On Leeson Street, the Little Kitchen Challenges Its Big Sister

The Vintage Kitchen, one of the city’s most desirable dining spots, has spun off a sister restaurant. This one: the Little Kitchen. But is it really possible to clone a thoroughbred?

If you haven’t heard of the Vintage Kitchen on Poolbeg Street, it’s been open since 2013, and boasts a quartet of: locally sourced food at affordable prices, a BYOB policy, proximity to Mulligan’s pub, and enthusiastic staff.

It’s the kind of place that makes a diner want to switch vocations and become a restaurateur. At least, that’s roughly what happened to Stephen O’Driscoll who, along with Sean Drugan, now runs the Little Kitchen.

Two and a half years ago, he was just a loyal punter at the Vintage Kitchen, but he loved what the owner, Drugan, had done with the place. “I loved the food, loved the BYOB and thought the service was unbelievable,” he says.

In the past thirty years, O’Driscoll has been a retailer and an accountant, and has worked in a windscreen business and the insurance industry, he says. But a restaurant? That was the dream. “It was something I always wanted to do,” he says.

So he teamed up with Drugan to semi-clone the Vintage Kitchen. They opened last July.

Sandwiched between the Leeson Laundry and one of the better-kept southside Spars on Leeson Street Upper, the restaurant has filtered the Vintage Kitchen feel. It is brightly lit, with velour purple chairs and boisterous artwork.

Yet where the Vintage Kitchen, with its bric-a-brac decorations and lounge chairs, opts for a living-room feel, the Little Kitchen is a touch more formal. The kitchen, though visible, is further removed. The layout of the tables means it’s less of a squeeze to move around the room.

If you’ve made it to the Vintage Kitchen, you’ll probably recognise most of the dishes on the Little Kitchen’s menu. The owners have taken an if-it-ain’t-broke approach, basing the new place’s menu for the most part on old standards Drugan invented.

The dinner menu offers just four starters, four main courses and three desserts, and the owners see that modest menu as key to the restaurant’s success. It means they can perfect all the dishes, and keep the standards consistent.

“Cooking is repetition and ensuring freshness,” says O’Driscoll. “We’re ordering today what we need for tomorrow. It’s that tight.”

The menu may be small, but the robust dishes more than make up for this.

The starters include a Wicklow duck-liver crème, a Donegal smoked-haddock chowder (pictured at the top of this article), and boilie log goat’s cheese. But it’s the risotto with chilli and prawns (below), and the perfect ratio of creamy-to-spicy, that pops out of the list of starters.

Mains range from pan-fried Atlantic hake to Slaney River slow-roasted lamb shank. The sides are generous. The  pan-fried filet of prime Irish beef rocks up with mushroom pie, pureed onion and rosemary, puff pastry and poached potatoes.

“There’s always teething issues with any new restaurant,” O’Driscoll says. “We’ve had some issues with portion size and I really want people to enjoy three full courses when they come to visit us.”

For vegetarians, there’s tempura of broccoli, apple cream, basil-crushed potatoes, roasted beets, pine nuts and sautéed baby spinach with sesame seeds.

And the half-baked chocolate cake with dollops of vanilla ice-cream tastes like a gooey mishap that somehow came good.

But O’Driscoll reckons that it’s not just the food that draws people back to the restaurant. The BYOB policy is a big pull.

“I went to a restaurant two weeks ago and they didn’t have a wine I particularly liked. We want to offer the customer the option of eating these delicious courses with the wine they love, not the one the proprietors force upon you,” he says. O’Driscoll reckons he dumps “close on 60 empty bottles of wine when a busy service ends”.

The dinner menu starts at €30 for two courses. Excluding the bottle(s) of wine you’ve brown-bagged prior to arrival, a meal for four would set you back roughly €150.

For the many Dubliners who’ve tried to get a table on Poolbeg Street, the Little Kitchen will come as a welcome alternative. But word is already getting out. TripAdvisor ranks six-month-old Little Kitchen at number three out of 2,191 places to eat in Dublin.

“It’s a great boost for us to see that,” says O’Driscoll. “We work incredibly hard to ensure you’ll get as good here as you do on Poolbeg Street.”

Can he and his team maintain the quality of their older sister? So far, all signs point to yes.

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Cónal Thomas: Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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