Grey, the man and Liath (Grey), the restaurant are initially, to my mind, at odds.
Chef, Damian Grey is all swagger and bombast, while his tiny, sleek dining room and tiny, quiet, concentrated kitchen feel like meditative spaces.
I came by a table in the former greasy spoon that holds court after-hours in Blackrock Market, after much webpage refreshing and even a public strop on social media. The booking system is a pain in the hole, but it’s a necessary pain in the hole given the feverish demand for seats. Let’s just say, it’s easier to get tickets for Glastonbury.
Our appointed night arrives and we pick through the eclectic and pleasingly DIY vibes of the Blackrock Market before coming to a grey-paneled corridor and an unassuming narrow, black double door. I decided to bring The Man with me as we’re together 13 years and it’s high time he benefitted in some small way from this job of mine. We’re both quite outsized specimens and could barely get through the door without the accidental garroting of other diners and several times when doing some moderate gesturing, we nearly took a nearby painting – by illustrator, Conor Merriman – off the wall.
Liath is not exactly a new kid on the block, it’s a new incarnation of Heron & Grey. If you never got there, you’ll surely have heard the myths that grew around it: An unassuming hole in the wall in a market, cooking Michelin-starred food using just the flame of a single candle– or something to that effect. The partnership between chef, Damian Grey and front-of-house talent, Andrew Heron was whirlwind in that they set up shop just six months after meeting, snagged a star ten months after opening and had consciously (and amicably by all accounts) uncoupled less than three years later. Heron & Grey served throughout January of this year before closing for Grey, now the sole owner, to re-imagine the restaurant.
The new Liath is a feat of design ingenuity. The space is tiny, yet tardis-like in that it never feels cramped and the new jacks feel positively spacious. Tables are uncrowded and adornment is minimal. Cavern-like, rough white stone walls give way to a light wooden grid running the length of the ceiling along one wall. These long, straight lines coupled with clever mirrors help to breath space into the room.
Windows to the outside allow some natural light in but no view interrupts the singular harmony that’s been cultivated inside Liath. It is in this cloistered and comfortable space that three and a half hours slide by without us even noticing. THREE AND A HALF HOURS. Surfacing to find it was midnight and the babysitter was freaking was disorientating but this is Liath’s true magic, time doesn’t obey the usual rules when you’re under the sway of Liath, it is like a metaphysical journey by mouth.
Our first plate boasted a single slim and slightly gritty-looking carrot topped with pea shoots. “This carrot will tell you everything you need to know about the rest of the meal,” announced Damian Grey. I was a bit scared of him initially tbh, he has that commanding presence that all head chefs and all Aussies possess – as both, he’s basically got commanding presence². Grey rattled off a scarily detailed run-down of everything he’d put this carrot through on its way to our table. Poached in dashi, glazed with mushroom water served on fermented carrot puree with a chicken liver crumb with lime, fish sauce, cacao nibs and ginger. The purpose of the carrot, it seems, was to reflect in a single dish, the cosmic culinary odyssey through the five points of taste: sour, bitter, umami, salt and sweet, that was about to unfold over the next ten or so courses.
The carrot was delicious, I dispatched it in two bites thinking: Mushroom water I never knew you. As we patiently waited between courses for Grey’s rapid-fire intro to our dishes, I realised how carefully produced every aspect of this meal is. The pacing is spot on, slowing the diner down to the Liath way where a carrot is something to be regarded and savoured. The carrot feels like a Liath primer, something of an education. It seems to say “this is what you’ve come for: An Experience. Now, slow down and SAVOUR IT.”
I’ve read Grey say that the restaurant’s new white tablecloths are an unashamedly savvy move so the plates make for cleaner shots on social media but I balk at the notion of posting the carrot. For one, it’s impossible to capture in an image what that carrot was and second, to have published that moment, is to disengage from it and that, I feel, would be missing the point of Liath altogether.
