I was nearly home and excited to be Etto-bound for dinner.
I had spent most of my weekend driving to West Cork and then on to Cork City for work. While both of these places boast some of the best restaurants and produce in the country, unfortunately due to time constraints, most of my eating had been petrol-station based. There’s nothing more depressing than going through the last one or two unwanted day-old sandwiches trying to decide which of the two will bring the least amount of sadness while you eat it in your car for dinner. This is the grimmer side of touring and comedy that you don’t see.
Anyway, I was meeting my friend at Etto at 5pm, a bit earlier than normal but due to it being a Saturday night and the restaurant’s insane popularity, this was the only reservation we could get. We had two seats reserved at the bar. Some people aren’t a fan of sitting at the bar for dinner but I like it – it’s a perfect place to people watch and you never have to wait for a drink. We walk through the warm and instantly atmospheric narrow restaurant, candles lit and glasses aligned and perfectly polished for the busy night ahead. The interior is sleek and the wall adorned with maps of France, Spain and Italy which reflects the menu here although a heavy Italian influence is definitely present.
We scroll through the menu. It’s a difficult choice as there is a lot of excellent choices for a relatively small menu so we opt for some nibbles in the interim. We grab some Smoked Almonds, Nocellara Olives and some La Levain Bread and Butter. The almonds are smokey, salty and seriously morish. I’m not the biggest olive fan so I slid the ramekin of Sicilian olives in my friend’s direction and he quickly annihilated the lot so I assume they were good.
Our server cuts us some incredibly fresh and still slightly warm bread from La Levain bakery with some beautiful room-temperature butter that spreads effortlessly. What a double win. There’s nothing worse than destroying a piece of bread with hard unspreadable butter straight from a fridge, it’s a travesty. One of my biggest flaws as a human is going too hard on the bread and butter before a meal in a restaurant. This is made all the more difficult because this bread is exceptional, made by Ross Crowe who trained for many years in France and who makes incredible sourdough breads. You can usually get this bread in the Temple Bar Market on a Saturday and this reminded me that I need to go back to him soon. He doesn’t have a retail bakery but he supplies a few restaurants and luckily for me, Etto is one of them.
From the nibbles menu we also order a portion of the cod and preserved lemon croquettes and the veal and pork stuffed olives. The croquettes are crisp on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside, you can see the small pieces of cod throughout and the lemony garlic aioli it’s served with is delicious, zingy and the perfect accompaniment to the croquettes. The veal and pork stuffed olives were next. As I mentioned, olives aren’t really my buzz but I have to admit my conversion from these stuffed ones. Perfectly crisp once again and beneath the crunchy exterior lies a soft Sicilian Nocellara Olive stuffed with the most delicious minced pork and veal. It was so incredibly savoury, I could’ve eaten a hundred of these tasty olive balls of happiness.
After a solid start to our meal it was down to business. For starters I decided to go for the Pig’s Trotter Carpaccio with cipollini onion, quail egg and crispy ear. My friend orders the Halibut Crudo with fermented radish, black sesame and coriander. Although my starter choice may sound a bit much for the squeamish out there with all the mentions of pigs ears and feet, quite the opposite is presented. The carpaccio is porky and salty and almost akin to a course of paté. The sweet onions and warm creamy quail egg works perfectly together and the crispy ear is basically a super flavoursome lardon that’s coated and fried in crisp bread crumbs. There’s some fresh matchstick-size pieces of apple that helps cut through the pork’s richness and even the micro salad leaves work with the dish.
My friend’s Halibut Crudo is also beautifully presented, the delicate strips of the meaty fish that (our server explained expertly) has been marinated in a mixture of lime zest, sugar, salt and water. We swap plates halfway through, a sign of true friendship and because food envy is the worst kind of envy. The fermented radish is tangy and works well with its crisp unadulterated fresh radish cousin on the plate. The halibut is super fresh and the black sesame seeds and the fragrant coriander oil ties the whole starter together.
Time for the main event. I ordered the Mussel’s with nduja and samphire and my friend ordered the Lamb loin with wild garlic, romesco and anchovy. Based on our menu choices, our server had recommended a bottle of Scala Ciro Doc Rosso Classico which was light, fruity and worked with pretty much everything we ordered. The wine list is extensive here and the staff really know their stuff and are more than happy to explain anything on both the food and wine menu in detail. It’s a really great touch. My mussels are plump and cooked to perfection and they are in a shallow pool of the nduja sausage sauce. It’s bright and tastes so good you would happily just eat the sauce alone. The roasted and thinly sliced fennel really balances the dish. The mussels are served with a beautifully cross-charred piece of Le Levain bread that perfect for mopping up the sauce.
My friend’s lamb arrives and much as I’m happy with my main course, his looks stunning. I pry it off him for a quick taste. The loin is a perfect medium-rare, served with an intense red pepper reduction and the creamy romesco sauce is fresh and again could be consumed alone. It’s also served with a compressed portion of slow cooked lamb neck and shoulder which is a completely different taste to the loin yet still works well with everything else, including the wild garlic leaves and fried baby onions. He was lucky to get his plate back to be honest. We ordered some chargrilled baby broccoli that came topped with a light zingy mustard sauce and some flaked almonds. The hashed potatoes were basically roasties by any other name but they were crisp, fluffy inside, decadently seasoned, and done right.
We were both pretty full but mutually decided that you only get one go around the clock and that we should both order dessert. I went for something I wouldn’t normally go for and got the Red wine prunes and vanilla mascarpone. Nigella Lawson famously tweeted about this dessert when she visited Etto, and as with every decision I tend to make in adult life, if it’s good enough for Nigella, it’s good enough for me. My friend meanwhile went for the Malt panna cotta, poached clementine and pistachio. I always thought prunes were a bit gross and mainly think of them as a medium to keep old people ‘regular’. These dried plums were exceptional – juicy, fruity and just the right amount of boozy, the mascarpone vanilla cream wasn’t too sweet and it was almost like a stiff vanilla custard. It was a truly powerful dessert. The malt panna cotta was an absolute dream on a plate, it was set to perfection, the clementine jus was amazing and the pieces of crisp honeycomb and pistachios made it even better. I don’t have a particularly sweet tooth but that was definitely one of the best desserts I’ve ever eaten to date.
I had heard Etto was good from a few people but I wanted to experience it myself and decide. It isn’t just good, or great, it’s exceptional. Amazing staff, incredible food, delicious wine. It’s easy to see when you dine here why it’s so hard to get a table there. They also do a midweek “Chef’s Midweek Tasting Menu” from Monday to Wednesday for €35 that I think would be well worth a try.
Along with its newer sister restaurant Uno Mas, it’s easy to understand why they are two of the most talked about restaurants in the city of Dublin.
18 Merrion Row
Nibbles €2.50 – €9
Starters €10- €14
Mains €18 – €28
Desserts € 7