking the small trouble to travel to Howth Head, where you can hike along cliffs overlooking the sea to build up the proper appetite. The fresh catch comes in at the harbor there, so I doubt it matters too much which shop you choose; you’re likely to get equally fresh haddock, beer-battered and dripping with malt vinegar, wherever you go.
In addition to its other attributes, The Butcher Grill serves a disturbingly good Kansas-style barbecue rib, the kind of thing that US restaurants should absolutely dominate. More depressing still is the way giant, jaw-dropping, mouth-watering, unfairly delicious gourmet burgers are dished up as a matter of course in Dublin. It may be dark, leprechaun trickery, but Jo’ Burger is easily among the top five burger restaurants of my life—and that’s with me handicapping because it hurts so badly that the Irish make a better burger than most Americans.
Fortunately, judging from the “Mexican chilli bean burrito” at Green 19, North America is safe on the burrito front. There is something ineffable about a burrito that seems safely beyond the grasp of the European mind-set. Everything else about Green 19, however, merits adoration. The flavors are crisp and clean, the dishes inventive global melanges—a pintxo of quince, soft cheese and blood pudding on a fresh baguette anyone?—and the comfortable cool vibe seems impossible to afford while charging no more than 10 euros per plate. But this is the kind of fine and financially feasible dining that is missing from most cities—emphasis on Santa Fe.
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