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New Irish Cuisine

Mike Bunn

Photo: Mike Bunn

"I hate all these foams and coulis," declares Aiden Byrne, the young chef at the Commons, a formal yet unstuffy restaurant in the basement of one of Dublin's finest Georgian buildings, on St. Stephen's Green. "I like food that goes trrrrr!!!" Indeed. His are condensed countrified flavors, uncompromising and showing a refreshing lack of concern for fashion. (A between-course sorbet before you tuck into your braised pig's head?Of course.)

Cabbage-wrapped squab breast moistened with a potent reduction is perched on a pedestal of turnips roasted to a deep caramel brown. Fat, sweet scallops come with a rich cauliflower purée and braised lettuce that makes you wonder how a watery green could pack so much character. Even something as normally ethereal as crab ravioli shows up as an oversized pocket of dough bursting with crabmeat and artichokes—personality oozes from every forkful. At times Byrne goes too far in his quest for intensity: red mullet paired with smoked eel and a fish stock reduction enriched with minced fish livers is not for the fainthearted; the vanilla in the little pre-dessert pot de crème is a scream instead of a whisper. Still, you have to applaud a chef not afraid of an occasional head-on collision with flavor.

Newman House, 85—86 St. Stephen's Green; 353-1/478-0530; dinner for two $110.

If Dubliners were to hold an election for Favorite Chef, Derry Clarke would probably win by a landslide. So when he renovated and expanded his restaurant, L'Ecrivain, the entire city rejoiced—and started calling for reservations. L'Ecrivain emerged as a handsome beige split-level room; the design is cozy-contemporary, and so is the food. Clarke isn't one to shy away from the cutting edge—consider his Clonakilty black pudding accessorized with a cider—blue cheese sorbet—but whether he cooks with star anise or Guinness, the flavors are earthy and generous, an Irish stew for the 21st century. The sweet-potato and lemongrass soup and dainty goat cheese spring roll sounded like California clichés, but they had the same oomph as the meaty roasted monkfish poised on risotto.

If you'd rather go native, Clarke will oblige with his signature oyster, bacon, cabbage, and Guinness sabayon. He will also treat you to remarkable game. My savory quail, boned and stuffed with herbed mash and bundled in caul fat, came lovingly garnished with dried grasses and figs; the venison was as soft as satin. Pub crawlers, take note: Lower Baggot Street has a trove of historic drinking houses—Toners, O'Donoghues, Doheny & Nesbitt. Finish your meal by 11 and catch the last round. Nothing like a mean pint and good craic after a sublime Irish meal.

109A Lower Baggot St.; 353-1/661-0617; dinner for two $90.


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