07 May A Nose for Taste
A Nose for Taste
Dublin City, mid-naughties. A Celtic Tiger tamed of its nascent hubris by Global uncertainty is finding its stride once more—a more mature beast, seasoned but still vital, its best days—and wildest nights—most certainly still ahead. In this heady, glitzy urban fanfare, the maverick celebrity chef, with a fuck-you attitude and a menu that forgives all but the gravest of sins, is at the forefront of Ireland’s cultural and economic revolution. And Damo Levi is the wildest of them all.
Those of you long enough in the teeth will recall, of course, that back then I was a fully-fledged rock-and-roll writer on the emerging acts beat for Brash Hole Magazine—an arrogant young upstart with more spunk than sense, at the ruddy young age of thirty-six with the young buck’s hairline to show for it. Needless to say, Damo and I moved in the same circles.
It was pre-Hashtag-Me-Too, Pre-Alexandria-Ocasio-Cortez, Post-Monica-Lewinski-and-That-Infamous-Cigar, Post-Nine-Eleven, Pre-We-Got-Him—things were different then, more liberated. Some would say (and some would have a damn good point) that things were just better. Sure, maybe our lady friends had to make a trip or two to London once in a blue moon to get fixed, while our compadres in the “queer” scene couldn’t get married yet, but so what? Getting married is overrated (you can trust me on that, I’ve done it a few times) and the occasional overseas abortion is a valid price to pay for a life fully lived, perhaps even—dare I say it—a timely warning to cut back on the vodka-and-red-bulls there love and maybe switch to shandies for a while till you get a better grip on things.
So yeah, I knew Damo. He was a familiar face at the late clubs and Montrose afterparties. I can still picture the familiar sight of him hoofing keys with literary bad boys the likes of Hurk Dunphy or Laurence Vougiouklakis (or indeed myself) while property developers and supposedly-conservative TDs tag-team-wrestled between the couches for brown envelopes stuffed with newly minted fifty-euro bills. There he goes now, watch him stagger to the bar to try his luck with smoking-hot underwear models/TV personalities like flaxen-haired angel Felicity Cöosh or the delicious, hot chocolate-toned half-breed, Kara Jean Fitzpatrick.
(And it was of course at one of Damo Levi’s own private tasting parties that our dearly departed Kara Jean would insufflate one bump too many and pass tragically from this realm due to the silent, yet no less odious, killer “cocaine overdose”—her beautiful mocha-toned corpse little consolation to her then fiancé, up-and-coming Cork Jockey, Timothy O’Shea. Oh yeah, you better believe there was some dodgy gear doing the rounds back in those days, even at the cream of society. We had our work cut out for us but we lived for the thrill—we were shooting stars, burning bright over that gleaming opal, Dublin City, the black jewel of the Liffey Valley. Of course, these days the most exciting powder I get my hands on is the stuff I use for a particularly pernicious case of recurrent hot tub rash. I’m getting old alright. But only an absolute charlatan would claim that I’m not still rock and roll.)
Listen, I’ll cut to the chase. Damo Levi’s financial troubles and personal-life controversies are well known by now, pored over with blatantly-envious glee by a tabloid media that could only ever aspire to the broadsheet sensibilities of those of us operating from a higher plane. The shuttering of his flagship gourmet burger-and-beer joint “SNOT”—the divorce and subsequent sexual harassment suits, as young chancer after young chancer came forward from the shadows looking to get her pound of Damo while the going was good—the disappearance with bizarre rumours of a short stint in a Nepalese Monastery followed by a longer stint in a Thai Debtors’ Prison that were subsequently confirmed by a (poor taste, in my view) TV3 expose back in 2013. I won’t bore you with the idle gossip and muck-raking trash. I know what you’re really interested in. Just how the hell did Ireland’s most prodigal outlaw chef come back on the scene? And does his new venue even cut the mustard anyway?
Well I can’t tell you how he pulled it off, the exact circumstances of Levi’s return to Dublin City Haute Cuisine remain a mystery (some of the more outlandish rumours involve Russian mobsters, crypto-espionage, and a so-called “poo tape”) but I’ll tell you one thing, what you may have heard about the avant-garde décor at “Chez Denis” is most certainly true. The sights and sounds beg the personal beholding of the…well…of the beholder himself. Words simply fail. If cuisine is—as Damo himself would have it—truly a sensory art-form, then the first senses he aims to assail us with upon crossing the threshold of Chez Denis are the ones that depend on the eyes and the ears.
Imagine if you will, stepping into a semi-transparent disco ball. For the sake of this metaphor you are the size of a small rodent, perhaps a gerbil or a rat. Inside this sphere of cacophonously glittering and shifting imagery, this monochromatic kaleidoscope flowing like a million rivers of liquid chrome, a small boy is banging a tin drum. (for the sake of this metaphor the boy is the size, roughly, of a field mouse or small sparrow, the drum is scaled down accordingly). As you float closer through this majesty, the rhythm and volume of the drum beat increases rapidly, now a waterfall roar, now the apex centre of a thunderclap. You place a hand on the boy’s shoulder, turning him towards you, perhaps so you might request that he lay off the racket a little. But when his face looks up towards you, you see that it is not a boy at all…it is a withered old woman. It is your own great grandmother. Entering Chez Denis is basically in the same ballpark of sensory experience.
