Some may remember the opening of Etto – sister restaurant to the new kid on the block, Uno Mas – was lore in the Dublin restaurant scene. For months, no one could get a table in the small, apparently unassuming dining room on Merrion Row. I still worked in kitchens at the time and I seem to remember everyone from the front of house manager to my head chef to the suppliers talking about six-month waiting lists and queues out the door for spaces at the bar. It was rumoured that the restaurant had even disconnected the phone such was the high traffic it was receiving. People were at once exasperated and wildly curious.
When I did finally get in there, I was ready to hate it with all the bitterness of the traditional Irish begrudger but was immediately silenced by the flair of the kitchen, the confidence of the food and the sheer exacting professionalism of the whole operation. Every detail was considered in this neat, attractive package. Owner-operators Liz Matthews and Simon Barrett astutely recognised and remedied a certain issue Irish people had had to date with the concept of tapas – namely a kind of unfocused anxiety regarding the portions.
We wanted to be chill and European about it but when the tapas trend washed up on our shore many of us were confused by this dismantling and reinvention of dinner plans. The whole pace of the meal was alien to us. How many plates were we supposed to get? How do you know when the meal is over? The tapas anxiety is real. Etto, and now Uno Mas, created a winning menu that is a riff on tapas for the more evolved among us and can also operate within the three-course dining structure.
I arrived to Uno Mas at 6.15 on a Monday night and it was rammed. Just take a moment to regard that statement. Monday, a day when many restaurants don’t even open for dinner and this place was hopping. When I rang the week before, all we could get was a booking at the bar.
“My god ye’re out the door,” I gasped.
The woman on the phone admitted things were going well. They’re a very modest gang in the Etto and Uno Mas family and it’s probably what’s really working in their two establishments. There is no bluster or bullshiteology a la a few other Irish eateries one could name, if one wanted to make enemies. They make exquisite food and they serve it in an unfussy but smart setting.
The Uno Mas space is long with high ceilings. The front is given over to the seating at the bar then stretches back to the kitchen pass. We slide down the narrow passage along the front of the bar to our seats. Now let me be clear, I am normally a complete whinge-bag when it comes to shitty seats in a restaurant and these two high stools (another item on my ever-evolving Hate List) were bang in the vortex of the bar, service area and kitchen pass – a fecking triad of irritation for a picky bitch like me.
“It’s gonna be like the Red Cow roundabout here,” I thought testily.
It is a major testament to the experience of the team behind Uno Mas that this seating outpost was not the hell I was predicting but actually a brilliant vantage point from which to appreciate the consideration and respect the kitchen pays their plates – Chef Paul McNamara, formerly of nearby Locks, runs the show. Equally the front-of-house staff are all consummate professionals here, gliding around us discreetly ferrying plates and placing orders. Our server’s knowledge of the menu was extensive, not something that is always a given in the business.
The menu is divided into snacks, starters, mains and desserts. Among the snacks were good quality basics like olives, almonds, melt-in-the-mouth cured meats, good bread and olive oil. The provenance is key in Uno Mas. Everything right down to the olive oil is given its due consideration. In this case, they serve Hojiblanca olive oil – robust with pleasant spikes of heat and very nice with Le Levain bread and sea salt flakes.
As always, I came away with menu-regret – in this case at not ordering the Padron peppers. Every time a plate of these bright green, charred and blistered peppers passed us destined for another table I sighed inwardly. Our own snack choice was the squid a la plancha and I have to say, despite being a squid fan, I was a bit disappointed in it. I prefer the tentacles personally as I feel the meat of the body doesn’t hold flavour quite as well. This felt like the issue here. The squid is served with a tasty ink squid aioli and a garlic and parsley olive oil, more of which might have brought more to the plate. Not unpleasant by any means but not a wow. Luckily, with the starters the meal then hung a right straight into wow territory.
The choices were all seriously tempting. Cockles, red mullet rice, a plate of charred sea trout and venison tartare with pickled pear and juniper all vied for our attention but I had my eye on the prize with the Morcilla, piquillo pepper and quail eggs. Morcilla is like a Spanish take on black pudding or perhaps more a close cousin of the French boudin blood pudding as it’s smoother and more delicate than our grunty black pudding varietals. Whatever you liken it to, it was delish. The pepper brought sweetness to the dish and the teeny fried eggs were both adorable and tasty.
My companion went for the beetroot salad, “apparently a mandatory staple on virtually every menu these days,” I thought inwardly eye-rolling.
Sidenote: Yes, I am a knob – I think I was just pissed that she ignored my little agenda. I’d been heavily hinting that she should get the red mullet rice and give me a go.
I needn’t have been such a douche about it; a beetroot salad executed by Uno Mas is going to be good. The textures offered a lovely range from the juicy beetroot to root crisps and nicely bitter leaves of radicchio all drawn together with a riff on the traditional Spanish soup ajo blanco, a creamy cold soup of garlic and almonds. In Uno Mas, this is finished to a thick, creamy consistency close to the texture of a soft cheese. It’s a welcome break from the chalky goat’s cheese that has haunted plates of beetroot for so long now.
The main courses in Uno Mas play hardball. You want them all. However, if I’m being nitpicky (which I suppose is my function here) there were just two meat options available when we were in – the menu has the day’s date on the top which attests to this kitchen’s agility with mixing up their menus – and they were both beef. Of course, for far too long meat has dominated menus so you could look at this as a promising reversal. The seafood choices were octopus or brill. My companion chose the latter, a warming dish that smelled amazing. The fillet was served on a rich kind of stew of onion squash, chorizo and mussels and was full of flavour. I picked the vegetarian main, a plate of roast cauliflower, each bite of which was a spectacular of unfolding tastes.
The cauliflower was accompanied by buttery soft leeks and hen of the wood mushrooms which brought earthy notes and a satisfying meaty texture to the combination, while a slow cooked egg yolk took on the role of a rich sauce. It was excellent.
When the dessert menu arrived I was no longer holding back and when my friend went to the loo I plunged ahead and ordered three desserts. After surveying the offering I just couldn’t take the risk of NOT ordering three desserts.
We skipped the cheese plate, appealing as it looked and I have a bit of an inexplicable and long-held hatred of flan so that was out, we went for the dark chocolate and olive oil ganache, the milhojas and the walnut, sherry and raisin ice cream. We spent most of the rest of the night attempting to establish which one had been the best.
The milhojas are a Spanish version of mille-feuille with layers of pastry, almonds, custard and mascarpone – in short: actual heaven. I enjoy a dairy-heavy dessert and while the portion was generous, nothing would keep me from demolishing the others. The glossy ganache seriously delivered. A ganache can be a leaden, gluey assault on the mouth in the wrong hands. This one was divine. Ultimately, however, we anointed the ice cream Lord of the Desserts. The depth of walnut flavour in the soft serve scoops was incredible. Even more incredible: I didn’t think I actually liked walnuts all that much. I eat them on top of Walnut Whips but I mostly see it as penance, to be endured to then “earn” my whip. I don’t know. I left Uno Mas realising I had a lot of soul-searching to do.
Am I walnut person now? Have I conquered my fear of tapas? And most crucially, just when the hell will I manage to score another table? If they offer me two seats at the bar at 4am let’s just say – I’m there and I’m getting the flan as well this time, this is the faith I have in this place.