Ireland's Culinary Path Setters
Discussions with people who are making a living making something that matters. This week, Niall Sabongi
Niall Sabongi is a piscine provocateur.
In his work in Temple Bar’s Seafood Café and Klaw, Sabongi makes real the promise written in bright red neon and hanging on the wall: Island Nation.
If something swims or settles in the sea around the coast of Ireland, Sabongi wants to catch it, and then cook it, whilst simultaneously striving to sustain it.
He makes real the aspiration of the great Australian fish cook, Josh Niland, that “there is so much more to a fish than the fillet and that there are more than just a dozen fish in the sea”.
If you are on the hunt for some crispy buffalo cod collars, then the place where you will find them is on the menu in the Café in Temple Bar.
You might also find yourself listening to the man as he explains the history of the oyster, as part of an oyster masterclass, before you set to deciding just which Irish oyster is your favourite: Flaggy Shore? Harty’s? Foyle Bia Mara? Kelly’s from Galway? Deisi Rocks from Waterford?
This is the sort of work by which Sabongi has begun to educate us about marine terroir – a Connemara oyster from Letterfrack is very different from a Carlingford Lough oyster – at the same time as he explores the whole-fish potential of the marine cornucopia.
Fifty years ago, the great Jane Grigson wrote that “fish is one of the great untapped areas of exploration, for curiosity, and for the delight of the cook and her family and friends.” Tapping into that potential, armed with that curiosity, Sabongi has been taking a deep dive into every aspect of the marine culinary ecosphere throughout his career.
He was born into the business: his Dad ran George’s Bistro, on South Frederick Street, and the 12-year-old Sabongi found himself with a knife in hand, and in thrall to the bustle of the kitchen. In a sign of his precociousness, he qualified as a chef before he sat his Leaving Certificate.
His career is, in effect, a multiverse, because whilst he has visibility as a restaurateur, there is a whole lot more stuff going on. Ten years ago he created SSI – Sustainable Seafood Ireland – as the wholesale arm of the multiverse, supplying his own outlets and many others in the restaurant world. He has served as a Failte Ireland food champion, and collaborated with faculty in Trinity College on a programme entitled Food Sparks.
And yet his motivation as a restaurateur was simplicity itself: he wanted the right sort of room in which to enjoy the seafood he had grown up eating: “I couldn’t find anywhere in Dublin where I felt comfortable just going in and having six oysters and a beer. That began the process of what Klaw is. We’re an island, there should be oyster shells all over the floor and people just chilling out and enjoying themselves.”
Sustainability means “using the whole animal. Fish collars. We have pollock on the menu because it’s delicious. All the off-cuts should be used, all the lesser-known species, the small fish like codling.”
Where Sabongi may have the greatest influence, however, is in ageing fish, a practice largely unknown in Ireland, and privy to only a handful of restaurateurs. He uses a technique he has christened “dry-bench” and allowing fish to age is something he describes as “amazingly exciting. It’s a game-changer. We’ve aged salmon for five-and-a-half weeks, and it was just incredible: the flavour, the complexity, just like dry-aged beef. Turbot was one of my favourites, and became almost like pork fat. It was chewy, it was gooey, and when you broke into it you got something that was almost like crackling, like hazelnuts.”
Sabongi retailed dry-aged fish in Saltwater, his Terenure fish deli and restaurant that shuttered late in 2022. Saltwater suffered from being in the wrong place, and being ahead of its time, but Sabongi still hopes to open a classic seafood urbanmonger in Dublin. He also dreams of young people undertaking Coastal Studies courses, improving the bio-diversity of the coastal zone, supervising an ecotone rich with oyster beds and numerous piscine species.
“We need to change our coastline into what it could be.”
Klaw & The Seafood Cafe, Dublin
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Love this! 🙌