Signature Dish: Michael’s Surf and Turf

Words: Emily Mullen
Photography: George Voronov

Words: Emily Mullen
Photography: George Voronov

Signature Dish is one of the first food features on CHAR. If you’re unacquainted, we would like to welcome you with open and slightly grease-covered arms. With Signature Dish we focus on the overlooked darlings of eateries all over Ireland. All too often, chefs create culinary masterpieces that are passed over in favour of more recognisable dishes on their menus. No longer. We want to celebrate these unsung heroes and give you a new reason to pop in to our favourite restaurants. This week it’s Michael’s Surf and Turf.

Set in the midst of Mount Merrion’s prime real estate, is a restaurant known by a couple of names. To some, it’s Michael’s, to the stick in the muds it’s Michael’s of Mount Merrion, to others who have come to know the place through its charismatic chef Gareth Smith, whose punchy Twitter presence precedes him, it’s even Gaz’s. Local’s seem to have bypassed the name above the door and call out the first names of staff members as they pass by the restaurant, sauntering down the leafy Dublin 4 street. The relationship between Michael’s and its customers is pretty special, no doubt helped by the proximity, the personalities and the kindness of the staff. It sounds like a dynamic akin to an indulgent grandparent and their impish grandkids. Gaz tells us that customers have even dropped in Jägermeister and a packet of Paracetamol for the team after staff parties. This affection is reciprocated with the team helping customers out during the pandemic, dropping food into locals while they were self-isolating.

Customer or not, there’s no way your calling chef Gareth anything other than Gaz. This abbreviation is not dissimilar to the transition Michael’s of Mount Merrion underwent when it was abbreviated to Michael’s, unnecessary wordage was dispensed and an informal, approachable name put in its stead. It’s a change that the whole restaurant went through when Gaz took over, shedding its prim Italian lineage and becoming a passionate, light touch and colourful spot.

Taking the restaurant over with very little cash flow, Gaz had the choice between changing the restaurant’s name or buying ingredients. He chose the latter and spent his previous week’s wages on quality crab meat and the rest is history. That choice now reverberates into everything that Gaz now does, focusing and investing on quality ingredients first, and letting everything else fall into place.

Like a lot of things, Michael’s Surf and Turf came from the customer. Gaz noticed that his patrons were ordering a steak alongside their seafood for mains, so he decided to combine them into one smorgasbord.

The Surf and Turf changes each and every day, with the quality of ingredients directly informing what goes on the platter. If an element is missing from the plate, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any to be found, it just means it wasn’t of the highest quality to be put on the plate, as Gaz says, “no crab is better than crap crab”. Today’s Surf and Turf will be different from tomorrow’s Surf and Turf, it will have a different sauce or prawns one day or none the next. This has partially been the secret to the dishes success since customers can order the same thing on the menu each time and receive a different dish on their plates at each service. The fluidity has also allowed Gaz and his team the creativity to ad-lib and change their menu, keeping things dynamic, fresh and buzzy.

Today the steak was a hefty T-bone, that’s been slathered with Michael’s newly commercially available beef butter and then layered with a crust of dried onions, it’s carved and placed on an already filled platter that holds everything from mussels and cockles, lobster cakes, seared scallops, lobster and prawns, that’s aside from the two healthy portions of double-fried chips. Faced with Michael’s Surf and Turf is quite something, it’s the adult equivalent of being a kid and getting a bag of jellies, you know they all taste good but you really don’t know where to begin. This is partly Gaz’s fault since he has treated everything on the platter with the utmost integrity, from the cockles to the lobster tail.

How did the Surf and Turf get on your menu?

When we first started here they were doing really shitty pizzas, they were awful. So we had the big pizza plates. Just as it happened we started to notice that people were ordering three separate bowls and we just thought why not give them a platter. It was a very happy accident I guess. Then it went from one person wanting a steak, another person wanting something else and then it just jumped into surf and turf for three.

If you think of a typical surf and turf usually it’s a steak with three garlic prawns. Ours is seafood with a bit of steak but it’s the best steak that we can lay our hands-on.

Gaz Smith – Michael’s

Is it popular?

