An exceptional restaurant in a highly unlikely location – The Irish Times
A South Dublin crossroads that is usually described as bustling is pounded by a vengeful level of rain, and as we walk through the door of Saltwater Grocery in Terenure, the scene outside looks like an immersive experience in Renoir’s The Umbrellas, with luminous bells from TK Maxx umbrellas.
It’s a place with a bit of provenance. James Joyce’s mother, May Murray, was born at Vaughan’s Eagle House across the road in 1859, and Saltwater Grocery, which opened in 2021, was once home to John Downey & Son, considered the first butcher from Ireland to go fully organic. This business closed in 2017 and the store sat empty until Niall Sabongi of Sustainable Seafood Ireland and Karl Whelan, the former chef and co-owner of Hang Dai, hoisted a red imperial awning, vintage signage to gold leaf and go into business as a fishmonger and a delicatessen.
More recently it has also opened as a weekend restaurant offering a €65 tasting menu on Fridays and Saturdays, and occasional pop-up dinners with some of Dublin’s top chefs on Sundays.
Surprisingly, the store turns into a restaurant quite easily with a slightly underground speakeasy energy. It feels like a secret. Shelves of De Cecco pasta, Mutti tomatoes and olive oil line one side of the room, a large refrigerator displays huge carcasses of dry-aged fish, and a communal table for eight sits perilously close to the icy stainless steel expanse of the wet counter, which doubles as a spot to chill our Altos de Torona, Albarino (€32).
Perhaps in recognition of our remarkable hand-washing skills after more than two years of practice, the first taste of the evening is served on the back of our gently tightened mitts. This, Whelan tells us, is “caviar à la royale”, which has a ring of Pulp Fiction but dates back to the tsars who wisely put a hand taster between them and potentially poisoned food. The Oscietre we are served is not Russian but Chinese. It warms up for a few seconds on our flesh before being gently sucked up and wrapped around our mouths, releasing the iodized flavor of the tiny pickled roe pearls. If this is a post-pandemic “let them eat caviar” thing, I’m all for it.
Fish or sea vegetables are incorporated into almost every dish, but it’s the added and unexpected elements that show the underlying skill at work here.
Thus, a small brown sardine and Sardinian tomato tartlet is sprinkled with olive powder. A Flaggy Shore oyster is the most beautiful combination of citrus and floral notes dancing in the chlorophyll freshness of a komatsuna (Japanese mustard), sorrel and chervil jus, topped with a magnolia granita.
Even more delicious is the unexpected heat tingle of a sushi-sized piece of organic dry-aged salmon from Clare Island that has been slathered with yuzu kosho and fermented green chili, and topped with soy gel sprinkled with crystallized yuzu.
Lough Neagh trout sits beneath pickled radish and nori, followed by Jenny McNally’s komatsuna leaf salad topped with crunchy curried onion rings. As the hot dishes arrive, the flavors pick up steam. Little bubbles of fregola sarda, a couscous-like batter, are tossed in squid ink and topped with fried squid and barely-kissed razor clams. It’s a stunning dish.
The mullet landed at Castletownbere has been cooked over hot coals, sucking up the scorched sea flavor of the kombu kelp it sits on, its skin lacquered and earthy. A spear of asparagus is laced with squid ink and a spoonful of black garlic serves as a sauce for red mullet and asparagus. It’s a powerful dish, like something you might be served at Noma in Copenhagen.
A dessert of macerated strawberries with sorrel ice cream is just the kind of zesty finish you need for a meal like this, the runny shortbread on the bottom and milk crumbs on top adding complexity to the dish.
Whelan has managed the impossible in this compact space, especially when you realize that his kitchen equipment is limited to an induction hob, a small oven, a blowtorch and a Konro grill on the sidewalk outside the store. A tasting menu is complete madness in this kind of arrangement. But somehow it works. Whelan celebrates fish, adds energy-charged elements, and has the skill and maturity to maintain balance. It really is a very serious restaurant.
Dinner for two with a bottle of wine plus 10% service charge included was €178.20
THE VERDICT 9/10 A meal that far exceeded expectations
It’s a store so clean but very basic accommodations for staff
Music Mixed tempo music on a 1971 Kenwood HiFi
Origin of food SSI, Caviar Paris, Clare Island Organic Salmon, Jenny McNally, Caterway, artisan
Vegetarian options Vegetarian and vegan menus with advance notice using seasonal vegetables to stay close to the equivalent fish dish
Wheelchair access The room is accessible and a coffee table can be provided but there are no accessible toilets.