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The chicken fillet roll and the breakfast roll are king in Dublin – it’s fairly clear that we’re a people who, by and large, enjoy fried meat wrapped in bread.
The deli counter staples are as close as this city gets to a street food of its own, but have they stunted our curiosity? Can a lunchtime sandwich go further with taste and structure than this pair of beloved staples – and will the eaters of Dublin go in for it?
Darragh Nugent and Derek Marsden have known each other their entire lives, Darragh tells me, pouring me a fresh coffee and landing a heap of pastries on the table in front of us. Lived across the road from each other; came all the way up together.
He’s a bar manager by experience, and Derek’s been working in kitchens since his uncle’s pub galley when he was 14. The two of them just had to find a place to combine their skills and build something new.
Between the pair of Ugly Ducklings in George’s Street Arcade and the outpost in Epicurean Food Hall, they’ve fostered a truly surprising menu and a unique contribution to Dublin’s food culture.
Nugent observes early on in our chat that Irish diners like their brands. If they want crisps, they’ll ask for Tayto, or King. Folks like to know what they’re getting, which can make introducing new tastes or flavours a challenge.
He makes a good point. The homogenous Dublin presentation of the sandwich bar – glass counter, selection of vegetables, cheeses and processed meats – links into this theory too: people can see exactly what they’re getting and how each sandwich is composed.
The key here is being approachable and open to conversation around new tastes and ideas. The galley layout of Ugly Duckling in the Arcade means that the cooks behind the counter are eye-level with the customer – and can answer any question a hesitant diner might have about the sandwiches on the board above.
Some of the options may be completely unfamiliar to an Irish diner. The Shrimp Po’Boy for example, has its roots in New Orleans.
Marsden’s deconstruction and reconstruction of the po’boy is simple and striking: fresh prawns doused in a Cajun-spiced sauce on a bed of fresh lettuce and tomatoes on a white roll. The heat from the sauce is subtle, but present, and grows with every bite.
The history of the po’boy goes way back to a New Orleans restaurant that served out-of-work streetcar conductors free meals during a four-week labour strike in 1929. It’s the food of the everyman – not unlike the breakfast roll here in Dublin, perhaps serving as a kind of culinary cousin.
Slightly more formidable is the Pittsburgh, a tower of sweet pulled-pork over lettuce and tomato, on a nest of slim-cut French fries (you heard me, fries) crowned with creamy coleslaw, all in a cradle of a fresh bun. It’s an event worth getting to the bottom of, even if it takes a helper to get there.
Nugent first tasted a version of this creation in San Francisco – in the Giordano Bros sports bar/sandwich bar based on 16th and Valencia. The folks at Giordano’s take their inspiration from Primanti Bros in Pittsburgh. So the impressive menu staple at the Ugly Duckling has bounced coast to coast of the States before finding its way to Liffey Street and George’s Street.
The presence of fries on the Pittsburgh is surprising, but, realistically, something many of us do on the sly at home. The chip butty is a powerful thing, the sneaky crisp sandwich a hangover cure of the masses.
A few cheeky nachos also make an appearance on their shredded-chicken sandwich, nestled under tender chicken, guacamole and salsa on a brioche bun. They’re a terrific addition: the crunch and the subtle flavour of corn chips sits naturally in the lineup of ingredients.
The welcoming, approachable atmosphere at the Ugly Duckling in the Arcade is further cemented by the presence of little televisions hooked up to a range of ’90s game consoles all along the bar. They’re primed and ready for a bout of Tekken or Street Fighter or Mario Kart 64.
Marsden points out that the majority of their clientele fit neatly into the Millennial age bracket, the generation born approximately between 1982 and 1997, so the consoles are a big hit. The lads even run a retro video-game tournament once a month – a cheerful attempt at fostering community amongst their regulars.
A community of regular patrons is key. Gaming nights aside, the Ugly Duckling also hosts a monthly supper club. It’s not advertised, bar a mention or two over on their Twitter account – the word-of-mouth approach is what they’re going for.
The tables in the galley are organised into two larger fixtures, and strangers come together to break bread. The five-course menu is different every time, and deviates a long way from the stunt-sandwiches on the regular board.
Marsden says it’s more of a French bistro approach – harkening back to the earlier days of the Ugly Duckling, when they were serving beef bourguignon and duck confit over at the Liffey Street venue – but still remains different every time.
He says the presence of two large, communal tables during the supper club opens up conversations about food between strangers. This is what it’s all about really – opening conversation about taste. This is how food culture grows.
Connecting with other local businesses is part of contributing to a food culture, too. The bread for all the sandwiches and burgers at Ugly Duckling is supplied by Arun Bakery, based up in Smithfield.
The locally sourced approach makes a difference to the menu. The standard Cuisine de France baguette is absolutely not what you’ll find here – the Arun breads are fine, sturdy vessels for the big flavours of the meat and sauces.
Though at first the menu may seem daunting, the long-lost cousins of the Irish deli standards are worth adventuring into. They’re individual stories of taste in themselves – often surprising, sometimes a journey.
Skip the chicken fillet roll, there’s something far more interesting to be had at the Duckling.