Restaurant review

Saltwater serving sauces, sea and bran

Who would have thought 1990s house music would be a soothing backdrop to Ireland’s finest seafood? Turns out even Terenure wasn’t immune to the music of Garth Brooks last weekend (8k away), but once settled in Saltwater, the 120 beats per minute, four on the floor, boom boom boom from the 90s house turned out to be quite soothing.

Saltwater’s menu (and soundtrack) is the brainchild of Chef Karl Whelan who should be a household name but, in case you’ve forgotten, he was the chef behind Luna when it was voted Best Restaurant in Ireland, was the head chef at Chapter One when Ross Lewis and his team cooked for Queen Elizabeth and, more recently, he created Hang Dai.

Whelan’s latest venture is with fish wholesaler and restaurateur Niall Sabongi at Saltwater Grocery which is a sort of fishmonger/deli/sandwich shop that becomes a Friday and Saturday night restaurant worthy of all the stars and accolades.

The tasting menu costs €65 per person plus €45 for wine pairings. Being fussy, I wanted to choose my wine and opted for a bottle of white Slovenian Guerila (€35) made from the obscure Zelen grape variety. The rest of the menu is equally innovative with wines from well-chosen producers such as Von Winning and Judith Beck.

Later with the meat, we drank two fruity-earthy glasses of La Folle Noire d’Ambat (€8.50), a red from Fronton near Toulouse.

The first course is Caviar à la Royale which was served at caviar tastings with a small smear straight from the can placed on the back of the hand which is used to slightly warm the eggs so that the umami rich salty-sweet eggs can taste their best.

Next, a delicious one-bite tartlet. Inside the slightly crispy exterior was a crab bavarois topped with marinated salmon, trout roe, and a splash of lemon and seaweed. The crucial element was the kick of horseradish in the center which tied all the flavors together perfectly.

Smoked salmon tartlet.

Muscat grape flesh, verjuice and sea truffle (dulse pepper) added tiny hints of flavor to an immaculately fresh rock oyster, while a fried red fish gudgeon (a kind of snapper) had mildly tangy watermelon ketchup and a heavy soy sauce smear to play with.

The dry-aged Clare Island salmon was coated in a soy-based gel and an intense spicy Koshu with a few tiny nuggets of candied yuzu to add zest. The genius of this dish was the gel that helped distribute the koshu and soy flavors evenly throughout each bite of salmon. Karl told us it’s the only item that’s been on every menu since he started this adventure – I can see why.

Red fish tempura.
Red fish tempura.

The goat curd, tomato and seaweed salad was a welcome palate cleanser after the salmon: slices of fresh sweet tomatoes with creamy goat curd and salty seaweed to spice them up; nothing else was needed.

The shrimp gnocchi and sausage sat in a classically perfect lobster bisque, the delicate gnocchi and shrimp flavored and enriched beautifully. It’s sauces like this that elevate Whelan’s cooking. Anyone can flavor an Irish prawn; very few can make sauces like this.

The dry-aged salmon was coated in a soy-based gel and an intense spicy Koshu.
The dry-aged salmon was coated in a soy-based gel and an intense spicy Koshu.

Saltwater was once Downey’s butcher’s shop, so our next course was a tribute to this much-missed tenderer who was famous for his game. on the side topped with a light and delicate pumpkin cream generously grated with nutmeg and a crispy potato cube to add weight.

For dessert, a Vacherin with Bramley apples, the complex meringue-based dessert recognized by Marie-Antoine Carême (d. 1833) was crispy without, satiny inside and utterly delicious.

Whelan does remarkable things in Saltwater, there was poise and finely honed technique in everything we ate with expert sauce perhaps the crucial element. Whelan’s sauce was the backbeat, the drum machine, at the heart of almost everything we ate and the intimacy of the venue (he serves as well as the cooks and DJs) made it extra special.

The tab:

A superb nine-course tasting menu for two plus a bottle and two glasses of wine costs €200.20, 10% service charge.

How:

Open on Fridays and Saturdays, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

The verdict:

  • Food: 9.5/10
  • Drink: 9/10
  • Serving: 9/10
  • Atmosphere: 8/10
  • Value: 8/10

In a sentence:

A finely crafted seafood cuisine with immaculate sauces from a chef at the top of his game.