Demanding booking systems are the biggest thing in Dublin restaurants these days as far as I can see. I’ve been waging war with several online ones of late which I have to admit has seen me get very cranky along with my usual hangry. Admittedly most of the systems are in place for quite sensible reasons. At 3 Leaves in Blackrock Market just off Blackrock Main Street, the booking system is there to preserve the integrity of the product. The small restaurant, tucked away from the bustle of the seaside town’s main street, is catering to a select crowd and producing excellent food in tricky conditions hence the slightly finicky booking procedure. Ducking under the unassuming arch on an early Summer evening feels like stumbling into another time. Leaving the franchise coffee places and fast food chains behind, everything in the market feels bespoke and pleasingly DIY.
3 Leaves is about halfway into this mini bazaar. The graphic turquoise and white exterior is striking and instantly cheering in the evening sun, a neat little wooden bar for casual dining for two is set to the right of the door, while baskets of plants hang overhead. Just inside the door is a Lilliputian kitchen, turn right and you step into the first of two tiny dining spaces.
The interiors are simple, so the space doesn’t feel cramped, though we were close enough to the couple dining to our right that I was fairly up on all their thoughts and feelings about… well… everything by the end of the meal. I can forgive 3 Leaves this because, quite simply, they’re doing what they can do with the limited space they have. And what they can do, it turns out, is something pretty special.
I am a big fan of Indian food but it was only in recent years that I realised gorging on Kormas and never venturing further than a Vindaloo was not exactly being a fan of, nor appreciating, Indian food. Also, saying you’re a fan of Indian food is a little like saying you’re a fan of European food, there’s just so much variety and nuance within the culture – it’s not something we get to appreciate all that much in Ireland. Even at the best Indian restaurants, we are probably still receiving a somewhat dumbed down version. At 3 Leaves, it feels like this is something they are keen to remedy with their attractive, sophisticated but still reasonably accessible dishes.
Their first step in disabusing us of our time-worn takeaway faves is the evening set menu. It’s an arrangement that will gently push any tentative Tandori-devotee out of their comfort zone. It also allows a kitchen that is somewhat limited in terms of space to still produce intricate dishes to an incredibly high standard.
From a menu of five starters, we choose the Jheenga Gambos with crunchy salad and the Sukha Adraki Chicken Kebab. The prawns are jumbo and marinated in mild spices, infused in saffron and served with crunchy salad and mango sauce giving a sweet note amid the fragrant spiced. Sukha Adraki Chicken Kebab is thigh meat (my fave!) marinated with ginger, cardamom, and star anise, served with signature sauces – the overall is hugely flavoursome and nicely balanced so you feel the taste is no muddle of spices but rather distinct flavours layered carefully so that each delicious bite surprises.
The main course options are select, five different curries or a tasting plate of all of them which Milie, our warm host (and my hand-holder during the reservation process), urges us to try. The tasting plate is actually a tasting tray with an array of tiny dishes of each of the curries, a bowl of rice and a large banana leaf to eat off.
The gang’s all here: Murg Mumtaz consists of marinated chicken thighs cooked in fragrant spices, and creamy yogurt sauce; Lamb Rasella is slow-cooked lamb prepared in rich Qorma paste. Dal Masala and Sabzi Bahar is the vegan option among the main. It’s a small warming bowl of red lentils, beside this is a tasty veg masala and the final veg dish is fried spinach salad which is hands-down my favourite of all the bits. The spinach, Milie tells me, is lightly battered in a batter made from chickpea flour, while the dressing (as with everything on the 3 Leaves menu) is made in-house. This seeming simplicity of the spinach dish belies the complexity – unexpected crunch and an expert hand with the spices gives the whole thing a delectable, moreish quality. It doesn’t appear as a main course in its own right on the night we’re there, but I would happily eat a whole plate of it and I’m definitely going to be attempting to recreate it in my home kitchen.
Desserts for me were hit and miss, literally. We ordered two and one I liked and one I didn’t. I’m so charmed by the overall package of 3 Leaves, I’m actually loath to even dwell on this but for me the Sago Kheer, which has a little in common with the English Summer pudding, didn’t work.
Think different kinds of soaked bread served warm with coconut milk pudding cardamom. For me, the contrasting textures – there’s a layer of creamy soaked bread and another of crunchy – just didn’t work. Though I loved the sprinkling of Indian candy floss that came on top. Our other choice was much more my thing, an intriguing style of halwa with warm, gently sweet cooked carrot with cream on top and a crunchy biscuity base with cinnamon and cardamom which was quite delicious and a very pleasant, cooling end to the feast.
Overall, 3 Leaves gets so much right I’m willing to completely skip any griping about the desserts. The whole experience was a pure pleasure. The portion sizes are exceptionally well-judged and we left feeling perfectly satisfied without any of the crippling fullness I invariably inflict on myself when gorging on Indian takeaways. 3 Leaves feels like so much more than an experience, it’s practically an education and was certainly very revealing of my own ignorance of Indian cuisine.
I’ll certainly be returning for another delicious lesson.
Unit 30, 19A Main St,
Phone: +353 87 769 1361
Monday-Tuesday – Closed
Sat 12.30-3pm; 6pm-10.30pm