Last week El Bulli, “the best restaurant in the world”, closed its doors. Owner Ferran Adria, high priest of avant garde cuisine announced that activities would be suspended for the 2012 and 2013 seasons Up till last week El Bulli was only open for six months out of every 12 and, even then, only for one sitting at dinner. When you take into account the number of places available and the number of people who applied to dine there, the odds against getting a booking were longer than 125-1. Now, by the very act of closing the restaurant, Adria has taken this exclusivity to undreamed of heights.
It seemed surreal that on the day the closure was announced I had booked to dine in a restaurant that’s the diametric opposite of everything El Bulli represented. One where you would be in no way surprised if the menu were presented carved into inch-thick slabs of Liscannor with sole meuniere as the house speciality. Les Freres Jaques, a Dame Street fixture when I came to Ireland 24 years ago, proclaims itself as a ‘French restaurant’. Accordingly, it sets out its stall, using good table linen, conventional cutlery and subdued lighting to achieve a quasi-Parisian feel, an aura reinforced by the waiting staff whose patter veered between French courtesies and ‘Allo, Allo’ phraseology, all delivered in tones so sonorous I wondered if the Olympia next door was putting on a Moliere fortnight and were these guys actors doing nixers on their nights off.
The restaurant, I’d venture, aims to attract wealthy but conservative diners; those who could afford to eat in L’Ecrivain but would find Derry Clarke’s ketafi-clad prawns a gastro-bridge too far. I suspected that there’s also a pitch at the American market, judging by the ambient temperature, more Sanibel sauna than Les Halles. Sure enough, when I got home, there it was, lauded in ‘Frommers’.
It’s said amongst food hacks that the proprietors of Les Freres Jacques are notoriously antipathetic to criticism and a legend has grown up that some of us have our mug shots pasted up behind the till. I managed to escape detection, booking in the name of the late (as usual) Knocklyon Princess. One of the best things about Les Freres Jacques is the entrance door. It has one of those little grills through which you announce your credentials before being admitted. I’d seen the sixties’ movies. “Joe sent us,” I said. So far as I could tell no one who came after us got turned away. This seemed like a missed opportunity. By telling every fifth diner to sling his hook you’d gain a reputation for exclusivity which would create more business, a la El Bulli.
I took the table d’hote, the Princess the a la carte. Jean-Claude, as I’ll call him, brought an amuse bouche, two tiny puff pastry hearts enclosing fragments of smoked salmon bathed in what tasted like Marie Rose dressing, looking somewhat forlorn on the huge plate, devoid of any garnish.
My 4-courser included a soup. This was a Dublin-French version of one of those things Thais and Vietnamese do so well, an aromatic broth with Asian greens & pork dumplings. The concept was spoiled by the muddy broth, oxtail soupish in texture and flavour.
Seared lamb kidneys with a grain mustard sauce pleased me, though the kidneys were slightly overdone. The accompanying baby potatoes were unnecessary, given there was a main to follow. Herself seemed happy with confit of de-boned duck leg wrapped in crispy skin with turnip pureé and cassis sauce.
There’s not much sign of provenance on the menu, no listing of suppliers. These days if restaurants go the extra mile to serve decent ingredients they like to boast about it. But then maybe that’s not the French way. At the foot of the menu was written ‘Is de scoth mhairteoil dheimhnithe na hÉireann ár gcuid mairteol’ which must puzzle a lot of customers. Anyhow, the Knocklyon Princess said her fillet of beef, a whopper, was good and tasty. This was more than can be said for the accompanying overcooked ‘Irish flag’ veggies and nigh-raw roast tatties. I had the slow cooked lamb shank which was huge, tender and succulent. Alas it came accompanied by one of the most shocking misconceptions I’ve encountered in years of dining. I’m quite fond of ‘Yorkshire caviar’ – mushy peas to you, especially when coupled to a good ‘one-on-one’. These were ‘minted’ – to the extent where I now knew what Rowntrees do with the material they take out of the middle of Polos to make the hole. The chef then drenched the peas in vinegar. This menthol bomb cleared my sinuses a treat but utterly ruined the bottle of Domaine de L’Hortus we’d chosen to accompany the good meat. Why, why, why? This carry-on isn’t French. It’s Britain, circa 1954. In years of hobnobbing in restaurant circles I’ve never met a French chef who could suppress a sneer at perfidious Albion’s penchant for coupling lamb to mint sauce. After this heresy, the sheer ordinariness of my (probably) bought-in pear and almond tart hardly registered.
Les Freres Jaques? French, it’s not. It’s very Irish, though, rooted in the ‘big feed and nothing-that-will alarm’ school of gastronomy which will suit those who despise the invasion of Bocuse and co, never mind Ferran Adria with his molecular fireworks.
Verdict: French, mon cul. Except maybe for elderly in-laws and visiting Midwestern Americans.
Les Freres Jacques, 4 Dame St., Dublin 2 Tel: 01 679 4555