Under dim lighting, all sorts of shellfish are served to customers perched on stools. On the right they sit along a counter running the length of the wall, to the left they are at petite tables for pairs. The narrow restaurant stretches back to an open kitchen where all the cooking can be observed.
“It’s like moving a dead man’s fingers,” comments one of staff, preparing crab for a customer.
Klaw is one of two recently-opened seafood restaurants in Dublin’s city centre, along with Catch 22. The owners are trying to tap into an old Irish seafood-eating tradition that Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire, a lecturer of culinary arts at Dublin Institute of Technology, says has faded away in favour of a modern Irish seafood-exporting tradition.
Klaw is located on Crown Alley, at the centre of Temple Bar’s main thoroughfare, between the Central Bank and the Ha’penny Bridge.
Owner Niall Sabongi is attempting to create a casual and affordable seafood dining experience. “I’m the anti-posh,” he laughs.
A piece of twine hanging along the wall holds the restaurant’s napkins, and notes are written on the tiles of the kitchen wall in marker.
A large blackboard displays the menu. There’s chowder (€4.50), whole “krab” (€12), lobster roll (€14) and of course oysters – naked (€2), dressed (€2.50) and torched (€3).
Having opened two weekends ago, Sabongi says he has already done three times more business than he expected to, through a combination of sit-in diners and orders to takeaway.
The tiny restaurant can only accommodate around a dozen diners, but customers are encouraged to take away dishes too.
Sabongi’s other restaurant, Lobster Rock in Dundrum, is also casual, but Klaw takes it one step further, he says.
A happy hour between 5pm and 6pm features €1 oysters. Sabongi copied this trick from seafood eateries in New York.
There’s no money to be made from happy hour, he says, but it falls in with his plan to encourage Dubliners to taste more seafood. “We’re an island nation and we’ve fallen out of the habit of eating seafood and shellfish,” he explains.
In the US and other European seaside towns, it isn’t unusual to see people stroll along the seaside eating prawns, crab rolls or even a lobster that they bought from a street stall. But in Ireland it is more common to see beach-goers munching on ice-cream or the produce of an Italian chipper, which may or may not feature battered fish from an unknown location.
Sabongi is aiming for a crab-shack-style eatery as seen in other countries, but wants Klaw to have its own feel – one that is quintessentially Irish.
Crab shacks are “not seen at all over here,” he says. “The hope is to create a new trend.”
A Gap in the Market
Sabongi isn’t the only one who’s seen an opportunity.
The same weekend that Klaw launched, so too did seafood restaurant Catch 22on South Anne Street. It’s going for a similar vibe. Casual dining and service. High standards. Low prices.
All starters are below €10, and main courses are around €15, says owner Paul Dooley. “It’s all fresh, but not expensive,” he adds.
It’s a sit-down restaurant rather than a crab shack, and Dooley sees Catch 22 as a middle ground between chippers and posh seafood restaurants. That’s the market he wants to target.
“We are the only ones doing what we’re doing. Mainstream restaurants are charging way too much,” he says.
Accounting for Irish Taste
Coming from an island nation, it is “peculiar” that Irish people don’t consume as much seafood as the Mediterranean countries of Europe, says Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire, the DIT culinary-arts lecturer.
He believes that one of the reasons for this is because Irish Catholics associate fish with penance and fasting. But this isn’t the case for other Catholic countries, like Portugal and Spain, which were exempted from fasting by the Vatican as a reward for their roles in the Crusades.
“It’s hard even to get good chowder here,” says Mac Con Iomaire.
Having researched seafood’s role in Irish cuisineback in 2004, Mac Con Iomaire says little has changed since then. Irish people like fish, but we don’t like to prepare it at home because of the bones and the smell, he says.
In Ireland, over half of all the seafood consumed is from food-service outlets. “It wasn’t always like that,” he adds.
Ray is uniquely popular in Dublin, probably because it only has cartilage and no bones. In places like Croatia, you just dig in, he says, “bones and all”.
More than half of the seafood caught by Irish fishermen is exported – in 2014, exports were worth €520 million, while the domestic market was worth just just €330 million.
All the best catch is exported, says Mac Con Iomaire. “We have some of the best mussels in the world and they are exported to France and Belgium. Very few places sell them here,” he explains.
Sabongi blames the popularity of Irish seafood in Europe for pushing prices up here in Ireland.
From An Bia Bocht to Luxury Grub
Once considered a poor man’s food, shellfish is now associated with overpriced, posh restaurants.
Up until the 1970s, vendors moved through Dublin’s pubs with creels full of shellfish – often cockles, mussels and periwinkles from Dublin Bay – as a salty treat to wash down with a pint.
Mac Con Iomaire can’t explain why this stopped, but suggests it’s because shellfish became more expensive.
“Oysters are now considered sophisticated food, but they were considered fast food, particularly in the cities,” he says.
Seafood was the staple of the modest diet in eighteenth century, because it was affordable. Shellfish were gathered at low tide and, during the famine, many migrated to the coast in the hope of finding food.
Sabongi agrees that there is a perception that shellfish is posh. “Traditionally, it’s not a posh food, it’s a peasant food,” he says. “Oysters were used to thicken stews when there wasn’t enough meat.”
On his mission to take the posh feel out of seafood dining, he wants people to once again see it as a “fast, healthy food” and hopes Klaw will be an affordable avenue for people to taste different types of seafood for the first time.