The next courses moved along the spectrum of taste. There was the Liath “dirty kebab” of tender lamb, carefully spiced with the same blend found in Merguez sausages. It works exceedingly well, with no cacophony of flavours muddying the juicy, slightly gamy flavour of the meat. The wrap is finely sliced, baked celeriac filled with the bits (as Grey puts it) “nobody wants” – hearts, brains, tongues, feet, tails you name it, tabbouleh, spicy chickpeas and kefir (a little fermented milk) round out the filling.
A palette cleanser of macerated strawberries arrives with fermented strawberry juice, black pepper, slightly aerated lemon water and mint ice to cool the sensations down. As Grey puts it: “The acid strips the palette, the ice cools it down and the strawberries get you salivating again.”
And on to the sour we go with stewed kohlrabi, scallions, parsley and lemon juice topped with soft fresh almonds, a little almond milk and a hot pecorino beignet nestled under a veil of pickled caviar, burnt hay and a tangy rapeseed and sorrel dressing. It’s sour with an introduction to salt with the caviar and pecorino.
Sour gives way to salt with jewel-like trout gravlax on a crispy tart with trout roe, pickled and fresh chive, kefir and horseradish topped with an earthy finish of grated charcoal plucked directly from the yakitori grill. “That’s feckin’ it. Eat it!” Grey grins after he reels off the description. Then it’s on to a thrust of pure umami with the signature Liath 99 – Smoked eel and anchovy fill a filo cornetto topped with pickled truffles and shallots and custard made with 36-month-old parmesan.
Pig with grains and fennel salad form the “meat course” and the largest of the portions at about three bites. The cheese course is l’etivaz, a hard Swiss cheese with raw cow’s milk, a cousin of Gruyere. The cheese is stacked atop an olive oil emulsion, beer-poached onion puree and salt crystals marinated with orange zest topped with a charcoal and fennel cracker. “Take your time with this, the magic is when you stop eating,” Grey says cryptically.
He’s not wrong. The smoke and citrus haunt the mouth afterwards and bring into focus the full breath of the eating experience – from anticipation to the moreish satisfaction in the crunch and chew and finally the lasting flavours that echo long after we swallow.
Three rounds of sweet tastes conclude the meal: an intricately piped Italian meringue cloaking a soft, custard-like centre; roasted apricot with candied macadamia, cremeux, lilac water and a cannoli-shaped candy snap filled with sheep’s cheese mousse and lastly a plate of pure pleasure: chocolate.
Grey takes everything seriously but his plate of ‘ideas with chocolate’ especially so. “Look for smoke, look for fruits, look for nuts,” he instructs. The different notes on the plate are a symphony for the senses – the chocolate ganache has a pristine glass-like finish and the texture is perfectly complimented by praline crunch and a delicate cookie, a rolled shard of tempered chocolate leans on top and a white chocolate sphere lolls nearby. It feels like an alchemical feat. This is chocolate but not quite as we know it.
The chocolate plate serves as a neat summation of what Grey has achieved here. To go to Liath is to have an experience, to learn another way with food. It is to briefly taste what Grey tastes. The aesthetic on the plates is austere and almost willfully un-decorative, the better to cut the bullshit and truly taste the food. If this sounds high-minded and a bit wanky, it’s not. The tone of Liath is the opposite of rarefied, Grey’s humour, general buzz, and enthusiasm see to that. It’s a joyful experiment in eating. It’s food but not as we know it.
With so much chat about the food, I neglected to mention the bespoke non-alcoholic pairing menu which could be the subject of a review all of its own. As a non-drinker, the beverage portion of any meal is not something I give much consideration to but upon spying the pairing option, made up of house-brewed concoctions like the Ginger Bug and other fermented experiments, I perked up. General manager and Kombucha chemist, Niall O’Connor (formerly of Richmond and Etto) delights in the delicate engineering of his fragrant and surprising brews. Well worth the €29 price tag.
Blackrock Market, Co Dublin.
Tel: (01) 212-3676
Expect to pay a deposit on booking.
Tasting Lunch Menu €58
(5 courses minimum per person-Saturday Lunch Only)
Tasting Dinner Menu €78
(8 courses minimum per person- Wednesday to Saturday Evenings Only)