Shelbourne Social: A slick, moneyed operation so eminently hateable and unfashionable in these post-Tiger times.
This behemoth of an eatery in Dublin 4 has been mainly referred to as the new ‘Dylan McGrath place’ since opening its doors a couple of months ago. That is the position McGrath has graduated to in his decades-spanning career in the capital which began with a Michelin star in Mint and has been paired with as many outbursts and tantrums (if the muttered gossip and occasionally televised spats are anything to go by) as good dishes.
The taciturn McGrath was roundly criticised for mistreatment of staff in the early years of his career and the old Irish specialty, begrudgery, has dogged McGrath from Mint in Ranelagh to Fade St Social and Rustic Stone. Someone at a party once told me McGrath still owed them money for the electric from a house-share… in the late 90s!
Even Kevin Thornton asserted that McGrath would “not go far” (back in 2008)… now he’s practically the social director of a certain kind of Dublin food experience.
Ironic that from guerrilla beginnings, McGrath is now subjected to a funny kind of inverted food snobbery – the Dylan McGrath name on a restaurant calls to mind somewhere upmarket to bring the parents “up from down home” or a meal with reliable bombast to wine and dine visiting clients.
I told my supremely snobby husband where I was heading and he quipped “Enjoy the 150 quid steak”. Yep much has been made of this fairly pricey plate of meat at Shelbourne Social. It’s actually €160 though it is for four people sharing. Sharing is the main theme of the place with the menu divided into unfamiliar subcategories: starters are ‘crudo’ or ‘nearly cooked’, mains are repped by ‘meat’, ‘fish’, ‘starch’ and ‘from the market’ with a separate spot for the ‘family style’ offerings including the €160 beef dish – a plate of sliced smoked short rib. The menu taxonomy feels a little unnecessary but I guess it’s nice for people who enjoy heavy interaction with their waitstaff… wait, do any of us enjoy that?
My friend announced that I’d be ordering for us and the waiter kindly smiled: “Don’t worry I’ll talk you through it”. When I told him our choices and he left offering no further commentary or suggestions, she turned to me admiringly and said “ooh you must’ve done it right!”
It’s not like this is food that requires instructions to consume, all the up-arsery on the menu really only serves to make people feel as though they’re trying to pass some kind of nebulous test to gain access to the deliciousness.
I’ll admit it I slightly set out to hate Shelbourne Social. It’s a big, corporate sleek machine of an operation. The interiors are dire – not to throw shade but bizarrely there’s hints of Kylemore Café in the décor which looks to be striving for deco vibes but winds up oddly ecclesiastical.
Plus being Irish, I’m built for this kind of begrudgery. What I’m not built for is the cognitive dissonance that descends on me as I embark on my first bite of the first course. Oh right… this is f*cking excellent. I know immediately only minutes into the meal that I’ll be back within the week. When you know you know. Like when we all saw A Star is Born and knew that this would be the first of many watchings.
The first course in question was from the ‘hot curd bread’ section of the menu… yep another section, a bit like the flatbread menu in sibling restaurant, Fade Stree Social. The very light flatbread, comes with a choice of toppings. We got the shaved foie gras with prunes in brandy, pine nuts and pistachios and I’m basically dead now. It was a perfect balance of buttery foie gras, sweet, sharp prunes and nuts for texture.
Round One definitely saw me sitting up a little bit straighter. That starter commands respect. It kind of felt as though Dylan McGrath himself had heard my thoughts and pitched up to the table to disabuse me of any notion that this food was anything other than seriously good. For mains we ordered two sides, skinny fries and tenderstem broccoli with burrata and a two-person main course, the best-seller our waiter informed us. The broccoli was delicious, accompanied by fresh herbs and an umami sauce, but the chips were cold. Unforgivable.
Our main was hard to discern from the description on the menu: “Crispy rice pot with prawns, soft shell crab, fried corn, mole cream and corn stock”.
The waiter amiably agreed to have the kitchen omit the crab because I’m allergic and we took the plunge. Crispy rice is the crunchy layer at the bottom of the rice pot, prized in practically every culture that cooks with rice. You usually get it when cooking in a cast iron pot and you don’t usually get it in restaurants, given the patience required to achieve this golden, toasted layer. A mini Le Creuset pot arrived to the table filled with large prawns, chunks of crispy rice, finely sliced veg and herbs. The waiter poured the corn stock over it and propped the lid on top. This is a dish of textures as much as flavours. The fried corn – which seemed to be lightly battered and fried (but I might be wrong there) gave the most satisfying chew to each bite.
The crispy rice and prawns were the meat of the dish, ferrying the rich flavour of the stock to my eager chops. TBH just writing about this is torturous as I know I won’t be having it again for at least a week.
The overall effect was incredibly moreish and comforting, a bit like a corn chowder–gumbo mash-up and the inclusion of the mole cream seemed to attest to the American influence as it is traditionally a Mexican sauce made with chillis and chocolate and about 20 other ingredients. As they’d say on insta, take me back.
We finished with a wild card dessert, the soft serve vanilla ice cream with smoked banana and miso caramel, which was sublime. It took a few bites to get into it – the combination slightly confounds initially – but then I was there for every intriguing bite, each revealing new depths of flavour.
As we left, I wondered if the ingenuity at work in this kitchen will ultimately be overlooked because of prejudice against the overall package. It’s a slick, moneyed operation so eminently hateable and unfashionable in these post-Tiger times. But the cooking is full of personality and appetite for exploration. The kitchen, it seems is driven by a genuine and wonderful greed for the culinary divine – but the package doesn’t serve this.
Building 1, Number One Ballsbridge,
Tel: 01 963 9777
Tuesday 12-3pm & 5–10pm
Wednesday – Friday 12–3pm & 5pm–11pm