Playing with fire: a survey of Dublin’s finest grills

Words: Caitríona Devery
Photography: George Voronov

Words: Caitríona Devery
Photography: George Voronov

Cooking with fire is a symbolic and elemental way of preparing food. Fire is part of human evolution and was the first form of cooking, and cooking is what distinguishes humans from other animals. Food author Michael Pollan makes the point that, “When we learned to cook is when we became truly human”. He thinks our fascination with fire is some kind of evolutionary instinct: fire is a sign you’re going to be fed. Watching fire can set off excitement centres in your hungry brain. Think of it as kind of fire-based genetic memory Pavlovian reaction.

There’s certainly a very primal, raw satisfaction with eating something you’ve just seen grilled right in front of your nose on a live flame. Exposing food to high temperatures produces a particular chemical reaction called the Maillard effect. It’s a chemical reaction of amino acids and sugars and activates loads of delicious flavour compounds and may explain why people go gaga for barbecue. Barbecue purists say that only charcoal or wood-based fire cooking is the real deal, but I’ve included a few places that use gas because they do fun stuff with fire.

I spoke to chef Ian Marconi, caterer and popper-upper extraordinaire, under the name Jackrabbit. He uses live wood and charcoal in his cooking and learned his trade at

legendary London restaurant Moro where, he says, “everything was done either on a Turkish style charcoal grill or in a wood burning oven”. 

“I looked like a coal man and had no hair on my arms or face for years, but I loved it.” He emphasises the instinctive and variable nature of fire cooking.

“You have to get a real feel for how everything works when you’re dealing with something without a dial, timers, temperature gauges. There’s no comparison to the natural, smoky, charred lack of uniformity in the end result when using fire compared to using electrical equipment. And who doesn’t love a real blazing smoky barbecue? It’s primal and part of who we are.”

I looked like a coal man and had no hair on my arms or face for years, but I loved it

Ivan Marconi

A part of the world very much associated with fire cooking is the American South: North and South Carolina, Memphis, Texas and other areas. The international craze for these Southern US subcultures has been raging in Ireland for a few years now, in spite of the fact (I seem to say this with every food trend we’ve adopted) we don’t really have the weather for it. But it’s not the only gig in town. Fowl Play has Portuguese and Filipino influences. Mongolian and Korean barbecues do their thing and we have our own Irish tradition too. I have money on some culinary hipster opening a fulacht fiadh restaurant in Dublin 8 any day now.

Walking around Meatopia and the Big Grill this summer it struck me that the aesthetic of the 21st century barbecue festival is a post-apocalyptic smoke-filled carnival, filled with many (but of course, not exclusively) bearded men cooking giant lumps of charred meat in metal barrels and trays. A Mad Max meat orgy. The scale of the cooking and the equipment is big and industrial. There are hacksaws, chains and hooks. There are recognisable animal parts strung up everywhere, and whole pigs and cows on spits. It’s a shameless carnivorous celebration, and not for the squeamish. A barbecue festival is not where you want to take that nice vegan you just met on Tinder.

I chatted to Ivan Garbino, the head chef and pitmaster in Fowl Play at the Square Ball, one of Dublin’s most dedicated barbecue eating spots. It’s owned and run by two of The Big Grill founders and barbecue nuts Andy Noonan of Baste and Trev O’Shea of Bodytonic. Ivan is originally from the Philippines and moved to Ireland when he was 10. He says that cooking with fire was “a natural thing to do in the Philippines”. 

“It was cheaper to cook with charcoal. The delivery guy would come every week. We had gas and electricity too, but we had an outdoor kitchen and clay pots to cook with charcoal in. You’d just fire it up when you need it.”

He studied at DIT Cathal Brugha Street and worked as a dessert chef and in Bang Café for a while, but quit when the recession came. He still loved cooking and travels kept him interested in food. A chance conversation about smokers and barbecuing at Electric Picnic with Andy Noonan led to him getting involved with the Big Grill. One thing led to another and when Fowl Play opened a few years ago he became the sous chef in its small, open kitchen. Now he’s head chef and keen to continue the pub’s passion for fire-fuelled grub.

