UPDATE: April 2015
A recent revisit showed that Gavin has, presumably to take account of the zeitgeist on Ranelagh’s dining strip, changed his menus somewhat since my last visit. The Dancer and I arrived to find two new tasting menus in place, majoring on ‘local and seasonal’, one being wholly vegetarian. Pleased two report that the standard of cooking remains as high as when I first reviewed last year (below). Two dishes, the celeriac soup with a PX sherry glaze and the sprouting broccoli were outstanding.
At the same time we couldn’t resist flirting with the a la carte menu and found the O’Doherty’s Fermanagh black bacon and cabbage dish as wonderful as ever.
Original review 2014
It’s not often I get to dine in the same restaurant twice in one week. The initial occasion was at the invitation of my chum The Imbiber, who had waxed lyrical to me about chef Gavin McDonagh’s new incarnation of Brioche in Elmwood Avenue, Ranelagh. The second was with Sibella on a Tuesday night, the venue chosen on impulse at short notice when neither of us could be fagged to cook. This review is mainly about the second visit, with the odd harkback to the first.
Brioche genuflects in the direction of the new vogue for ‘grazing’. There is no starter/main/dessert format as such. Instead, the fare on offer was what the restaurant’s website, www.briocheranelagh.com, calls ‘a concise menu of French tasting plates’, a pretty apt description. Thus each plate is larger than starter-sized but smaller than the main courses to which we are accustomed. A striking omission, at first glance, was the availability of side dishes, including chips, but no, there they were, pretentiously packaged as a ‘Study of Potato’ of which skinny chips (and very good ones indeed) constituted a third, the other components being a sweet potato raviolo and a roulade of potato and goat cheese, priced at €8.95, a bit steep you might think if all you were in need of was a side of fries to bulk out a dish. The other plates cost between €7.95 and €12.95 (foie gras with Tipperary ham, lovage relish and a fine-if-thrombotic brioche fried-in duck fat), with most under a tenner.
The chef has a sharp eye for presentation. After a small and tasty amuse bouche of house-smoked mackerel with the skin appealingly crisped, the dishes we had specified arrived sequentially. The first of these, a buckwheat crêpe with creamed leeks, haas avocado, air dried tomato and a tomato coulis could have been framed and hung on the wall to good effect. We soon found that Gavin is possessed of a sense of humour too. My favourite plate of the nine I sampled over the two nights (there was some duplication) was the Fermanagh black bacon belly, a chef’s whimsical take on the old family favourite. The squared slab of bacon was crispy on top and melt-in-the mouth underneath; crunchy green cabbage, was present as were tiny halved sprouts, properly cooked, by which I mean just beyond al dente. Also in evidence was a scintilla of pineapple pickle – wry humour directed at the gammon-and-pineapple sophisticates back in the 1960s. The chef’s poussin three ways was, I guessed, a shot at giving diners a small Sunday dinner.
Other dishes that pleased were the hop-smoked and sous-vided duck breast, with entirely appropriate minuscule muscat grapes, puréed chestnuts and an elderflower jus; the fresh and delicate Kilkeel harbour crab salad in which crunchy apple, perfect textual counterpoint, played a key part; and the savagely nourishing slow-braised beef brisket with its whiskey-and-apricot glaze.
Afterwards, the rhubarb tiramisu, a confection involving vanilla marshmallow, ginger biscuit, rhubarb purée, champagne poached rhubarb and mascarpone cream proved the perfect palate cleanser.
Tables are small and the room is arranged with bench seating along two walls, with comfortable dining chairs on the opposite side, prompting debate about ‘who sits where’, a frequent source of quibble whenever Sibs and I dine out. Eating early, we had great choice and during a brief process of trial-and-error discovered that the benches on one side of the room are wider, by a good few inches, than their counterparts on the other side. Our recommendation is that diners whose buttocks range between ample and ff should dine on the left, everyone else on the right, else opt for the chairs. Sibella afterwards advised the management to invest in some scatter cushions, a proposal under consideration as I write. There is an interesting reason for the anomaly – apparently two of the benches on the left were acquired from the neighbouring Russell’s pub immediately prior to its refurbishment and resurrection as ‘The Taphouse’ and the adjacent ones were constructed to identical dimensions. Sibella, my de facto décor consultant, was impressed by the room which, she avowed, had a somewhat Parisian atmosphere. She was even more impressed by the efficiency of the central heating (recently we have had a couple of bone-chilling experiences in dining rooms that would make a Transylvanian morgue seem like a tanning salon).
The wine list is almost as laconic as the menu. There are some involving wines on it, most notably a Sancerre that will feature quite prominently in one of our upcoming ‘Sunday’ tastings. We took one of the cheapest on the carte, a French Chardonnay of modest pedigree, offered at €26. I did have some inside track, knowing this wine was assembled by Felines-Jourdain, whose picpoul de pinet is a byword for excellence. The Chardonnay, too, was well-sorted; clean, restrained and not at all ‘in your face’ as is too often the case with budget-priced wines made from this amenable grape. Wine pricing, around the twice-retail mark, seems fair, and compares favourably to many other Ranelagh establishments. Coffee, an espresso and an americano, proved sound.
Dining in this grazing idiom involves some readjustment to one’s thinking. The maître’d of Brioche suggested two or three dishes apiece, plus the potato plate. Sibella and I managed five between us, plus a shared dessert. The Imbiber and I consumed the full three apiece, plus dessert, on our visit, though we were struggling at the finish. All that Sibella and I ate and drank came to €96, pretty reasonable for what was, in effect, a full meal, plus wine and coffee. Lunch, with two dishes, a glass of wine and a coffee could be got for under €30 per head, a good way of trying the place out.
Included in Gavin McDonagh’s CV, along with the kitchens of The Old Dublin, L’Ecrivain and Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud is a stage with Paul Bocuse. The great man is clearly an influence for, throughout the meal, Gavin’s reverence for the French tradition reinvented became clear. Treating French dishes in like manner to tapas and pintxos is certainly novel and both cooking and presentation are executed with considerable panache.
Brioche, 51 Elmwood Avenue Lower, Ranelagh, Dublin 6 – Tel: 086 122 8828