In Portobello, a Pair Swap Their Cafe for a Natural Wine Bar

Chef Kevin Powell swoops out of the kitchen, dodges the wine counter where colleague Brian O’Keeffe is pouring a glass, and lands a plate piled with mushrooms onto a round bistro table.

“Shiitakes,” he says.

Dehydrated, then rehydrated to make mushroom stock for arancini, says Powell. “We then put them into a little pickled liquor made of tamari, elderflower syrup, and plum vinegar.”

The vinegar isn’t made with just any plums. They’re sourced from O’Keeffe’s father’s plum tree in Rathfarnham, says O’Keeffe from the counter.

Bringing a wineglass down to the table, O’Keeffe is energetic as he gets on his haunches to describe the Marco Merli white wine.

It’s acidity driven, he says, and citrusy. “But it’s actually, it’s super super elegant.”

When a wine is elegant, it’s floral, he says. “Kind of like a perfume. But it’s got a super elegant body to it, so, it’s got like a little bit of texture.”

Hearing O’Keeffe, Powell and others spill the secrets of where they source their food, how they make it, and how it tastes, is a big part of the experience at Table Wine at 50 Pleasants Street.

O’Keeffe sources their wines from small winemakers, and Powell, their produce from local farms – something they’ve been doing since day one of their business partnership.

“There’s nothing that I bring to the table for people to eat, or Brian brings to the table for someone to drink, that we don’t actually love entirely ourselves in the first place. It’s purely personal,” says Powell.

A Gentle Invitation

“Aesthetics are pretty important to us, in every dimension,” said O’Keeffe on Saturday night.

There’s a bitter wind outside on Pleasants Street. Inside Table Wine, the lighting is warm as candlelight, and bounces off the many mirrors and wine bottles and the shiny teal surfaces of the Parisian bistro tables.

From 5pm, a trickle of visitors slide open the door.

O’Keeffe and Powell decided on a soft opening for the wine bar last week. No announcements, just word of mouth.

It’s a small place, and they can seat just half as many people as they used to be able to in the previous café, Meet Me in the Morning.

When Meet Me in the Morning closed under Covid-19 restrictions in March 2020, Powell and O’Keeffe wondered whether they would open the café there again.

It was successful and busy. But it was also, O’Keeffe said last Friday afternoon, a finished project.

“For me, the idea of something having a start, a middle and an end is beautiful,” he said. “It’s like a photograph. It’s now developed.”

It was a labour of love, he says, and they gave it their all. But “it would have felt like a step backwards in time to go back to March 2020, and do the same menu. It would be a lack of evolution.”

They felt like different people, he says. So much had happened since the café closed.

Says Powell: “We thought, let’s do something that we can pour our hearts back into again.”

They painted and updated 50 Pleasants Street, he said. “We’re being much more respectful of something that was so good to us for half a decade.”

With the Seasons

From the pass-through window into the kitchen, Powell works on a pork belly dish, served with pumpkin puree and a soy and cider sauce, one of the eleven dishes on the menu.

Tattoos of vegetables on his arms flash as he carries the pork belly out to customers – a carrot, red onion, radish, red cabbage. On the inside of each forefinger, is a fork and knife.

Ingredients come from the McNally Family Farm in north Dublin, and Elmhurst Cottage Farm in Glasnevin, where they’re grown seasonally.

Following the seasons when cooking mattered hugely to both O’Keeffe and Powell, even before they met.

“I had about 10 years of doing seasonal cooking. Just had forced myself into that route, just so I could keep it local,” says Powell, of his years catering and running his home-based supper club, Gruel Guerilla.

Bistro servings at Table Wine.

In 2015, Powell, a regular customer at Meet Me in the Morning, had been pulled out of his chair to fill in for one of O’Keeffe’s chefs that day.

That’s how the pair met, he says, and Powell became a business partner not long after.