The menu at Fowl Play is simple, which I find nice as I can’t make decisions. As you’d imagine from the name, the emphasis is on chicken, but they do other meats. The pork belly skewers are Ivan’s influence from the Philippines; these tasty street food morsels are everywhere in South East Asia. His have sticky, soy sesame and sweet, salty and deep umami flavours. They make their own spice mix for the chicken, with 15 different spices. The grilled chicken is indeed divine, perfectly cooked, with lots of dark meat. There is something satisfying about eating grilled chicken with your hands and leaving a little pile of bones on the table. The Alabama white wings are tangy and come with a mayonnaise sauce and a dill celery pickle.

Fowl Play takes inspiration from many places. They use cherry wood as fuel, as it’s delicate enough for poultry.  Their smoker, for slower cooking, is from Texas. Ivan says he uses it for, “the toughest parts of the animal, which would be the most delicious”.  The other piece of kit in their kitchen is the rotisserie from Portugal. Cooking with fire requires a particular temperament. Ivan agrees with Ian Marconi, “Cooking with fire takes a lot of patience, and a lot of management. You can’t just turn on the knob. You have to manage it, to use your sense, how it feels. But I don’t mind cooking meat for ten hours, there’s pleasure in managing the fire. It’s therapeutic”.

The history of fire cooking runs deep. Like Michael Pollan says, “Cooking over fire is a celebration of who we really are”, and I know who I am. Someone who likes eating lots of barbecue. Here are five places where you can get your grill fill in Dublin.

Bison Bar – Wellington Quay
Bison Bar was one of the first spots in Dublin to delve into the genuine American barbecue experience. They even sent their head chef Oliver Byrne to Memphis to learn the art of smoking and grilling. They use oak in their smoker and take the process very seriously. It’s Southern comfort food with many kinds of meat (pork shoulder, beef brisket, sausage, ribs, chicken) cooked long and slow. The sides are legendary and include standards like coleslaw, cornbread and less common staples like burnt end beans (even the beans have meat in, veggies you’ve been warned). It also has the added bonus of being a whiskey bar with tasty cocktails to complement the smoky flavours.

His Food – Moore Street Mall
His Food is down the stairs into the basement of Moore Street Mall, a bazaar-like maze of small food units that is full of unexpectedness. There’s a big Polish supermarket, and lots of other smaller sections with food from China, Brazil and Africa. But back to His Food. The owner Hamo Muhadzic moved to Ireland from Bosnia and opened up in 2009. It serves a range of incredible Balkan food, with the main feature being meat cooked on a charcoal grill. The cevap (like kebab) are giant beef sausages, in generous portions. I had the sis which was deliciously spicy. The meat is tender and smoky and comes wrapped in a pillowy soft white bread with pickled cabbage. Get the ajvar pepper sauce to spoon on top. They also have a kind of Balkan hot counter with a vast range of pies, soups and stews.

Mongolian BBQ – Temple Bar
The Mongolian barbecue is a simple concept, but really fun. There’s a buffet where you choose a selection of meat, seafood and/or vegetables. Then you pick your herbs, spices, and sauces like curry or teriyaki. You then hand a bowl of your selection over to the chefs on show and they theatrically cook your food in front of you. You can hit the buffet as many times as you like for dinner and avail of the unlimited steamed rice. It’s a good option if you can’t eat certain things, as you can choose what goes in your meal. The dinner option is €16.90 for all you can eat. Challenge accepted.

Hailan – Capel Street
Hilan is a Chinese and Korean restaurant that does a roaring trade in Korean barbecue (and Chinese hotpot). It obviously doesn’t have the same smoky feel as cooking with charcoal or wood, but there is still an attraction there to watching the food cook right in front of your eyes. The grill in the middle of the table is fired up and plates of meat, seafood and vegetables are brought by waiters. Chicken, beef, prawn, pork and potato are pretty standard, but you can order extras like squid or sweet potato. Hilan has a gigantic menu, so order some kimchi pancakes, some stir fried rice cakes or dumplings to go alongside. Never mind the charcoal purists, gas is grand.