Dublin’s favourite Klaw has recently become a trilogy of venues, with Klaw Poké and Shuck ‘n Suck opening in succession in the past few months. With his fourth, and most ambitious venue to date, Klaw The Urbanmonger, due to open in November, Dee Laffan chats to restaurateur Niall Sabongi about his new ventures and his mission to get everyone eating more seafood.
When Niall Sabongi opened Klaw Temple Bar, people thought he was taking a risk in location. Crown Alley, the street where it resides is a busy thoroughfare in Dublin’s main tourist area, renowned for late night crowds enjoying the traditional pubs and fare on offer in this part of town. Insert a small late-night oyster and crab shack serving up the best of Irish shellfish in the midst of this chaos, and it turns out you have a recipe for success. Klaw Temple Bar is a highlight of the Dublin restaurant scene. It’s multi award-winning, loved by tourists and locals alike, and serves up almost half a tonne of oysters a week!
“Klaw is what it is. This is the space we have and we only do seafood. Deal with it!” Niall states vehemently. “We have the biggest collection of Irish oysters under one roof. Our lobster rolls fly out and we’ve started doing prawn and crab rolls too.”
The second member of the Klaw family, Klaw Poké (pronounced poh-kay), opened on Capel Street, Dublin 1 in May. The 30-seater restaurant is definitely the bigger sister to its Temple Bar sibling. “It’s basically Klaw Temple Bar but with more space,” explains Niall. “What we’ve gained on space we’ve given to customer services. We’ve also included a Yakatori Japanese Chargrill, for a flavour of the beach.”
From Hawaii to Dublin
The poke bowl originates from Hawaii and is a salad dish that is best described as deconstructed sushi in a bowl. In Hawaii, the cubed fish is eaten either on its own or over a bowl of sushi rice. The bowl can be topped with different variations of toppings and dressings. In Klaw Poké, you can choose from a menu of suggested bowl mixes or go your own way by first choosing a base of either brown rice, quinoa, rice noodles or wild leaves. Sauces are next with either house ponzu, sriracha aioli, namjim or gochujang. Toppings add the finish, with a wide selection – sunomono cucumber, edamame, nori, radish, macadamia nut, salty pineapple, pickled ginger, samphire, fried onion, kimchi, ½ avocado (+€1) or black roe. The final price of the bowl is based on your choice of protein, including yellowfin tuna, lobster, Irish salmon, octopus, crab and shrimp.
“I came across poke a few years ago and I loved it. It is just cracking, it’s clean eating and it is also delicious. I flew over to London and New York and did some stages to learn more about it. I think the best one I tried was in Black Rose, London,” says Niall. “What really hit home about it is it’s one of the only types of seafood dishes that you can bring home or to your office. It doesn’t smell and it is easy to transport, which makes it perfect for takeaway or a lunch option.”
Niall is not a man to stand still, he is on a mission to bring quality seafood to the masses, to get as many people as possible eating oysters and to get people thinking about sustainable seafood. Not surprisingly then that a few weeks ago, Shuck ‘n Suck opened on Fownes Street, Dublin 2. “We serve oysters and beer from 6pm until late Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights in Temple Bar, with amazing tunes playing to create a real party atmosphere – it’s such a fun place!” Niall explains enthusiastically.
“Shuck ‘n Suck is a pop-up restaurant until the end of the summer, at which point it will become a Klaw. It will be similar to the other two, but slightly different. In addition to the usual shellfish offering, it will focus on poke and other Mediterranean and Portuguese dishes.”
Building a brand
Probably the most exciting venue in Niall’s portfolio, certainly the biggest, has yet to open. Klaw The Urbanmonger is currently under construction on Georges Street, Dublin, hoping to open its doors in November.
“Builders are working in Klaw The Urbanmonger at the moment, which is so exciting. The building is three stories and a basement,” he describes. “The basement will be part of the fishmongers, it will be a wet room for prep; the ground floor will then be the retail side of the fishmonger with a filleting station and a grill; on the first floor there will be a 25-seat dining room; and on the second floor a seafood skillet school that turns into a cocktail bar and private dining area. We’ll also have our own beehives on the roof, with a smokehouse and polytunnel for vegetables and herbs.”
“We’ll have big open counters, and we’ll be filleting at the counters. There isn’t going to be a menu and it’ll be run in the the same way as the other Klaw venues in that there are no specific roles. All staff are trained to do everything – everyone is going to be a fishmonger and a chef, they will work on the floor at the fish counter too. When a customer wants to order, they’ll go up to the counter and find what seasonal fish is there that day. You’ll get to create your own dish which gets cooked for you in the kitchen and delivered to your table upstairs. It’ll all be very experiential.”
A man on a mission
It’s hard not to get drawn up in Niall’s enthusiasm and passion for seafood. It’s undeniable. His background in the industry and upbringing are a catalyst for it.
“Seafood has always been a passion of mine since we were kids. We grew up on the coast, eating seafood all the time,” he reminisces. “It was normal for us to eat crabs and shellfish. We would go to the beach with our dad, foraging for cockles and mussels to bring home and cook. Or we would catch crabs down on the wooden pier in Clontarf and bring them home and eat them. Back in the 80s, people thought we were mad, we’d be there with our domestic hammer, smashing open the crabs and eating them and we would get odd looks. I think people thought we were so poor that we had to eat them!”
Born and raised in the restaurant industry in Dublin, Niall’s dad, George Sabaongi, owned George’s Bistro and The Pink Elephant back in the 70s and 80s. Niall trained as a chef while still in school doing his Leaving Certificate and has worked for the likes of Scott’s Mayfair, for Anton Moscel at The Dorchester and Marco Pierre White. He opened his first restaurant called Romanza on Leeson Street 16 years ago. Following this, he went to work with Alan Beshoff in Howth and managed the wholesale seafood. When buying fish for his next restaurant, Rock Lobster, he became aware of the lack of availability and access to quality Irish fish, as well as the frequent mishandling of it. So Niall set up his wholesale company – Sustainable Seafood Ireland.
“We supply about 20 restaurants around Dublin City Centre. For example, Luna and Super Miss Sue. It is still a small business and it is always going to stay small. It is all about the produce, the handling and the craftsmanship in it. The goal is to get to a stage where we can commission boats to start day fishing and species fishing, so going after the bio catches, the cheaper lesser fish that are not sold, so we can try and recreate that fishing community that we’ve lost,” he comments.
“The idea is if we can get enough people here buying and eating Irish fish, in a sustainable way, that we can start to change the face of seafood in Ireland. You know, we are an island nation but we have forgotten that. We’ve fallen out of love with the sea I think and it’s my personal mission I guess to get people to fall in love with the sea again!”
Photo credit: Klaw restuarants