Restaurant review

Irish soul food spiced up with Dede’s brand of Turkish delights in Baltimore

I am obviously a fair weather visitor or have a deeply selective memory because for over four decades and counting almost every time I search Baltimore the sun seems to be splitting rocks while the little fishing village of West Cork swans around the place like a seaport on the French Riviera.

On another glorious August evening, the best seats in Dede’s house at customs are in the backyard. Sunglasses for all west-facing diners are a necessity, not an affectation, as is our sparkling glass (Stephane Regnault, Chromatique 2018).

If previous visits have already revealed the frailty, it was in still charming but still amateurish service, but somehow chef Ahmet Dede and owner Maria Archer managed to lure Joey Scanlon into the southern tip of the island.

Scanlon’s CV as a sommelier/restaurant manager sells in a handful of proper names, namely: Thornton’s, Chapter One and Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud; there is an immediate rise in professional standards, with the team moving with swift and confident efficiency like interlocking pieces of a single machine.

Control freak that I am, I too often guess the suggestions of the sommeliers but this evening we have little choice because the tasting menu is only presented at the end of the meal; by noting any food allergies or preferences, each dish comes as a complete surprise, an exercise in trust.

Potato and Brown Shrimp Taco

The first course banishes all worry, buttery brown mousse of spicy lobster bisque, overpowering manti, a delicious Turkish dumpling of soft brown crabmeat, on top, almond and garlic crumble and this season’s favorite ingredient for Irish gourmet chefs, premium caviar.

A potato bread “taco” is coated in fermented chili kosho, topped with brown shrimp, preserved lemon and nasturtiums, leaves and flowers; a delicious bite.

Coolea cheese on a mushroom biscuit.
Coolea cheese on a mushroom biscuit.

Next is a variation on a Coolea theme that Ahmet Dede has been playing since his days at Mews where he earned his first star. Rich melty aged Coolea cheese sits on top of a fungal mushroom biscuit, topped with pickled onions and crispy Isot. Featherweight in stature, sweet cheese caramel, mushroom umami and smoked isot pepper, it hits the palate like Tyson, the flavors throb in waves.

If Dede’s Turkish culinary heritage was previously recorded in the form of subtle notes of grace adorning a hyper-locavore take on West Cork’s superb produce, now it’s bustling with life. Sogan Dolma (stuffed onion) is a Michelin version of a traditional Turkish dish, sweet onion, poached in onion broth, then candied in olive oil and stuffed with Turkish rice, dried apricots , mint and spices, garnished with smoked buffalo yogurt, caviar, and chive flowers.

It is an elegant presentation but eaten with the comforting simplicity of a homemade dish, sweet fruits and caramelized sugars from the onion, creamy and smoked yoghurt, a pinch of chives, all melting into only one. After the snacks, we “jump the fence” in main courses with good crusty homemade bread with Gloun Cross butter and sublime Turkish olive oil.

The raw langoustine is chopped and seasoned with oil and salt, covered with tabasco and tomato jelly, buffalo sour cream, celery, pickled tomatoes and mustard greens. Next, a peeled and quickly marinated tomato, dipped in smoky spices and served in tomato water. Paired, it explodes in the mouth like a taste bomb, the acid and salt supercharging the individual flavors. The sweet medicinal astringency of Cape Clear Thai Basil presides over it with the calming authority of a matron patrolling the service, unifying a cacophony of sensations into a singular and very special dish.

Black sole is delicately steamed, served in a sauce flavored with vibrant fruity sumac, cement and mussel liqueur for the punch. On top, grilled lobster, al dente fresh peas and parsley. Once again, wonderful.

Saddle of lamb
Saddle of lamb

A delicious soft pink saddle of lamb, silky, game fat adding emollient depths, is stuffed with candied lemon and served with carrot and isot. A side dish of freekah includes crisp, leafy snow peas drizzled with a freekah miso mousse. If it’s a classic Michelin-style dish, all buttoned up in Sunday’s best, an alternative take on lamb, Adana kebab, is a grubby, dirty brawler, classic Turkish street food oozing with flavor spicy and powerful, served on flatbread with mashed red peppers and wild garlic yogurt. You would eat five without thinking; The Scanlon-inspired pairing of bright, hoppy Saison Dupont would make you want a 10.

A royal procession of sweets and treats follows, honorable mentions to: strawberry lokma; yoghurt parfait and meadowsweet ice cream; and rice pudding tartlet cooked in sütlac. The most beautiful dessert I’ve eaten in a few years is the red fruit Vacherin with pomegranate, perfectly covering the spectrum of sweetness, acidity and texture with a divine little “flower” of meringue, red fruits and the zing of wood sorrel, lemon verbena and dianthus.

The sparkling and effusive Scanlon presides over the whole with a deceptively casual charm and his choice wines, both from Domaine des Ardoisières, smoky, mineral and citric Argile Blanc 2020 of breathtaking purity, and catchy, agile and lively Silice Rouge 2021, all in red fruits and pepper, marry perfectly with each other with almost the whole meal, a delicious Joh Jos Prum 2016, Gracher Himmelreich Spätlese, covering the desserts.

With an all-Turkish team in the kitchen, Dede has gone beyond the deferential eye over the shoulder to the culinary traditions of his adopted Irish home, to confidently forge ahead with his own fusion. Truly original Hiberno-Turkish, further enhancing modern Irish cuisine.

His precision and his sense of technicality are still present, but his cuisine is now in tune with the exuberant vitality of a chef who draws his soul from the plate. All in all, it’s yet another level; could we now be entering two-star territory at Dede at the Custom House?

The bill: €325 (tasting menu, €125 pp, plus food and wine pairing, excluding tip)

The verdict

Food: 9.5/10

Performance: 9.5/10

Value: 9/10

Atmosphere: 9/10