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(reviews of Dublin restaurants)

Please feel free to email our savvy reviewer, JM:

JM has only one rather expensive hobby: restaurants. She does an obscene amount of dining out in Dublin and sometimes further afield. This has made her fussy and overly-focused on minor details. Someone suggested she might make a decent critic.

The Woollen Mills

Good cafe, bad restaurant?

42 Lower Ormond Quay,
Dublin 1
Opening Hours: Mon-Sat 9am-11pm, Sun 12am-10:30pm
Phone: +353 1 828 0835

Trudie couldn't be nicer about it both on the phone and in person. It's Saturday night. First we were nine at 8pm, then seven and now we are five. We're good restaurant-goers so we give them as much advance warning as we can about the reduced numbers, but then, due to iron mishaps (did we leave it on? -- No is the answer), we're late and yet she's friendly and smiling as at 8.15pm, she leads us to our table.

It's the northside, granted it's as far south as you can go on the northside but still, I like them already and it's clear they've spent a few bob on the place so better again. The sympathetic transformation of the Woollen mills into a restaurant looked like it was going right from early on and it has been a success. It still feels its age but it has been 'Avoca'd'. You could argue it lacks artwork or personality but this is a kitchen where you eat simple but excellent food and there's no room for fuss. That's what they want me to know.

Our table is half padded seating along the window and half thin, hard wooden benches, where the only fabric between you and the wood is whatever you chose from your wardrobe. But we're in a kitchen and isn't it far from padded leather we were reared? As kids, we had pine benches in our kitchen. There's a nod to heritage in the building and the food so maybe the wooden bench is one more nod, like the menu's fish fried in oatmeal that my granny used to make back in the day.

We're instantly given menus and the wine list. This is a good beginning. We start out looking for starters and have a little trouble as the menu is divided into meat, fish, vegetables and a selection from the menu back at Gruel, the Dame street restaurant that went to the wall a while back, and that lots of people loved (but didn't dine in?). I'm an easy punter. Get wine in front of me pronto and I'm happy enough. Our waitress is friendly but seems nervous, as though someone may have shouted at her before. This makes me a little nervous. She's a bit flustered and unsure as to whether she should take food orders and drinks orders together rather than just starting with drinks and moving on to the food question. She's probably new. Everyone's got to be new at some point.

One of us orders Mussel & leek pâté (EUR 9) as a starter but the rest surrender to the menu's inclinations and go straight for main courses. We order Black Sole, Steak, Pulled Pork, Ham & Eggs and Grey Mullet. The dishes are priced between EUR 10 and EUR 24. We order a bottle of Pinot Grigio and a driver goes for the house juice: a concoction of beetroot, ginger, carrot and apple. I don't hold out much hope for this and await purple gloop in a glass. The drinks arrive promptly and the gloop is not gloop, it's thin and fresh and the colour of rubies. The driver is happy and everyone has a taste. So far, so good.

The single starter of Mussel and leek pâté is at least fifteen minutes coming even though it's served cold. The diner takes a bite and is not impressed. Grey food is always a risk. It had better taste damn good. This is, according to its owner, "just fishy and lacks any other flavours". The portion is generous but she's not biting. The plate sits on our table alone and untouched for a good fifteen minutes before our waitress takes it away. She asks if it was ok, is told the verdict and seems genuinely disappointed.

I am informed by a fellow diner that we are in a unisex toilet establishment and I venture to inspect. This is where architects confuse equality and sameness. I find myself in a cellar with four stalls and alarmingly shiny toilet seats that could easily conceal drips. I lean into the mirror but then realise there can be no food between my teeth because I haven't eaten yet. My top is instant drenched because the expensive stone slab surrounding the sink is soaked. I consider lipstick but there's a strange man in his fifties standing beside me. We're alone in the cellar together. He's probably not a strange man; he's probably a normal man. And he may even be more uncomfortable than me. And is this not the modern world? In 2095, which is when the papers tell me equal pay will have 'naturally' resolved itself, I'll reconsider it but in the meantime the unisex toilet feels more like a concession of personal space. Ultimately I feel less rather than more liberated by the set-up. So far that's 777, Super Miss Sue and now The Woollen Mills who insist I must share a toilet with men. Make it stop, Dublin restaurants. Louis CK says the biggest killer of men is heart disease and the biggest killer of women is men. That's two good reasons why we need separate loos!

Back at the table, our group is not good at keeping track of time. We have a lot of words to say between us all and the jabbering and wise-cracking continues until someone finally says 'I'm hungry'. It's gone half nine. We've been in the building for seventy-five minutes and four out of five of us have yet to eat anything. Not even a basket of bread has arrived to placate us. One of our party notes that people seated after us have actual food on their tables. We're Irish. We hate complaining. We contemplate paying up and bailing out. The always-excellent Yamamori Sushi a couple of doors up is mentioned. It's too close to ten so we decide to stick it out. We ask the waitress and she says our food is "at the end of a very long queue" and does nothing further to remedy the situation. This is not reassuring.

Fifteen minutes later the food arrives and it's good. It is generous portions all round and we are very hungry. The deep fried parts (fish, chips and potato wedges) are a tad greasy. My deep fried black sole is in two enormous slabs but served on a wooden putting green (a long board with a hole in one end). As I chow down, I keep putting bits of fish and batter both in the hole and off the green. Enough with the slates and boards, restaurants. It's not the Stone Age. We're not reinventing the wheel here. Plates have a raised edge for a reason. The grey mullet, steak, pulled pork are all declared good. The dishes look fresh and interesting with plenty of veg. Chipotle mayo with the mullet is a hit. The slaw beneath the mullet is bitter and unpleasant. My saffron mayo is good but oily, which when paired with oily fish, excellent but oily artichoke hummus, oily wedges and even oily dressing on the very small quantity of green in my dish, leaves my mouth claggy and unpleasant, despite the noble efforts of the vinegary caper-berries. Gruel's ham, eggs and chips is described as 'well, breakfast'.

For dessert, we go for two 'plates of treats' which transpire to be small bites of delicious baked goods. They're a steal at EUR 7 per plate. The coffee, both the espresso and americano, are bitter and strong. Around twenty past eleven, the music stops and the lights are dimmed. They're telling us it's time to go.

We ask for the bill and the waitress immediately removes our half-eaten plates of treats (a steal indeed). We sit glumly. The bill arrives and amounts to EUR 191 or about EUR 40 a head and all agree it's very reasonable as we pay and tip more than 10% but not much more. There's no denying we're somewhat in greasy spoon territory. (Later when I get home I notice that chip shop smell in my hair and clothes.) It's an 'eating house', it says, and the difference between an eating house and a restaurant? The Woollen Mills is a coffee shop. An attractive, high quality, late night coffee shop where you can get fed for a tenner and fair play to them, you can't mess with that. Apparently it's just got a restaurant award so people clearly like it. It's a welcome addition to the city but there's a lot of competition out there. As we gather our coats, half of us declare we won't be back. We're tired, it's been a long night and we agree with our hosts, it's time to go.


November 2014

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