Cleaver East… Thank You for Sharing

Small plate dining, which has reached epidemic proportions in London and New York, is quickly spreading across Dublin, and for those who don’t know, the formula goes something like this. Noisy room with industrial decor, waiters in tee shirts, small plates, small prices, and small tables; decent elbow room and good acoustics are surplus to requirements. Hip diners buy into the plate sharing idea, order four small dishes of inventive global food each, and the intrepid waiter logs his ticket for a gargantuan sized order in the frenetic kitchen.

Any idea what happens next? It’s a lottery, but generally it’s drought or tsunami. The dishes fly out of the kitchen in a random order, in twos, threes or maybe tens, who knows, and soon there’s a traffic jam of lovely little plates going cold on the limited real estate that is your table.

So when I went to visit Cleaver East, shortly after it opened, I had a cunning plan. Now, at the time, there were two people behind this new restaurant which promised to serve small plates of great food at takeaway prices, Michelin star chefs Oliver Dunne and Rory Carville, who I had interviewed for the Sunday Times. But I remember noticing at the time, that there was just one name over the door, Oliver Dunne. And now there is just Oliver in the kitchen. Rory has packed up his toque and left.

But back to the restaurant, and what follows is adapted from a review I did for Irish Tatler…

The room. What was once the elegant, light flooded space of the Tea Room restaurant is now a thumping, dark, brooding den, with cleavers silhouetted in the statement windows and an imposing bar dominating the centre of the room. With this kind of mood, you’d expect the primal smell of burning flesh from pillars of fire on a red-embered pit of Dante-esque proportions.

But the imposing centre piece is very much a bar, and the menu is polite beyond words with dots to indicate allergens from nuts to celery (yep, a new one on me too). Dishes are priced from €7 to €14. Our server, barely audible over the pulsating beat, explained the four plate ordering process, which we of course ignored, and opted to order just two dishes each to start with. And that is the key to small plates dining. You need to be in control, not the kitchen.

Five plates arrived more or less together, followed by two more a considerable time later, and finally the eighth dish after another interval, during which we had frankly forgotten that we had anything else coming. At this point, we placed our order for the remaining savoury dishes we planned to have. Cutlery is self serve, from a metal can in the middle of the table, but there are also issues with this concept – our initial wave of food included two soup-like dishes, but there was not a spoon to be found, and there were at least two other scrambles by staff to restock our armoury  over the course of the evening.

The lobster dumplings (€10 and maximum number of allergen dots, which we considered a good thing) were exceptionally good. The lemongrass broth which was poured into the bowl at the table, had layers of flavour beautifully integrated with a touch of acidity, and the two dumplings were succulent and delicious. The spiced Dublin Bay clam chowder (€7) was equally skilled, with a complex depth of flavour and subtle Asian notes. And the St Tola goat’s cheese parfait, which was topped with a crunchy walnut praline (€9), versions of which I’ve had at Locks and Chapter One where Rory Carville worked previously, was delicate with perfectly judged seasoning. Another dish of duck egg with asparagus (€8) had flavours that worked right across the plate to an ethereal mousse dusted with crunchy hazelnuts.

The three fish options range in price from €10 to €14, and we tried them all. Each dish was beautifully presented with delicate sauces and garnishes of micro leaves and pea shoots. Skilfully cooked monkfish was served on a bed of earthy lentils with swipes of sweet Piquillo pepper puree adding a punch of spice; three scallops were seared to a delicate gold and served with crispy pancetta and light potato bubbles; and the perfectly roasted cod tasted of the freshness of the sea, gently sauced with wild artichoke cream and a brown shrimp vinaigrette.

On the twisted classics section, with four dishes ranging from €9 to €14, all tasted good except for the beef curry which was not even twisted into a smirk, it was just a misconceived dish which paired a nicely cooked piece of fillet steak with a sauce that was way too acidic, neither béarnaise nor curry. The paella, which was a seafood broth with mussels, peas and chorizo, was topped with a golden ball of rice which tumbled into the dish, and the Scotch egg was enrobed in smoked haddock and mashed potato instead of the customary sausage meat. But the most memorable dish of the evening was the lamb breast from the meat section, which had been slow-cooked and finished to a crust, served with a rich flavoured jus, glazed baby turnips and dots of rosemary aioli.

Desserts (€6) ranged from null points for the dry and dreary Black Forrest gateau in a passé Kilner jar to a full ten out of ten for a beautiful, creamy panacotta topped with a thin layer of strawberry jelly; studded with fresh strawberries and shards of honeycomb and dotted with beads of Balsamic vinegar.

As an addendum to the small plates cunning plan, here is a further rule of engagement. These plates are not really designed for sharing. They are small tasting plates and passing these little morsels around a table of greedy diners is a complete pain. So the trick here is to compose your own tasting menu, reveal your intentions to your waiter to suit your own timing and you will find that you are eating a Michelin star menu for a fraction of the price.

The service was not without its wrinkles, but the 20% off the food for the first few weeks of opening compensated for that. The only thing that remains to be resolved is the strange disconnect between the imposing room and the delicate food. I’m not convinced that the focal point bar should be in the middle of the room rather than against the wall, and the high voltage music should come with its own multi dotted allergen warning. But even though the concept may have its flaws, there’s no doubt that the food is very, very good.

Cleaver EastEast Essex St, Temple Bar, Dublin 2; Tel: 01 531 3500

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