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In my endless quest for an interesting, affordable lunch in Dublin, I found myself standing outside the glass walls of Bread & Bones, in the Italian Quarter, just north of the Millennium Bridge.
Uma Thurman as Quentin Tarantino’s The Bride painted on the window, visible murals sprayed on the walls inside. Exposed brick, raw-wood tables, unfinished ceilings: it wouldn’t be out of place in the trendier neighborhoods of London or San Francisco, but that doesn’t mean B & B is unapproachable.
Quite the opposite in fact: the atmosphere is earnest, the floor staff are cheerful and friendly. If this place is tagged as hipster, then perhaps hipster is something that’s okay to be. Everything about the spot is put together with sincerity, with a tone of, “Here are some things we think are cool, come on in.”
Bread & Bones has been open since spring last year. I’d seen murmurings of their hearty lunches on Twitter, eyed-up flawless Instagram shots of bright and colourful banh mi, deep bowls of broth. I didn’t stand in line when the American West Coast staple, In-N-Out Burger, chose Bread & Bones as location for their pop-up, but trust that I wanted to.
I feel like I danced around the place for months before ever going in. Now it’s somewhere I regularly drag my friends for a quiet lunch, assuring them that they’d never settle for a burrito again once they tasted what was going on in here.
An Irish Spin
The pairing of bao and broth is an Asian twist on the midday comfort of the soup-and-sambo pairing. Something soft and a bowl or cup of something hot.
Vietnamese food isn’t non-existent in Dublin, of course – Capel Street and Parnell Street are abuzz with authentic Asian fare – but that’s not what Bread & Bones is.
It’s an Irish spin: it’s not attempting to identically replicate food you had on your jaunt across South East Asia. The menu they’ve composed is something different altogether: something unique in the landscape of Dublin eateries.
In saying this, the bao on offer at Bread & Bones is not really like anything you will have probably ever eaten in Dublin before. It arrives on a small blue plate, assembled something like a fat taco. The bao I’d been familiar with was more like a bun: the savory filling nestled inside, more donut-like.
These kind of bao appear all across Asian food culture, from sit-down dim-sum meals to eat-in-the-hand street food. Here, it’s something different again: the bread itself is quite a unique texture: it’s spongey and comforting, distinctive without taking away from the ingredients that make up the main features of each sandwich.
The fillings available – trust, I have eaten through each of them since my first visit – range from chicken katsu down the line to squid tempura. The pulled pork and the duck have a sweetness cut perfectly by subtle garlic mayonnaise, nestled away with fresh-and-crunchy cucumber and grated carrot.
The chicken katsu almost convinced me I’d never eat a chicken-fillet roll the same way again, the panko breadcrumbs are crisp without detracting from the tenderness of the meat – the curry mayonnaise quiet but distinctive.
The compositions are light enough to feel considered, but not sparse or unsatisfying. The ingredients are strikingly fresh, and, when paired with the almost-sweetness of the bao bun – this freshness, for me, is what really makes the food here pop.
Bread & Bones is also where I just about broke my palette with sriracha: a shocking red condiment in tall bottles with green caps. Chili, vinegar, and sugar: adding this to any of Bread & Bones dishes cracks them alive, waking up even more flavour than I was sure was possible.
One of their other popular menu staples is their kimchi fries. Slim, golden chips topped with a generous portion of sour-and-hot kimchi – pickled in house – and striped with garlic mayonnaise to quell some of the spice. A garnish of fresh coriander on top really adds flourish.
I’m not sure there’s anywhere else in Dublin that kimchi is used in this way, meeting modern Dublin street-food staples like garlic cheese fries somewhere in the middle. Sort of like a souped-up three-in-one.
The broth, which makes up the “Bones” portion of the restaurant’s name, comes in dishes of its own, or as a side order in a little cup for a cheeky €2.
The first thing on the Biggies section of the menu is the Pork Rice Noodle Soup, and during one of our scouting excursions, my husband opted for it instead of a bao. The broth itself is dark and salty and rich, true comfort.
The pork belly – sixteen hours slow-cooked – is tender and sweet with just the right amount of crisp. A soft-boiled egg hovers amongst bright green onions, and the noodles are plentiful: fortifying stuff against the icy new-year winds outside.
During a chat with the owners, Jack Fox and Duncan MacDonald, it becomes clear that Bread & Bones, as a space, is a fusion of both of their interests and passions: a real labour of love.
Fox’s passion is the space, the front of house, and MacDonald is the man running the kitchen. Years of experience combined – MacDonald mentions working in kitchens back when he was fourteen – have weighed towards Bread & Bones.
We talk food trends, how they sail from America to London then trickle down to Dublin a little later.
“You couldn’t throw a stick without hitting a place doing bao or ramen,” says MacDonald of London, but in Dublin there just isn’t much along those lines yet. He notes that they wanted to play on Ireland’s staple of soup and a sandwich for lunch – but couldn’t imagine that a cheese toastie would go especially well with a bowl of ramen, so along came the bao.
I ask what their favorite items are on the menu, and they heartily agree on the pork bao. “A bao that’s done really well just offers something you can’t get anywhere else – there’s a really unique texture to it,” says Fox.
The lads say they don’t want to jump on any bandwagons, per se, with food trends: but in terms of Irish eating, it’s clear they’re way ahead of the curve. Across the board in food-trend maps from the independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/features/food-trends-in-2016-be-ready-with-your-celeriac-parsnip-desserts-and-tinned-tapas-a6797916.html”>Independent to Lovin’ Dublin there are whispers of kimchi becoming more popular this year, finding its way into all sorts of dishes, onto all sorts of plates.
I almost wish there was a Bread & Bones pantry, where I could pick up some of the kimchi in a jar and take it home. (To eat with my endless bottles of sriracha, obviously – my peace fully made with being a total hipster.)
In the mornings, they’re running a breakfast pop-up, Cracked, a project of chef Emily Bradshaw. “She really cares about what she’s doing,” says MacDonald. “The ingredients are really very good.”
The menu is focused exclusively on made-to-order omelettes of all sorts: from Paddy’s Catch, featuring Nolans salmons and cream cheese with dill and chives, to the Mario & Luigi, an Italian-influenced combo of buffalo mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and fresh Italian herbs.
The presence of the pop-up is indicative of Fox and Duncan’s aspirations for Bread & Bones: the space is a powerful thing. Everything inside is hand-assembled, the tables and booths all made from a set of reclaimed pallets by the staff in the days before the restaurant opened. They truly built the place with their bare hands, and are more than welcoming of folks who want to come in and contribute to their hub.
They already run bao-making workshops, and screen-printing workshops with renowned Dublin artist, Will St. Leger – who’s responsible for some of the murals inside, too. Over Christmas, his gorgeous prints were sold from Bread & Bones’s window.
Fox emphasises that he wants to use the walls of the space to display work from artists of all sorts: they’re always up for a chat with anybody who’d like to show pieces with them.
A supper club pops up regularly, too – a gathering spot for friends and foodies alike. It’s a great chance for the chefs to use the kitchen to try new things, experiment and show off a little. I’ll for sure be making the next one: Paper Jam with Will St. Leger.
When I inquire about the future of Bread & Bones, the lads mull over the notion of opening a bao hatch some place in the city, a tiny hole in the wall where folks could grab a quick bao and go, or a little box of kimchi fries on the run.
The hominess and warmth of their food is perfect to curl up inside with, or run through wintery Dublin streets with. They’re well worth a nip through the Italian quarter for – a hearty sandwich, a hot broth, a cool craft beer. Here’s hoping 2016 is their year.