Forget fusion, French, and Filipino. It's all on offer in Dublin, but the best food in town is Irish through and through
Mike Bunn
| Credit: Mike Bunn

While no one was looking, Dublin blossomed into a bona fide cosmopolitan food capital. Want a Michelin two-starred feast?Book at Thornton's or Patrick Guilbaud. A restaurant-cum-lounge that looks as if it's been airlifted from San Francisco?Join the partying youth at Velure. You can even get a good bagel, and a pretty convincing Filipino meal. But did you really come to Ireland to eat Caesar salad, lumpia, or foie gras?We don't think so. At the following restaurants you'll delight in the sharply executed, terroir-suffused cooking that has come to define New Irish Cuisine. Call it sophisticated soul food. Or don't call it anything. Just start smacking your lips.

At the Tea Room, the linens are starched, the Arts and Crafts—inspired interior is seamlessly stylish, and most patrons look like the parents of kids who hang out at rock concerts. Only the perpetually distracted young staff—clearly more interested in rock and roll than in rock oysters—is a giveaway that the bosses are Bono and the Edge. (They own the restaurant's home base, the Clarence Hotel.)

Founding chef Michael Martin had such a devoted following that when he left the restaurant last year his shoes seemed far too big for anybody to fill. Anybody except Antony Ely, a Brit who last tended the stoves at the Square in London. Most chefs can make a nice salmon tartare (Ely's is exemplary), but it takes his wit and confidence to turn cakes of potato or fish into masterpieces. The former appear as two hefty, fried balls brimming with ham—the punch line is that they're lighter than any soufflé. The fish cakes are fluffier still, textured with bits of carrot and turnip and accented with a sharp, lemony, chive-flecked sauce. Ely deserves honorary Irish citizenship for his handling of fish, whether it's roasted salmon starring in a flirtatious warm salad with sweet-tangy red peppers and artichokes, or a spectacular piece of hake resting on bacony, shredded cabbage. And his daube Provençale would make a grand-mère weep with joy. Lucky lads from U2.

Clarence Hotel, 6—8 Wellington Quay; 353-1/670-7766; dinner for two $88.

Wear white. Streak your hair blond. You'll fit right in at Eden, a buzzy néo-moderne boîte that in the past few years has firmly established itself as Temple Bar's cathedral of cool. (To you, Eden might epitomize the New Dublin, but Dubliners see it as very New York.) Sexy sterility is what architect Tom de Paor was after when he clad the long, airy room in tiny multicolored mosaic tiles; the effect is of dining in a fifties swimming pool.

The food, however, is a lot brawnier than the surroundings would suggest. Chef Eleanor Walsh hails from Dingle (where her mum had a butcher shop) and is a dutiful daughter of Ireland. She is dedicated to using organic produce from tiny suppliers and treating it with a disarming throw-it-in-the-pan-and-take-it-right-out simplicity. Delicately smoky notes dominate her current appetizer menu: grapefruit makes an ingenious foil for smoked eel; pickled pear with smoked pork is a rustic match made in heaven; the "smokies" (vernacular for chunks of baked smoked haddock) are positively luscious with their cap of crème fraîche. The main courses—perhaps a bracing pork and apricot stew accompanied by a celestial mash, or flash-fried claws of prized west-coast crab dressed simply with splashes of garlicky butter—are the gold standard of modern Irish bistro cooking.

Meeting House Square, Temple Bar; 353-1/670-5372; dinner for two $58.

Only a few years ago, well-heeled Dubliners regarded the five-minute trek across the Liffey to Northside as a trip to Siberia. That was before the achingly hip Morrison Hotel opened its doors, in 1999. Today, the reawakening neighborhood is touted as the new Temple Bar, and Halo, the Morrison's see-and-be-seen fusion restaurant, is its hottest attraction. Dark polished wood, mirrored panels, Chinese lanterns, and swaths of brown velvet draped over white chairs make the dining room an exercise in opulent minimalism.

Having had a sublime duck-and-truffle risotto at Halo when it first opened, I returned recently for a frustratingly inconsistent lunch. The risotto, this time with pancetta and butternut squash, was as good as the one I remembered. But someone seemed to have emptied an entire saltshaker into the Thai coconut soup, and not-quite-rare tuna sat on black squid-ink pasta that had all the appeal of a floor mop. The best strategy: Let Dubliners ooh and aah over Sichuan peppered scallops with lemongrass sauce. You can eat better by taking a more traditional route—say, puffy little potato blini with smoked salmon, followed by an honest, delicious roast loin of lamb and a homey apple-bread pudding. Hungry for attitude?Join the preening crowds at Lobo, the hotel's downstairs supper club, dominated by a mahogany visage of Buddha.

Morrison Hotel, Ormond Quay; 353-1/887-2421; dinner for two $85.

A warming sensation comes over you the minute you claim a table at Roly's, a yellow-splashed Ballsbridge lunch mecca pleasantly cluttered with watercolors and prints. In front of you is a basket of swoon-provoking, just-baked breads—brown soda, spinach-and-raisin, tomato. Around you is Dublin's jolliest crowd: well-fed families, vigorous ladies-who-lunch, and corporate honchos looking like affluent sheep farmers, all blue shirtsleeves and not a jacket in sight. At your side are charming white-aproned waiters, tempting you with one of Colin O'Daly's unimpeachable cream soups, his high-octane prawn bisque, a plate of addictive gratinéed mussels.

The prix fixe lunch—possibly the world's best bargain at $15—might progress to an ur-Gaelic lamb pie bolstered by Guinness, or a pristine, deftly cooked piece of sole, skate, or turbot, all accompanied by old-fashioned gratin pans filled with cabbage, mash, and perhaps a gingered carrot purée. Halfway through my warm, not-too-sweet apple cake I decided that for lunch, this is the lustiest bistro in Europe, though I'm still trying to figure out why the place loses most of its magic at dinner.

7 Ballsbridge Terrace, Ballsbridge; 353-1/668-2611; lunch for two $30.

"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.