I would say 60% of our main course orders is the seafood platter or the Surf and Turf. Many of our guests wouldn’t even ask for the menu anymore. The Surf and Turf platter can change at least three or four times a day because we don’t know until that day what will be in it. We’ve got the trust of the customers now that they go with it and they don’t really mind if it’s John Dory one day or wild bass the next day, they know that it’s as fresh as it gets. Even doing it through takeaway, we tell people if they are getting a couple of Surf and Turfs “look you might get completely different surf and turfs”. That’s what happens when you are using wild and fresh local fish, no two fish are the same. But people mainly go with the flow

What is it about your Surf and Turf that people keep coming back to?

One of the strong points of this dish is that it’s more surf than turf. It’s the best of both worlds, it’s the best of beef and the best of the sea. If you think of a typical surf and turf usually it’s a steak with three garlic prawns. Ours is seafood with a bit of steak but it’s the best steak that we can lay our hands-on.

This whole nonsense that you need to eat a steak blue is complete bullshit

Gaz Smith – Michael’s

Speaking of the steak, where has it come from?

This is from Rick Higgins, we choose the beef ourselves on a Monday morning. We’ve got a counter inside the butcher’s so I’m there every Monday morning choosing the beef. We can trace this right back to the farmer.

What are you looking for when you are selecting your beef?

This is a Castledermot Angus, it’s not very marbled. That would have great marbling but if we were to get something like a Belted Galloway it would be more marbled. But it’s about picking what’s the ripest, so this has been aged perfectly if I pressed a thumb on it my fingerprint would stay there. This means that regardless of what we do to it now it’s nice and tender. The grain on this breed is nice and tight, so that’s going to mean it’s not chewy or it’s not going to fall apart, it’s got the perfect grain. We are cooking this on the bone, for maximum flavour and we carve it down then. Sometimes with a rib-eye we kind of avoid it, we find people don’t realise how much fat and grizzle is inside a rib-eye and it keeps being returned, so we go with the T-bone, the striploin or the fillet, which we carve ourselves onsite. So while we don’t do the rib eye because the fat in the middle is more of a grizzly fat and you can’t take it out while carving without destroying the steak. But if you serve a 12-ounce rib-eye and there is still an ounce of fat left after they’ve eaten it, they think they’ve gotten poor value. You serve an eight-ounce striploin and there’s no fat they feel like they’ve gotten fantastic value then.

Do you add anything to the T-bone when you cook it?

We add on beef butter, which we make here. We buy in the whole beef sides and we were having to bin all the fat and the skins. So we started slowly roasting it for hours and hours like you would for a pork crackling. The beef butter is like beef crackling with butter. It works for the butcher as well, because he was paying to have that skin disposed of and now we are putting that to good use.

How do you recommend customers have the T-bone?

It depends on the cut, this whole nonsense that you need to eat a steak blue is complete bullshit. Often people order it that way because they think that’s cool or trendy, that they are going to get some kudos for ordering it like that. But nine times out of ten, you could eat that [T-bone] blue by the skin of your teeth but it’s gonna be tough if you try to eat a rib-eye blue it’s gonna be leather. If you are going to do blue you would want a very lean piece of centre cut fillet and beyond that, I’d go medium-rare. For something like a rib-eye you would want to do it just before medium because in the middle of the steak there’s a piece of fat if you only cook that rare that piece of fat won’t meltdown, so it would be like chewing on a cold piece of butter but if you cook it almost to medium then that piece of fat will meltdown and lubricate the steak. To be quite honest a rib-eye medium-well is just as nice medium-rare because you get to break down the fats in it.

What happens to the steak before it goes on the pan?

Nothing, it goes on to the pan with a bit of salt and we glaze it with our beef butter for the last minute or two. Leave it to rest for ten minutes, the most important part is the resting. We’ve already spent lots of time on the sourcing so we know the steak coming in the door is good. So we have to do very little to the steak now and just let it rest up nicely. Some people think that their meat has to be piping hot, but if you let it rest properly it’s never going to be piping hot. You are going to end up with a juicer better piece of meat if you let it rest. So I’m leaving it to rest for 5-10 minutes, if it gets cold, flash it on a pan with some capers and sea salt. Smear some beef butter on top and add some dried onions.

You seem to have a good relationship with your suppliers?

