American business psychologist Warren G. Bennis, described by Forbes magazine as ‘the king of leadership gurus’ is on record for saying “People who cannot invent and reinvent themselves must be content with borrowed postures, secondhand ideas, fitting in instead of standing out.” An adage that should be learned and committed to heart by restaurateurs, too many of whom seem content to stick rigidly to the same timeworn formula until the closure sign goes up on the door.
It’s generally recognized that five years is about as long as a restaurant can survive before major changes have to be made and that the trick is to make such changes before doing so becomes a last resort. The other trick is to make sure you are not making changes for the wrong reasons; there’s a world of difference between the restaurant going stale and the proprietor going stale.
Alexis, popular restaurant in Dun Laoghaire, has been in business about four and a half years. Recently Patrick O’Reilly and his brother chef Alan decided time for change had come and the opportunity presented itself, in particular, to remedy the two most persistent criticisms made by diners one, that the dining room is noisy and two, the service sometimes got a tad ragged around the edges. Here’s Patrick announcing (on my website forum) the proposed changes:- “ Over the next 4 weeks we will be renovating the restaurant, reducing the numbers and taking the food, service and wine list up a level. We will be making the room a bit softer and more intimate and have been advised by an acoustics expert to help us along. In addition, we have recruited a new head chef and have replaced some other staff with more experienced personnel. We will be doing intensive training with all of those remaining to upskill them to the level we want. We’re seriously excited about the direction the food is going to take and I’m personally buzzing about the new wine list I’m in the process of putting together. The key element in the new project will be that, despite the proposed improvements in every area of the business, we plan to keep our pricing at or about the same level and retain the accessibility and relaxed nature of the service.” Bloody hell, I thought at the time. That’s some mission statement. If Pat and Alan could pull it off, we should give them charge of Ireland’s regeneration.
Accordingly Ruby, Pearl and myself, dining companions with a long mutual history, navigated the challenging Dun Laoghaire one-way system intent on checking whether the Alexis revamp had ticked all the boxes. First off, the dining room, while you couldn’t call it intimate, is certainly cosier. The new soft furnishings and the acoustic baffling have given the space an altogether calmer, quieter demeanour. We leaned back into comfortable chairs. The piped music, initially intrusive, got less so as the room filled up, dampened by the buzz of conversation.
Our service requirements were amply met by a skilled and personable South African lad and by Pat himself. The timing between courses was immaculate – only a small matter but getting it right makes such a difference to the enjoyment of a multi-course meal. The new wine list justified Pat’s “buzz”. Picpoul seems to be making an impression at the minute and I’m glad. Too me it seems like the white wine all you Pinot Grigio drinkers have been marking time for, a wine for our times, a felicitous half-way house between stingy Sauvignon Blanc and fat cat Chardonnay.
But the glory of Alexis is the food. Always has been. Impeccably sourced ingredients, ‘real’ and seasonal treated in the kitchen with love, affection and respect. Venison, rare breed pork, sweetbreads, pigeon and other rustic delights featured regularly, flying in the face of conventional restaurant wisdom which says that for every portion you sell you could do a dozen chicken breasts and make more money. Could this food for foodies get any better?
It soon became evident that it could. Starters, even the goat cheese one, avoided the habitual clichés. The dressing that came with my sweetbreads and wild mushrooms had the pluperfect amount of ‘zing’. The flavour burst from my wood pigeon was incredible, putting me in mind of those sherbet things I used to enjoy as a kid. Ruby’s hake positively glistened and the sight of Pearl’s slow-cooked beef had me making preposterous promises in return for a mouthful – “Hang my shirts up? ‘Course I will, dear.” Presentation has been considerably sharpened up. Whereas Alexis’s food previously had substance it now has real style too. Nowhere was this better exemplified than in the desserts. You could have hung ours as a triptych on the wall at The Tate Modern and charged a tenner to view. As to value for money, there is currently no better to be had within the confines of The Pale than Alexis Bar & Grill’s €24 three-courser.
Alexis Bar and Grill, 17 / 18 Patrick Street, Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin, Tel: 01 280 8872