It was my birthday and I was lost in wildest Naas, looking in vain for a restaurant I’d hardly heard of. I only came across it earlier that day trawling the web. The rain was bucketing down. I sat at the wheel, morosely pondering whether our expedition, given the conditions, was serendipitous or just plain stupid. Meanwhile, Sibella was out on the forecourt, under her brolly, talking to a pleasant-looking lady in a Range Rover. The latter came to the driver’s window, which I was loath to wind down but did. “Follow me,” she said, adding as an afterthought, “It’s the best restaurant in Naas.”
Now some may think that but faint praise. Kildare’s county town hardly ranks among the world’s culinary must-do destinations, does it? Lyons, San Sebastian, Sydney, Naas, Copenhagen, spot the odd one out. I would be lying if I said I held out any high hopes for a birthday lunch at Vie de Châteaux. Vie de Châteaux? Shouldn’t it be ‘Vie de Château’ or ‘Vie des Châteaux’? The grammatical blip would have raised the hackles of my old pedant of a French teacher, the man who, on hearing “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” didn’t recognise the source of the quotation, instead exclaiming “What a perfect use of the jussive subjunctive!”
Anyhow, be that as it may, a couple of right turns later we pulled up outside what appeared, through the aqueous curtain, to be a rather stylish restaurant in a pleasantly pastoral location just a short stroll from the Grand Canal. The only picture of the interior I could find on the web really didn’t do the place justice, something I pointed out to the proprietor after we’d eaten. Pastel walls, backdrop to some respectable art, comfortable seating in an unaggressive shade of brown and grey and plenty of light combined to set us at our ease.
Vie de Châteaux, as you’d expect from the name, is a French restaurant. Owned, run, managed, cheffed and staffed by les français -Frank Amand, formerly manager of the excellent La Mère Zou in Dublin is the owner; David Thomas, the manager, is from Brittany – “between Nantes and Châteaubriant” – and Sebastien, the chef, hails form Paris.
If you exclude those establishments under the patronage of famous named chefs, French restaurants re-created in alien countries largely divide into two types. There are those who simulate trucker’s dinner stops; the sort that flank France’s major trunk roads, source of so many disappointments for tourists. Tough thin-cut steak with frites, or maman’s unspeakable chicken casserole are the eternal dishes du jour in such places. The other kind is the restaurant staffed by sneering, dicky-bowed waiters porting menus the size of family bibles, where the chef has a Brobdingnagian hand with cream. “Dining French” is all too frequently one’s worst gastro-dream brought to life.
Vie de Châteaux bucks the trend. The lunch menu comprised everything from tartines, in effect open sandwiches, to a full a la carte. The tartine of grilled scallops and wild mushrooms struck us as enticing and excellent value for €9. Another €2 got you the bargain deal of the tartine of your choice plus soupe du jour. We were tempted but not swayed as Birthday Boy had set his heart on a pig-out.
Vie de Châteaux wooed us early with a bowl of astonishingly good bread. I summoned up more of it to mop up my starter. Now I am partial to mussels, they would rank high on my list of favourite edibles. At the same time I get a tad weary of the treatment dished out to these magnificent molluscs in restaurants. “Cook them in wine. Pile them high (in a distressed enamel pan). Flood with the cooking liquid and (often) a swirl of cream” seems, throughout Ireland, to be the bog standard chef’s instruction to his commis. A great dish, but all too commonplace. Here I was jolted out of my ennui. An unusual vessel arrived at table, a cast iron, stylised bas-relief of a bunch of grapes in which every hollow was flooded with a tomato, garlic and olive oil ‘fondue‘ into which tiny, delicate, shelled mussels had been dropped, before baking. It impressed as much for its simplicity and purity of thought as for its rampant flavour. Sibella, in contrast, went for the most complex-sounding dish on the menu, the summer salad with smoked duck magret, green asparagus, soft egg, melon, pine nuts and a balsamic dressing. This too was a triumph despite the profusion of ingredients.
Chateaubriand, according to my First English Edition of The Larousse Gastronomique, was created by the chef Montmireil for his employer, author and diplomat Vicomte François-René de Châteaubriant. The dish was on Vie de Châteaux’s specials board. I had to have it, figuring that a man hailing from near the the Loire Atlantique town of Chateaubriant, in the Vicomte’s fief, would know a good one. David confirmed this and kept his promise. What arrived was a hunk of tasty tenderloin, cooked precisely rare and accompanied by crisp frites. The béarnaise, shame, was not available but the proffered green pepper sauce, piquant and lively, proved a good substitute. I was feeling smug until I glanced across the table and saw Sib’s glistening halibut. Immediately I wanted that too and had to be restrained (by Sibs) from ordering a fish course. Shameful greed but Birthday Boy didn’t care.
The revels continued through dessert. When juxtaposed Sibella’s raspberry vacherin with spiky swirls of red coulis on a silver-hued plate and my own eccentric-shaped glass coupe of strawberries with coconut ice-cream speared with a vertiginous shard of praline looked like culinary sci-fi creations.
Mention must be made of the wine list, an eclectic selection of mainly French wines, with a good deal of thinking outside the box by someone who knows his stuff and possesses a well-honed palate. Many of the wines are available as ‘drivers’ glasses’, large glasses, 50cl carafes and bottles. There were two very credible house wines, a Cote de Duras sauvignon and a Minervois. As Sibs was driving the reds had it for a change and I enjoyed the lion’s share of a very civilised Crozes Hermitage. Following which, there was a small hiccup over the meaning of ‘double shot espresso macchiato’, soon sorted by the efficient and delightful girl in charge of our table.
Verdict: an astonishingly good restaurant I can only describe as ‘French without tears’. The lady in the Rangey had called it correctly and, if she’s reading this, heartfelt thanks. I had a great birthday lunch at Vie de Châteaux, do get there.
Vie de Châteaux, The Harbour, Naas , Co Kildare. Tel: 045 888 478