I think what’s happened in Covid is that we’ve all started to work together, because they weren’t getting supplied and they were used to, you couldn’t leave a voicemail at half nine at night asking for stuff for the next morning, we had to work as one. Give each other a bit of a lead time and we built up this strong relationship. When this first hit, the crab fishing guys would have had all their pots out in sea, plus the freezers full of prawns and crab, they all of a sudden had nowhere to shift that then. We met with them and they are big burly, hardass guys, we met them on Monday and Tuesday during the first lockdown and they were crying their heart out becuase they didn’t know what to do. Either they stopped fishing completely because they had a huge surpless there, the people who were buying off them weren’t paying them for the previous months because it all just hit stop. So we worked together with them and created a click & collect menu to suit what they had leftover and we helped them to run down the stock, so we now have first dibs on the shellfish.

We took it over with basically my previous week’s wages and it was dead then. It was either change the sign and come up with a wanky name or buy the freshest fish that we could. So we went and bought loads of crab in cash and the rest is history.”

Gaz Smith – Michael’s

How was the restaurant when you first took over?

When we first started here we used to do like four customers a day, it was fucking horrendous. We had no money at all which is why we stuck with Michael’s because we didn’t have the €400 to buy the new sign. We were broke as. We took it over with basically my previous week’s wages and it was dead then, it was either change the sign and come up with a wanky name or buy the freshest fish that we could so we went at bought loads of crab in cash and the rest is history.

I read a couple of reviews with people pleading with you’s not to change Michael’s of Mount Merrion when you first took it over?

There was quite a bit of resistance at the start since then Michael’s did breakfast, lunch and dinners with the pizza which was all crap, to be honest, it was muck. Over the years we streamlined and we definitely let the customer lead the way but given the location, we were fortunate enough that we could buy and serve the best that we could in a very non-wanky way and charge for it.

So are you going to change it to Gaz’s now?

No, we got our hands on Little Mike’s two years ago so we kept the name.

Are you a big fish eater yourself?

Yeah, we were living in Vienna for six years, which is landlocked and I didn’t realise how much I took for granted the fresh seafood until we were there and couldn’t get it. To be honest, that was one of the reasons that brought me home as well, was the sea and the seafood.

So is this your dream Surf and Turf set up?

Oh god yeah, it’s actually great because we get to use what would be considered fairly humble cockles and muscles with it. We feed the muscles for three days on oats, because there’s a two or three-day journey between them being caught and us getting them. So by the time they get to us they are starving and skinny, so we feed them and fatten them up again. We put them into a big bucket of water and a handful of oats and they gobble them up then. You can see the difference in size through this, you know you can get a big shell and a very small muscle we want a big shell and a big muscle by the end of it.

Do you have the same supplier for all the seafood?

No it can change, we would buy from whose got the best on the day. I never get to stressed about it because we treat the cockles with the same respect as the lobster. They would usually Whatsapp in the night what they are expecting and we would place our orders then. We’ve got the reputation now for just buying the best, which means that they won’t pass off crap on us anymore.

Unfortunately, there was no crab today, so the crab would usually make up a large part of this. But it’s better to have no crab than crap crab.

How do you handle the lobster?

So how we do ours is we don’t pop ours into the freezer or into boiling water we just do that (pulls the lobster apart). If you were to put him into a pot of boiling water it would become very curled and tense, so what you end up now is with a very tender very juicy lobster. For me, the lobster can’t be cooked whole, because it’s got four or five different parts and they all require slightly different cooking. So if you were to cook this whole, some parts will take six minutes others would take 90 seconds. So if you just cook them whole the claw takes the longest to cook and it requires slow poaching because it’s a completely different type of flesh than this. The knuckles are used for the fishcakes. You’ve just witnessed a murder. … lobster is like the beef, so warm lobster is good and hot lobster is bad because it will go very very tense.

I wouldn’t pigeonhole myself as serving a specific type of cuisine because we can often serve things with great finesse and then we can do something fucking filthy.

Gaz Smith – Michael’s

How do you create your sauce?

We usually cook the cockles and muscles in a combination of lemon and butter and what we call fish cream which has been made out of the peeled prawn heads(which is more like a prawn bisque) but not very strong we want to let the freshness of the seafood shine. So there’s very little waste and we maximise the flavour.

