The homely smell of wood smoke is the first thing we get walking in the simple glass door on a stretch of street where everywhere else is dark. Chef Keelan Higgs has the hearth blazing down the back of the long narrow room. He’s coaxing embers into a brighter glow by fanning them with a red plastic paddle. They didn’t know the fire was going to be quite so central to this new operation but after three months waiting for a gas connection, they’re still waiting.
We’re in Variety Jones on Dublin’s Thomas Street. It’s a small restaurant with big ambition. By the end of the evening my cover won’t so much be blown as obliterated in a one degree of separation moment. This town is small, way too small. But more of that later.
Higgs cut his teeth in Locks, worked as a sous chef in the Greenhouse and has been saving for years to open his own place. His brother Aaron is front of house and his cheery Hawaiian shirt seems part mood board for the frondy plants placed around the walls of this simple room.
The craftsmanship is in the food… As snacks go they’re probably the best €5 purchase on any Dublin menu
If a tendril of food smells and woodsmoke curling a friendly arm around us when we walk in isn’t enough to make us feel at home, the menu seals the deal. There is no concept here other than fire and flavour. Dishes come from a scattergun of cultures, as if someone threw a fistful of thumbtacks at a map. In less skilled hands you’re bumping up against the dreaded “fusion” food, a place where food’s greatest hits are murdered by cover bands. I’ve a feeling that’s not going to happen here.
They’ve got the lighting and music just right, a test that restaurants with bigger budgets often fail. It’s a bare bones decor job, some salvaged mirrors near the entrance and an exposed brick wall with the mortar slapped in between the bricks about as well as I would do it.
The craftsmanship is in the food. Snacks arrive on the grey striped napkins that feel like they came from a family sideboard. They consist of two Jerusalem artichoke skins, roasted until they are both chewy and crisp. I’m thinking wine gum, my friend Jeanne nails the confectionary analogy: it’s the Double Decker bar texture trick. Inside there’s comté cheese whipped into an airy foam and finished with shards of crispy shallots. Then two Pacific oysters get the Vietnamese treatment with tiny cubes of cucumber, ginger, lime and maybe honey. As snacks go they’re probably the best €5 purchase on any Dublin menu.
Things get spendier as you work your way down this minimal list which does a mix of sharing plates and an Italian pasta course before you get to family platters. We order the special pasta Alfredo and get a simple bird’s nest of spaghetti, drenched in a cream and cheese sauce that’s been finished with freshly cracked black pepper. It’s a come-to-Mamma rendition of cacio e pepe, one of the best you’ll eat anywhere.
Wild meat doesn’t get better than this, every forkful as succulent as the first
Then comes the sharing platter of venison loin and my friend’s face pales when she sees how rare the meat slices are. There’s no fuss when we send some back on a small plate to banish the blood and I dive into the rest gratefully. Half moons of celeriac have been roasted on the fire so the skin has caramalised to a sweetness you rarely get with this hero vegetable. There’s a half hispi cabbage, charred and smoked by its time in the fire and frondy fabulous mushrooms swimming in the meat juices. This is venison that might make you question ever eating a farmed animal again. Wild meat doesn’t get better than this, every forkful as succulent as the first.
We share a Jamaica cake with a slice of caramelised pineapple on the side and a cultured cream that’s the perfect tangy foil to the sweetness of this comforting pudding.
Despite booking in my friend’s name the anonymity of the critic visit ends when Aaron asks me if we’re related. Up there as the weirdest reveal in eight years of reviewing, it turns out the Higgs brothers are second cousins to my cousins so we are, very distantly, if not on the same family tree, then definitely in the same copse. Given that small world coincidence, a look at the kitchen is allowed. Not everything is cooked on the fire. They went to Argos and bought two €50 induction hobs to keep things going until the gas hob is up and running. And the name? It throws up some interesting Google results. Variety Jones was the alias of a man who helped run a dark net drugs operation called the Silk Road. Aaron worked in one of his bars in Thailand. A small world coincidence of a different kind.
It’s a curious name but cooking at this level in this place will give Variety Jones Dublin a better set of Google search results. It’s been a heartening start to the year to find one of my meals of the year in an unloved stretch of Dublin street. Hearth and home in one place.
Variety Jones, 78 Thomas Street, Dublin 8 (01) 4544976
Dinner for two with house sparkling water came to €90
Facilities: Small and salvaged
Food provenance: None
Vegetarian options: Limited, but they will expand the menu
Wheelchair access: No