The town I grew up in was described in a Victorian gazetteer as “ill-built, but of good entertainment”. Eighty years later the entertainment had migrated up the A6 to Manchester, otherwise no change. The town council was known for its slothful attitude and reluctance to spend money to make the town a civilized place to live. Take the annual water shortage. The tiny reservoir in the hills was insufficient for the town’s needs, so every summer brought the local equivalent of the glimmer man round to make sure no one was watering their garden, plus a rash of pamphlets through the door advising citizens to ‘Put a Brick in Your Cistern’ or ‘Take a Bath with a Friend’. Eventually the corpo, goaded into action by the threat of non-payment of rates, resolved to build a second reservoir. This they did, only to find, when it was completed, that the water level in the original was dropping alarmingly. An engineering miscalculation meant that water from the first reservoir was percolating into the new one.
This sad scenario parallels what often happens when a restaurateur opens a second outlet. All too frequently an immense effort goes into kick-starting the new enterprise, while the original suffers. In a ‘worst case’ situation standards slide at both outlets as the proprietor shuttles between the two in an effort to steady the ship. So I was a tad alarmed when I heard that Oliver Quenet whose culinary flair so impressed me when I reviewed Vaughan’s of Terenure a year ago had taken over La Maison des Gourmets in Castle Market and had, at the same time, retained his former charge. A quick check with friends who eat there regularly assured me that things were as they were, so I phoned La Maison, as it’s now called, to book a table. They didn’t take bookings but sounded reassuring on the phone, along the lines of “If there are only two of you, give us half an hour’s notice and you’ll be all right”, an unstated “we’ll squeeze you in” vibe came down the line.
I met The Lit’ry Chick in Grogan’s from where I phoned the restaurant to say “We’re next door”. The response was “Fine, come round” which caused me to think the place was bereft of customers and gagging for our arrival. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact the ground floor was jammers, so we were directed upstairs to a pleasant room about two thirds full. As the restaurant’s name (and that of the chef) suggests, La Maison is quintessentially French and authentically rustic French at that. I was surprised to find andouillette on the menu. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, andouillette is a smoked sausage fashioned, usually, from pig’s intestines, a thinner and less offensive version of the foetid andouille. To borrow and paraphrase the old saying about playing the accordian, I consider a true gentleman to be a person who could eat andouille but doesn’t. The andouillette on the menu is AAAAA. A fellow critic in her review made much of the fact that this was a ‘5 A’ andioullette. Fine, as long as you realise there’s no such thing as a 4A one – this mnemonic signals the approval of the Association Amicale des Amateurs d’Andouillette Authentiques – which does mean, though, that it is indeed the pig’s bollocks of these pongy snags.
The waiter/sommelier arrived to guide us through the short but interesting list on which I recognised wines imported by Enrico Fantasia and Charles Derain, ex-sommelier of Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, sound thinking. He put in a plea for the Bourgeuil 2004 to which I acceded, only to find it thin and characterless, a thorn among roses. Everyone else seemed to be drinking it and not many were impressed. I can only assume they have shedloads down the cellar and your man had been told to shift it.
Lit’ry Chick was quick off the mark and took the asparagus with poached egg and foie gras for starters. I had a nibble and it was everything the ingredients promised. I was very happy with my own plateau des pâtés du jour, three pâtés and some rillettes accompanied by rather good bread. Lit’ry Chick then astounded me by taking the andouillette which came with wholegrain mustard and fine pommes Lyonnaise. Bravo! I chickened out and ordered the lamb shank, tender and tasty, accompanied by superb pommes boulangere. We shared a side dish of exceptionally good ratatouille.
Desserts, as expected, pleased. I flirted with the tarte tatin before opting for the French cheese selection while Lit’ry Chick took a delicious chocolate confection. Coffee was, ah um, say no more but I’ve learned to expect little from Les Francais.
There was absolutely no sign of ‘second restaurant syndrome’. La Maison is one brilliant bistro, the kind Dublin needs more of. At last L’Gueuleton has some decent competition in this idiom. Coffee apart, the only negative I can think of is you need a large shoehorn to get yourself into the bogs.
Verdict: Nice rooms, caring staff, decent linen and glassware and glorious food at sensible prices.
The Damage: €115.50 for 2 starters, 2 mains, 2 desserts, mid-priced bottle of wine.