Many of Ireland’s most exciting restaurants are falling for fire. Jillian Bolger meets the chefs drawn to the flames.
Hang Dai opened its doors to much fanfare in 2016. The cool Chinese restaurant may have looked like a low key takeaway from the street, but indoors, behind the ribbon curtain lay a Blade Runner-esque interior, where great cooking met great tunes and serious cocktails. Star of the show was the wood-fired roast duck, a Chinese speciality cooked on Hang Dai’s custom-built wood-fired oven. The oven is a replica of one that owner Will Dempsey and his partners went to view in one of the oldest duck restaurants in Beijing. “We got lucky on our visit, meeting the owner who let us take loads of pictures and even take measurements. The method and style of the oven dates back to 1644, so it’s really old school.”
Over time they’ve made alterations, including adding a front grill section so that the ducks they roast at the back can be flame-grilled at the front. Will believes that the best thing about cooking over open flames is the flavour, the smell and the control. Since opening, char siu (barbecued pork) has been a popular addition to the menu, alongside Cote de Boeuf, duck hearts and fish, all cooked to order over a mix of apple and birch wood mix, which can change on occasion to suit different specials.
Hang Dai may have a new head chef, Adam Dunn (ex-777 and Sydney’s iconic Rockpool) but it’s a given that fire will remain central to Hang Dai’s evolution and success, with the wood-fired section the most important part of their menu. “It’s a big reason why people visit us,” Will declares. “The grill’s also right in the middle of the restaurant and is on view for everyone to see. This was a big part of the concept when we were developing Hang Dai.”
Keelan Higgs, chef-owner of Variety Jones, the modern Michelin one-star restaurant he runs with his brother, Aaron, is another fan of cooking over the naked flame. For him, it’s the dynamic nature of the fire that appeals. “The heat constantly changes from high to low to high, so every dish you cook on the fire is a little bit different from the one before. It keeps things interesting.”
Keelan uses oak and birch wood, with applewood chips for smoking. “Oak burns a little bit slower and the embers last longer, while the birch helps to get the burn on quick and bring the heat up.” His ‘girl’ is a custom-built wood-burning hearth made from old chimney bricks. “I basically burn logs and cook directly on the embers. Almost all of our dishes have a few elements cooked on the fire but, I’d say grilled cauliflower with burnt yeast is Variety Jones’s signature.” Keelan is a convert to cooking over open flames, thanks to the fire’s unpredictable nature. “Using fire has made me get away from the safety net of cooking conventionally,” he explains. “The fire is always changing, which means the way I cook and the dishes I develop have to change with it. Like all cooking, we’re constantly learning and using fire is a big learning curve.”
Danny Africano, whose Lignum restaurant opened to critical acclaim in East Galway, just months before lockdown struck, shares Keelan’s enthusiasm for fire’s unpredictability. “Every day is an experiment. Every piece of wood is different. It’s not like gas or electricity – that’s the beauty of cooking over the flame.” Returning from Australia to open Lignum – Latin for wood – at his family homestead, Slatefort House, wood is the main fuel used in Danny’s kitchen. “It’s mainly birch, ash and oak, and we then use turf, juniper, spruce and hay for smoking.”
He believes that cooking over raw flames is the most natural way of cooking. “Fire is such a natural form of cooking and it is sometimes challenging. There is a bit more work and technique involved, taking care of the temperature of the coals and controlling the smoke on the flame. “ Cooking over fire has taught Danny and his team to adapt, refraining from using some modern techniques and focusing more on the ingredients in front of him. “Temperature and smoke control are so important, as you don’t want to overpower any individual ingredient.”
Lignum’s grills were custom made by Ox Grills in the UK. There are three Argentinian grills and one custom wood-burning oven which Danny brought over from Naples in Italy. “Once you have the technique, I find cooking on a grill is easier than working on a pan as you can see each ingredient cook.”
Prior to lockdown, Lignum’s signature dishes included Dooncaslte Oyster seared in wagyu fat and finished with brown butter and dashi, the oyster torched using a flambadou, a southern French grilling tool. “We had these specially made by our local blacksmith.” Another signature dish is chocolate marshmallow, marshmallow toasted over a sod of turf and a poitín flame, served as one of the final memorable courses of the evening. Being closed for an extended period has presented Danny and his team with the opportunity to experiment with the menu. “We have been coming up with many new techniques and ideas over lockdown that we want to bring into fruition, so guests can expect lots of new dishes.”
Back in Dublin, and just a few doors down from Hang Dai on Camden Street is Mister S, where chef and co-owner Paul McVeigh has fallen under fire’s spell, loving its versatility and believing the flavour to be incomparable. “Fire forces you to pare things back, which we love! In order for the fire and its flavour to come through, you need to let fewer ingredients compete for your tastebuds, especially with lighter veg and fish.”
Mister S’s impressive grill sits in a raised kitchen, like a fiery altar at the head of the dining room. Built by Tom Bray at Country Fire Kitchen in the UK, it is custom made, designed in consultation with Mister S. “The grill was always going to be the focal point of our restaurant and kitchen so it took a lot of deliberation, sketches and patience from Tom, but in the end, we were delighted with what he crafted for us.” The grill needed to be multi-functional, allowing cooking in many different forms. “Over the embers, fish in a basket, veg in a basket over the embers, steaks over the chargrill, hooks to hang meat to slowly roast them over the fire,” Paul explains. “We even included some little chambers – hot boxes – that act as small cold smoking chambers. These can be used to infuse ingredients or intensify the aroma of a piece of fish, meat or even cheese.” They also imported a Southern Pride smoker from the US, which is used for hot smoking various cuts of meat and fish.
At Mister S, lump wood and charcoal are used for grilling; with 70% charcoal the primary heat source and 30% wood where the flavour comes from. “For best results, we use fruit wood (Armagh applewood and maple) for white meats and oak and beech with a bit of fruit for red meats. Fish is a little different, depending on its texture. It’s really about trial and error.” Mister S’s famous smoked short rib – their most popular dish – is smoke fresh every day for about 8 hours over oak and whiskey barrel chips. “We’ve tried many combinations over the last two 2 ½ years and this is our favourite for the low ‘n slow smoking of short rib. The flavour that the crust develops from these woods is excellent!”
At Mister S, they cook almost all of their delicious dishes over flames and love serving the deep, distinctive flavours to their guests. Paul acknowledges that fire presents challenges and a need for adaptability. “You can’t set a fire to 42°C and come back in a few hours to perfectly moist salmon!” he laughs. “We enjoy that challenge and feel it connects us more to the produce. We also enjoy the simplicity. This is cooking pared back to its most primal form and means that you’re only really as good as the ingredients you use. This has always been incredibly important to us. We always try to source Ireland’s best produce and treat it with the love and respect it deserves.”
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