Pearl Brasserie

At every occasion where restaurant folk gather together whispers of impending doom and gloom abound; pushing the gossip, rumour and scandal, inconsequential chat and merry piss-taking into the relegation zone of the conversational league table.
News of the demise of Poulot’s helped ruin my week and, I suspect, that of many others concerned with the business of eating and drinking. My heart goes out to Jean-Michel and Lorna Jean, two of the nicest and hardest-working people I know.
At the same time, the show must go on. There are covers to be filled and diners to be fed. Sebastian Masi and Kirsten Batt’s Pearl Brasserie, bucked by a couple of recent awards and a tarting-up, seemed to be doing okay, with a near full house on a Tuesday night. The makeover is only gorgeous; warm-but-restrained decor including opulent chandeliers and standing lamps looking like huge bulbs of garlic that I wanted to steal. They have also taken the opportunity to create some small booths that permit intimacy, at least in the emotional sense. Dining here we were, in effect, alone in a crowd as our cosy cocoon afforded a peep at what was going on in the parallel universe of the dining room.
As soon as the personable young waitress sussed that Bunting and I were not an item she pulled the round table forward to give us more legroom. Her precise observation allied to prompt action was the prelude to what was to become a recurring theme throughout the evening. I don’t think I’ve been as well served at a restaurant in years. What’s even more remarkable is that Thomas and Julien, the first team, were not there on the night. In their absence the rest, including a young French guy who’d only been there a fortnight, performed heroics on a par with those of Arsene Wenger’s novice footballers a few days before. As with the Arsenal’s win, it was a team effort. No one copped out or hid or lolled around uncaring. They were all looking out for each other and keeping a weather eye on the diners, just how it should be.
Of course the best service in the world is useless if the cuisine is crap. Having eaten Sebastian’s food before, I had a certain amount of confidence and, on the night, that confidence was not displaced. My crab meat starter banished the memory of a couple of horrible efforts I’d endured in recent weeks. How often do you get a timbale or terrine of crab labelled ‘fresh’ that actually tastes fresh, as in ‘this crustacean has actually been in the sea within living memory’? When on those rare occasions you do, crab meat can taste better than lobster and so it was here. Bunting took the organic Irish salmon with a fennel and orange salad, a dish which stands or falls on the quality of the ingredients. This in no way disappointed.
Bunting chose the wine and I was very happy with her selection, an Arneis. Arneis is a white grape variety originating from Piedmont in northern Italy where it has been grown from at least the 15th century. In Piedmontese, the local language, it means ‘little rascal’ so called because it is regarded as a somewhat difficult variety to grow. It has been cultivated since the 15th century in the Roero region in the hills north of Alba where the famous truffles come from. Wines made from the Arneis grape tend to be dry, crisp and floral with notes of pears and apricots. They are sometimes, disconcertingly, slightly sparkling and disappointingly light in body. This one was still as a mill pond with an impactful mouthfeel that stood up well to our main courses.
Squab pigeon is one of my favourite things, cue for song and the squab ‘two ways’ is something of a speciality of Sebastian’s. The breast, properly pinked, was served interleaved with silky foie gras and the leg came as a kind of grown-up’s lollipop; the shredded meat, wrapped in the skin, was juicy and succulent. It came with a startlingly aromatic black truffle mash. Bunting’s loin of Irish veal looked an absolute picture on the plate, studded with cubes of piquant beetroot in an aesthetic arrangement. You could have hung it in the National Gallery down the street. I’m not into food display for its own sake but this was very striking and tasted good too. We tucked in happily, finishing the Arneis and summoning up a couple of glasses of a civilised Minervois, “a favourite of Julien’s”, so we were told. The mains were accompanied by a bowl of pak choi, lightly drizzled with soy sauce and some precision-cut chips, my personal nomination for Best in Town. Oops, nearly forgot to mention the delight that separated starter and main, a wild strawberry sorbet floating in a small lake of vanilla vodka. You wouldn’t think this would cleanse the palate but it sure did. In fact its excellence caused us to call for a selection of ice creams – we chose pistache, rum and raisin and mango sorbet – for dessert. Coffee (espresso) was fairly priced and fairly decent, though the blend could have been tweaked to give less ‘woodiness’.
For all the above I divvied up €146.90 ex-service, an amount that places Pearl towards the top of the second tier of Dublin restaurants. I came away with the highest respect for the integrity of the ingredients, the high culinary standards, the beguiling décor and, last but not least, the service, which, to this gnarled, begrudging old pro, achieved levels that shouted ‘others please copy’. Restaurants, like any other business, tend to fluctuate. Performance is a ‘now’ thing, tomorrow may tell a different story. But there’s no doubting that Pearl Brasserie is, at the minute, a strong contender for Dublin’s best overall dining experience.
Rating ****1/2
Pearl Brasserie, 20 Merrion Street Upper, Dublin 2
Tel: 01 661 3572