It is perhaps the name, Forest Avenue, which is the most incongruous aspect of, and yet goes to the heart of the ambitions behind, this Dublin restaurant that chef John Wyer, 36, opened with his wife, Sandy Sabek, 37, a year ago.
Sabek grew up on Forest Avenue in Queen’s, New York, apparently. The ultra-smart wine bar that they have just opened 250 yards away is called Forest & Marcy, after another street in the same New York suburb.
Naming a restaurant is always tricky, and naming it after the street it is located on is often the safest bet. Naming it after somewhere 3,000 miles away does seem to be a bit of a risk. But there is no doubting the commitment and the obsessive attention to detail that characterises Wyer’s approach to everything he cooks and the manner in which the couple have renovated this space.
This obsession originated 12 years ago when Wyer, originally from County Cork, found himself washing dishes in an Irish pub in Heidelberg, Germany. There he met his future wife and found himself increasingly fascinated by the cooking process. He subsequently spent three years working for chef Pat Kiely at Les Gourmandises in Cork, a small French restaurant where the customers were looked after Kiely’s French partner, Soizic. There he learnt enough to move on to three years working in the kitchens of L’Ecrivain, the Irish capital’s famous French restaurant, under Derry and Sallyanne Clarke.
The itch to open his own place became such that one day two and half years ago, Wyer knocked on the door of a pizza restaurant and inquired of its owner whether he knew of any properties available. It turned out to be Wyer’s lucky day. The pizza owner was closing down and the state of the Dublin property market meant that a premium was unnecessary. €100,000 later Forest Avenue opened its doors.
The restaurant looks very up to the minute. There is an open kitchen by the far wall and a mezzanine (with tables and chairs from the pizzeria) reached by a staircase off to the right. The menu is brief. The wine list is enticing. The pricing is spot on: €25 for two courses and €30 for three, plus a six-course tasting menu at €60 in the evening. And the quality is first class. John and Sandy even look the part, she dressed entirely in black while he is adorned with tattoos, a beard and a first-class moustache.
From our lunchtime menu came two first courses that highlighted the cooking principle of the use of a maximum of three different ingredients to great effect. There was a beef tartare whose richness was cut with thin slices of shimeji mushrooms and pieces of kohlrabi that added spiciness and complexity. My starter comprised half a dozen agnolotti stuffed with Comté cheese and wild garlic on a base of tiny broad beans, the whole dish given a hint of acidity from the addition of smoked whey.
Then, perhaps because the sun put in a brief appearance, we three all ordered the same main course, fillets of plaice topped with dressed crab and seaweed with a pungent langoustine sauce on the side. This was excellent, the fish fresh and the sauce rich.
Forest Avenue’s wine list is adventurous, the result of an enthusiastic female wine waiter who has put the Coravin to very good use: we drank glasses of three different wines at under €10 each: 2014 Redoma Rosé from the Douro, Portugal; a 2015 Austrian Grüner Veltliner; and a Spanish Albariño. With an inventive and satisfying dessert and a cup of Barry’s tea, the bill for three came to €126 excluding service.
Forest Avenue may be the result of an unlikely couple and an unlikely name but its guiding principles are deep rooted. A chef deeply committed to the best produce; customers who are made welcome by his wife; and an expectation from their customers that they will experience an energy in the dining room that manifests itself as more than the sum of its parts.
For Wyer, this is an experience that goes back 50 or 60 years to the time such restaurants were the norm in most cities and small towns across France and in Ireland where he learnt his trade. But they have cleverly tailored what they offer to what today’s customers are looking for. ‘Few people want to eat off white tablecloths today or have three to four hours for their meal’, Wyer explained to me. The fact that Forest Avenue is slightly out of the city centre means that its rent is affordable, a fact mirrored by comparable openings in London’s East End and Brooklyn.
The final ingredient in Forest Avenue’s success lies in Wyer’s own approach to baking. This involved an elaborate explanation as to how the timing has changed on feeding the sourdough starter he uses now for the beautifully textured brown bread from every 24 hours to every 12 hours and keeping it in a curing fridge at a constant temperature of 14 ºC. This maintains the acidity and, by adding equal amounts of flour and water, results in one of the best examples of this loaf that has come to typify Ireland.
Forest Avenue 8-9 Sussex Terrace, Dublin 4; tel +353 (0)1 667 8337
Forest & Marcy 126 Leeson Street Upper, Dublin 4; tel +353 (0)1 660 2480