What are you doing in terms of garnishing?

At this stage we’ve put so much care into the sourcing, we don’t need four different garnishes on the plate our style here is not to do each dish with a different garnish we focus on doing some very good chips. Doing the food this way means we’ve a certain way of doing service there’s no big drama there’s no cursing.

We can’t forget about the chips, how do you do yours?

They are twice-cooked chips, there’s a process behind them we take the Marris Pipers we chop them into nice two finger-sized chips, then we blanch them, chop them and leave them in a fridge overnight. What that does is it takes the moisture from the inside of the chip. They’ve got the crust on the outside and they are nice and fluffy than inside.

It’s like about three different dishes in one?

I would like to think that it’s impossible not to be pleased with this dish.

What part of the Surf and Turf do people normally attack first?

To be honest, it all just gets milled. I don’t know where I would start with it.

Do you experience a little piece of dread if you hear that say six people want Surf and Turf?

No, it’s actually a dream, because it’s easier to do three Surf and Turfs than it is to do six different things. We would be fairly strict as well we would often get the same one table that one person wants rare, the other medium-rare, so we are fortunate enough at this stage to play by our rules on it.

You are lucky that you pivot with your menu?

If you came in the next time and ordered a Surf and Turf again, and there was a slightly different steak on it. It’s not better or worse it’s just slightly different, and it would also get you ordering the same dish over and over again because we might not have the prawns tomorrow but we will have the crab claws then.

Would you say it’s mostly Italian influences you have?

Not anymore, when we took over it was Michael’s Italian and that’s where the pizzas and stuff came from. I don’t think we have any particular theme because I go through these bouts of doing stuff from Japan and then some curveballs like cows lips in dishes and things. I wouldn’t pigeonhole myself as serving a specific type of cuisine because we can often serve things with great finesse and then we can do something fucking filthy, like a deep-fried lasagne crispy pancake. It depends on the weather as well, we would be quite sporadic in our approach to food.

What do you think of this idea that steak and seafood don’t belong together?

Ahh, fuck off.

What are your customers like?

Given the area that we are in, there’s quite a mature demographic, and we have a ladies that lunch market. It’s actually strange we have auld Grannys would know we were on the piss and who would turn up for their lunch with Paracetamol and Jägermeister for us, and they would say “we saw you’s were on the piss last night you little scamps”. Then they would sit there and mill their Surf and Turf they would horse into it, they’re savages. They would be the ones that you are turfing off the table at five o’clock. The lunch trade is busy with the Grannys after their bridge club and they get locked and they always go for the Surf and Turf. It’s surprising how many of them are on social media as well, they would say to you “I saw on Instagram that you have the lobster this morning”. It works both ways for them, when the first lockdown hit we would drop food down to them or collect groceries for them. It’s a lovely community here.

Do you think if you had this on a menu in somewhere a bit rough around the edges, would you have as many sales as it does in Mount Merrion?

I actually think it would, I mean it’s good steak it’s good seafood. It’s not the cheapest dish but the portion is very big and I think once you’ve had a good Surf and Turf you can’t go back to bad Surf and Turf.

How are you feeling about the move to outdoor dining?

It’s a completely different type of service, we are doing volume now so we will start doing less. We still don’t know what the rules and regulations are. We will have to chat with suppliers, if you are a vegetable grower maybe you didn’t even plant this year because if you harvest there’s no where for it to go what’s the point. There’s still a thousand and one things to think about and it’s a case of now starting to chat with farmers about what they are going to have what they don’t have. If things just start up we need to have the foresight now of what you are going to do from let’s say July until December. If you walk into that blind you’ll start dealing with the stresses of the producers and suppliers not having what you want. It’s going to be like trying to start the QE2 (Queen Elizabeth 2 ship).

What’s the future looking like for Michael’s?

The click and collect will still carry on, we don’t want to hedge our bets, we don’t want to hit stop. We are very lucky we are making these decisions from a fairly privileged position because we’ve been trading strongly through this and have a full team. At Little Mike’s we were just starting to find our stride when the first lockdown hit. But we are blessed through this, we’ve managed to keep the team together so when we get back open we should hit the ground running.

You can find Michael’s and Little Mike’s on Deerpark Road, Mount Merrion, visit their website for more information.

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