I want to Slap the Posh out of Seafood – Niall Sabongi interview on his new venture Klaw
He grins and says the name is ‘snappy’ before pausing for effect… Apparently he has loads of puns lined up to dazzle his customers.
The man I am referring to is Niall Sabongi, the chef/entrepreneur behind Rock Lobster, Dundrum’s award winning Seafood and Steakhouse. Niall’s new venture Klaw is Rock Lobster’s ‘baby brother’, a fitting description as the premises can only seat about twelve diners.
Situated in Temple Bar’s Crown Alley, the restaurant is a different type of eatery than its larger sibling; giving off a casual, crabshack vibe as opposed to a formal dining establishment. Retaining Niall’s emphasis on excellent seafood, Klaw offers customers a more informal chance to enjoy it.
“It’s the taste of the sea in the city. I love oysters and shellfish and there’s nowhere in town that you can go in casually, get some oysters, have a glass of wine and just have the craic. You can come in here, get a whole crab dressed on ice and you can just sit there, crack it open, wear a bib, get messy, eat your crab and then head off.
At lunch you go to Klaw and get a little lunchbox with your chowder, your roll and a little sweet in it and you can take it and walk back to the office or you can go in and get a nice crab or prawn sandwich or roll. We got some Dublin bay prawns in today, pot caught Dublin bay prawns so they are still alive at the moment, kicking away now so the guys are going to steam them off and put them into prawn salads for tomorrow. So there’s a big take away element to it as well.”
Niall is adamant that he wants to move away from the elitist reputation that seems to go hand in hand with seafood in Ireland.
“I’ve worked in restaurants all over the world, and I always hate the way it’s so expensive, it’s all so posh and there’s always white tablecloths and stuffy waiters and all that. We’ll have no fish knives. For years I’ve been trying to slap the posh out of seafood. It shouldn’t be posh we are an island nation.
I love talking to all the customers and they love it, I’ll be at the tables, I’ll bring the oysters down and I’ll shuck them at the table and they’ll be all ‘ooh, that’s great’. It would be lovely to do that in this kind of environment so when you are sitting in there having a coffee or a glass of wine you can be chatting to the shucker, while he’s turning them.”
The tiny premises seems to be the perfect space for Niall to engage with the customers as there’s not much room for them to hide. Just to get to the toilet you have to pass through the kitchen area so participation isn’t going to be optional!
Of course Temple Bar is dotted with premises that are tiny and crying out for imaginative entrepreneurs like Niall to get involved. The location is also the perfect spot for dishing up seafood classics to tourists.
“I came down to see the premises and it started lashing rain. All the tourists just ran off the streets and it was like oh wow there’s nowhere you can get a chowder. Not that thick gloopy horrible stuff that you can get, you know nice, rich, delicious chowder, fresh fish in it. You can just walk around and enjoy eating a bowl of chowder. It can’t be done in Temple Bar. And that’s just MAD. And then it’s like well hang on you can’t get oysters either in Temple Bar…
So there’s all these tourists and not only that but everyone I know loves seafood and they all eat seafood and they’ll be lets go have a plate of oysters somewhere, just the oysters you know, without the fuss. Three oysters and a glass of wine, there’s no pressure.”
Niall was raised in the restaurant industry as his dad owned George’s Bistro, a very well renowned establishment in the city centre. He began his training at age 12 when he used to sneak into the kitchen to peel carrots. “My dad wanted me to stay away from the industry, but I just couldn’t so I trained as a chef while still at school, I qualified as a chef before I did my leaving cert.”
Niall was so committed to his burgeoning career he travelled to France in fourth year to work in Bordeaux and Paris. His travels also took him to the UK where he worked with the likes of Anton Mosimman and Marco Pierre White. After stints in Scott’s in Mayfair and The Dorchester, he completed a degree in hotel management and fine patisserie skills in Westminster College.
He then returned to Ireland where he spent his time jumping between front and back of house of several restaurants before establishing Rock Lobster, Dublin’s premier Seafood and Steakhouse.
Now he keeps himself busy with new venture Klaw and his other business Sustainable Seafood Ireland, Ireland’s only sustainable company for sourcing fish.
“That company was born out of a necessity because I wanted the best fish and I wanted to fish off boats. I’m on my own little personal mission to remind Ireland that we are an island nation and we should be enjoying our oceans and our seas and we’re not. Everyone thinks ‘Ireland, oh you eat loads of fish over there’ and we don’t.