O’Keeffe was already using a seasonal menu, dictated by whatever arrived. “The food comes in, and it’s, oh my god, we have twenty kilos of beetroot, what do we do?” he says.

Now, in Table Wine, Powell, and fellow chef retells the making of each plate that arrives on each bistro table.

Pink fir apple potatoes sitting on a green tomato and Santa Fe chili sauce, coated in a white wild garlic.

“We prep them three ways,” he says. “So we break them down, give them a boil in hot water, then fry them in, like 120 degree oil, and then we deep fry them in like 180 degree, super crispy.”

Or the pink hard-boiled eggs, marinated in beetroot juice. “It adds a sweetness and it looks cool,” he says.

Wine taste

O’Keeffe, in brown leather boots and a cotton shirt, is at the counter advising staff how to stagger bottle openings throughout the night.

Their wines are “natural”, meaning made with the least intervention possible, says O’Keeffe. “Mass produced wine is like, super, super tampered with, I would say.”

Natural winemakers let the yeast inside the grape do its own work, rather than adding yeast, he says. “The grape gives you everything that you need to make wine.”

And there’s a pay-off. “The flavours can be a little bit more intense. It’s very alive, very vibrant.”

Choosing their ever-changing menu is a process of travelling to discover new, interesting tastes. Then, O’Keeffe and their business partner Fabien Bieckhorasani, of Loose Cannon on Drury Street, discuss which wines are worth serving.

A glass of a lighter, greener wine is placed on the table next to the first glass of Marco Merli.

O’Keeffe gets down to the ground again, closer to the glasses. This tastes lighter, he says. “It might even taste a bit watery.”

But only in comparison, says O’Keeffe. “It feels a lot thinner, yes, but then actually, if you didn’t start with the other one, it would feel like a normal wine. Everything is, kind of, relevant.”

For further relevance, he comes back with a sample of that evening’s “skin” wine, a white wine that has been fermented with its skins, like all red wine, to give it a stronger flavour.

“That one is actually, like super nutty,” he says of the pale golden liquid.

“It’s so good,” says server John Morrin from behind the counter. “At the end, I taste caramel from it. Kind of like toffee caramel.”

Looking to O’Keeffe, he gestures with his hands, as though wishing he could use them to convey the flavour.

Taste is so subjective, he says “You’re trying to describe an experience, which is really hard.”

Little Journeys

By just after 7pm, Clara Hume is sitting with friends under a tall shelf of wine bottles. She’s a sommelier herself – so she’s asked O’Keeffe to surprise her.

“I like to trust them with wherever they want to send us. I think it’s interesting to be drinking what they’re excited for,” she says.

A cosy burgundy swirls around the Table Wine-branded glass in her hand.

“It’s great,” says Hume after trying. “I think he made a really good choice.”

She likes the coziness of Table Wine, the friendliness, and spotting who opens the door.“I’m already seeing a lot of familiar faces so it seems like a really nice place. It’s not pretentious in any way.”

At another table, Jane Gleeson says she brought her friends to Table Wine tonight, because of how good Meet Me in the Morning was.

“We’re loving it,” says Ciara Coogan. “We ordered just about one of everything on the menu.”

An aproned Powell arrives with a dish. “No no, please carry on,” he beams.

“This is ceviche,” he says, placing a round bowl of seafood on their table. “I kind of got obsessed with ceviche a few years ago, and I used to play around with it.”

Normally, it would be made with limes, he says, which aren’t locally available. “This is an over-fermented caramel kombucha that we make. So the PH is up at the same as a lime.”

Sweetened with gooseberry syrup, the sea bream is cooked in the mixture, along with chili and oil. “So it has that sharp, but quite a round flavour.”

“Thank you … ” says Gleeson, eyes large on the seafood. “Woooow.”

Coogan thinks she’ll savour the meal a lot more, after Powell’s chronicle. “He’s taking you on a little journey. Sign me up!”

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