Unfortunately, Damo and I didn’t get a chance to shoot the shit and play a little remember-when, the place was absolutely hopping and quite frankly, if he’s anything like me the old rogue might prefer a game of “pretend-it-never-happened” anyway. My disappointment at the lack of personal touch (perhaps he is unaware that I’m a broadsheet dinner-and-wine man these days) is tempered by a mature understanding that if he could, he most certainly would join me for a drink. After all, tonight the circumstances of our proximity are mainly work-based, so maybe it’s for the best the old boys don’t get back together again. Who knows what bad habits we might bring out in each other?
Entrees are served by a lithe and gorgeous young waitress, all big blue eyes and gleaming blonde hair, and I’m glad all those lawsuits couldn’t break the rake-chef’s spirits when it came to selecting front end staff for his venues. The man could pick a twenty-two-year-old DCU student in need of spare dosh as well as he could pick a flank of Tuscany fine-aged beef, with a connoisseur’s taste and predilection for both. I have to bite my tongue to prevent myself from prying further when she takes my order, reminding myself that this isn’t 2003 anymore.
The girl earns her tip, indulging this old man’s attentions and I’m surprised—and quite pleased—to detect the proto-beginnings of an erection under the table. Well that’s one tip, I muse with a rakish wit, that I’ll have to keep to myself.
For starter, I have the plum salad with goat’s cheese roulade served with a clap—yes, a literal clap, just as described on the menu—by Kirsty, my young waitress, who by this stage I am fast falling head over heels for. If a snub from the man himself is a mild bruise to the ego, the attention of his young female representative more than makes up for it. By the time she takes my first plates away and informs me, just ever so mysteriously, that dinner will be served off-menu tonight for the entire restaurant, I’m beginning to entertain notions of a third wedding, previous musings on the page not withstanding of course…
And then at last, dinner is served, more spectacle than food, as an enormous bamboo cage is rolled out by a team of equally vibrant young waitresses, Damo Levi himself standing atop in his chef’s whites and bohemian-length black hair un-netted as it spills to his shoulders. There are gasps of awe and the crunching of seats kicking back as patrons rise to get a better view. Damo stands atop the wheeled cage and waves triumphant, a once exiled king finally seizing back his throne in a masterful coup. I crane my neck to see—the sub-par seating I’ve been offered tonight something also of a snub—as I catch sight at last of tonight’s “dinner”. Honestly, call me jaded, but perhaps the younger me would have been a little more impressed.
In the bamboo cage, a Peruvian midget in a skirt of reeds howls and jibbers like a mad thing, pouncing from one side of the cage to the next, shaking a wooden staff with a fury that simply couldn’t be faked. I’m certain that the guttural yelps and howls the strange fellow makes are not words of any language at all, but simply the pre-vocal ravings of a black and primitive rage that transcends all species. When its eyes lock in mine for a moment my suspicions are confirmed—the feral, lidded black opals I see looking back at me are devoid entirely of any civilized content whatsoever. I am reminded, strangely, of Bond’s Asiatic one-time henchman Oddjob, before the furious little savage leaps to the other side of the cage and spits its fury at someone else. Daniel Craig might be the PC choice for Bond these days, but for me the throne will always belong to the debonair Scot. Call me old fashioned.
Our avant-garde host—seeming to enjoy all…this…probably more than anyone—introduces his prisoner simply as “Pancho” before bidding the chap to “offer its meats”. What follows then is an absurdist display, more food-fight than fine dining, as “Pancho” begins chucking globs of raw meat at all and sundry while Damo Levi above encourages us to help ourselves, wide-eyed and waving his hands with the enthusiasm of a circus ringmaster. By the time I catch a hunk of meat of my own I have little appetite for it, as fine a cut of meat as I’m sure it is. Truthfully, all this pomp and ceremony feels a little stale and over-done by now. Maybe I’d prefer it if I’d been offered better seating, or had a chance to congratulate our host in person. Who could say?
As I leave “Chez Denis” that night, the overwhelming sense is that perhaps the past is best left behind us—a place to look in on with a tourist’s rose-tinted glasses, rather than to immerse oneself in ala a visit to the new restaurant of a certain incorrigible culinarian-provocateur who, unlike the rest of us, is yet to begin showing his age, gracefully or no.
So. Chez Denis? A freak blip in a world that’s moved on, or a sign that the decadent days of old are upon us again? I suppose time will tell. But as for me, maybe I’m just past all that now—a relatable man of the “Bust” rather than the “Boom”. On the way home, I swing by a personally cherished local chipper and pick up a fish supper. You can have your high culture, but me, I’m still a man of the people as well.
Chez Denis is open on the fourth Thursday of every month with tables available strictly by booking only.