Sustainable Seafood Ireland is basically myself, in my little white van, and I drive up and down the coast on this side of the country every day. Today I went off and got like a hundred kilos of lobster to make lobster meat for Klaw, I went to Dun Laoghaire and Bray to meet the fishing boats to get all their lobsters off them for that. And that’s what it effectively is. It’s me and little boats and the fish.”
Niall is very strict about how he sources his produce, because it is a process that has a huge impact on our resources and in particular our waters.
“We only buy off day boats, we only buy from boats who are into sustainable fishing. And we fish within the season so I won’t catch white cod at the moment or til species are a certain size, and buy them when they are past their peak for breeding or else just below it so the stocks are kept going.
This is the sustainability of the seas. I’m just big into the sea, you know I’ve a big tattoo on my back of the ocean. We should be so proud that we have it here. My kids walk along the beach and they’ll pick up whelks and cockles and mussels and they’ll open them on the beach and eat them and they’ll know the different seaweeds. My kids know all of this but nobody else in their class would have a clue about it. We are forgetting our heritage basically.”
All this ethically sourced seafood sounds delicious but it’s not the only fare Klaw will be serving up. Niall also plans to do a late breakfast with eggs benedict, crabs benedict and French toast because the tourists “shouldn’t have to wait til Saturday for brunch and nor should we.”
Niall is incredibly excited, like a kid at Christmas, about the accompanying Bloody Marys. One might think they are the real reason he has opened Klaw…
“Bloody Marys! It’s all about the Marys! Big big big Bloody Mary fan. So we are going to do a classic Mary, then we are gonna do a Caesar which is the Canadian Bloody Mary so for that you use Clamato juice. It’s this Canadian invention, clam and tomato. It’s a clam broth and it arrived yesterday from Canadia so we’re going to make Caesars with clam broth and tomato juice and alcohol!”
While he’s doing away with the formality of Seafood dining, Niall is also keeping the price down to make his seafood accessible to the masses.
“We will have happy hour every day so between 4 and 6 it’ll probably be about €2 an oyster so you can sit there and drink a little mini Marys and just eat as many oysters as you want from all up the coast.
We are going to blow torch our oysters and we got a good propane butane mix that can get up to about 800 degrees. So you get your oysters and put a gorgeous little bit of dressing on it, so it’ll be oyster casino dressing or rocket dressing or we can mix spinach and parmesan butter so that will go on to the oyster and we just blow torch it at 800 degrees until it all melts and goes gooey and shlurp! So you get that hot, crispy, caramelisation and then the cold oyster in it as well and yeah yum yum! It’s kind of like a new emerging way of doing oysters.”
Lunch time will mean take away boxes, lobster rolls, oysters, shellfish platters and fresh salads. His vision for the evening is just as chilled as the rest of the day seems to be.
“Into the evening then you can do a pre-dinner. If you’re going for something to eat you can come in and have a couple of oysters and a glass of wine or beer, awesome. If you wanna come back afterwards we are working with the guys locally in the Saturday markets so they’re gonna pick us out some nice cheeses. A friend of mine in Spain produces bellota ham so there’s a couple of legs of that arriving next week, so it’s ham and cheese in the evening along with obviously your oysters and all the other sort of stuff.”
Sticking to the one earth ethos of responsible business, 90% of the building’s materials have been salvaged. The wood is part driftwood, part recycled scaffolding planks. He seems almost upset that the percentage isn’t higher and some items couldn’t be recycled.
“Obviously the bulbs and the white tiles aren’t but the black tile on the ground came from a salvage yard. The toilets unfortunately wouldn’t fit, you know we had lovely toilets and a really old sink from a salvage yard.”
Klaw doesn’t look half bad considering the design and fit out was done in a grand total of ten days. You can imagine that Niall approaches every project with his infectious enthusiasm and energy, and it is these qualities that have driven the project to near completion in less than a fortnight.
His hopes for the future of Klaw is that people will embrace it as their own.
“Hopefully Dubliners will find that it’s something that they can grow with and have a sense of ownership. They can come in and see stuff and taste things that maybe they haven’t tasted before and then as it changes it’s developing and growing and it becomes something more than the sum of its parts with the food and the customers.
It’s just amazing, it’s the best of the sea.”
5a Crown Alley