Two of us split the succulent array of fresh Irish seafood known as the “Big Seafood Sharing Plate” at The Seafood Cafe by Niall Sabongi in Dublin. The awesome assortment comes with a whole cleaned crab, boiled shrimp, a live scallop sliced into bitesize bits, 5 varieties of Irish oysters, toast and dipping sauces.
“Big” is the smallest of the cold seafood platters on the menu–there’s also a “Bigger” and a “Biggest” for larger groups.
This little oyster bar is a breath of fresh air. While there is no shortage of “Seafood Pubs” along the Southern and Western coasts of Ireland, seafood restaurants in Dublin have traditionally been white tablecloth venues with expensive wine lists. Nothing wrong with that, now and then.
But restaurateur Niall Sabongi is attempting to recreate the vibe of the unassuming oyster saloons and no-frills crab shacks of the Gulf of Mexico in Dublin. Along the Gulf of Mexico, crab shacks once specialized in huge piles of boiled crabs–sometimes all you can eat. As crabs became more expensive, the crab shack genre morphed into various inexpensive seafood eateries–some became oyster bars, some served boiled crab and crawfish with corn and potatoes, Louisiana style, and some served fried shrimp and poor boys.
In 2015 when he first opened Klaw, Sabongi told interviewers that it made no sense for people to pay exorbitant prices for local fish in an island nation like Ireland. He told interviewers he intended to “slap the posh out of seafood.” To keep prices down, Sabongi started Sustainable Seafood, his own distribution company. “It’s just me in a van driving up and down the coast” he explained. Sustainable Seafood now delivers to 30 something restaurants in Dublin.
I was delighted by the oyster list at Klaw when I first stopped in a few years ago. The tiny Temple Bar seafood joint makes an awesome chowder, and lovely Dublin Bay prawns in garlic butter, There’s a couple of excellent but affordable wines by the glass to chose from as well.
Klaw’s new big sister restaurant, The Seafood Cafe is located just a few blocks down the street. It’s a little bigger and thanks to all the windows, much brighter. To my delight, a sign out front advertised a “Shrimp Po-boy” among the Daily “sambo” specials. (That’s slang for sandwiches in Ireland.)
The Seafood Cafe also specializes in Bloody Marys, the perfect seafood brunch cocktail. There’s even a variation made with Clamato juice, that tangy blend of tomato and clam juice. The regular bloody is garnished with celery, cucumber and a cold shrimp, the Clamato version comes with the veggies plus an oyster on the half shell.
My friend Joe Shea, a Connecticut expat who has been living in Ireland for 30 years or so, was delighted to help me polish off the sharing platter. He particularly loved the crab–he spread his toast with the green crab liver and red roe when we finished cleaning up all the meat. I enjoyed the oysters, but since most of them came from my home town in Clare, they weren’t all that exotic.
We also shared an excellent plate of sole which was cooked ala plancha and served with shellfish butter, chard and spuds.
While expats like Joe and me may find casual seafood joints in Dublin a delightful development, that doesn’t mean every local shares our enthusiasm. In a restaurant review that heaped praise on an excellent, but expensive Dublin seafood restaurant, a critic named Conor Stevens remarked, “Sabongi’s faddishness gives me a pain in my cloaca…”
Why so negative?
The Irish don’t have a seafood heritage, like the Spanish and the Italians, says Sabongi. Statistically, the Irish consume less fish than other Europeans. If you think seafood is for posh people, then I suppose inexpensive rustic-looking crab shacks seem outlandish.
The Irish fishing industry is extremely productive, but most of the fish is shipped to other countries. I have stood on my local dock in New Quay, Co. Clare watching boxes of exotic velvet crabs and spider crabs being loaded for shipment to Spain. When I asked where I could buy these kinds of crabs, I was told there isn’t any market for them in Ireland. So much for eating local seafood.
Is Niall Sabongi on to something? Is the independent seafood distributor the way to break old habits and offer more kinds of seafood to the public? Could crabshacks and oyster bars make seafood more approachable for Dublin diners?
I don’t know, but for seafood-loving Irish folks and those of us (foreigners) who grew up in cultures where seafood is a special treat, Klaw and The Seafood Cafe by Niall Sabongi are sensational places to eat in Dublin.