“Mister Whalley; how delighted, honoured, gratified, enraptured we are to have you here tonight.”
Why, thank you, Martin. In your inimitable way you’ve just made me and my guests, Sibella and Calluna, our niece, feel like The Most Important People in the Universe. The maestro of maitre d’s, the PT Barnum of meeters’n’greeters, has worked his magic yet again. Once inside Chapter One, the trick is to commandeer a table as far as possible from the front door, so there’s no possibility of overhearing Martin reprise “Ah, Mister Ryan how delighted…” as the next party arrives. I had booked, unusually, in my own name. They know me here so there’s no point in attempting subterfuge. I thought of donning a wig, dark glasses and acquiring a white stick and a labrador. Rent-a-Dog’s website was down, so I abandoned the plan.
The two tasteful and comfortable dining rooms, plus the cosy bar area where you can doss down on plush stools for a pre-prandial, augment the welcome, as do the staff who spring into action as soon as Martin has let you through the portal. He has cast them in his own image. Not that they go rushing round squealing “how delighted…”; just that they attend to your needs in an attentive yet dignified manner redolent of the good hotels of yesteryear.
I’d be surprised if Chapter One’s ‘pre-theatre’ menu wasn’t the prototype for all the value offerings that have sprung up since we reverted to banana republic status. It’s still the benchmark by which I judge the rest. I’m a massive fan of Ross Lewis’ cooking, combining, as it does, modern and classical elements in the manner of French masters like Robuchon and Guy Savoy, guys who, back in the ’80s, hammered a stake through the heart of nouvelle cusine. Ross’s plates are pretty but not fussy. He has a huge regard for quality ingredients, which he treats in a sympathetic manner. Though there are novelties – the pea and asparagus soup that comes adorned with an egg poached in red wine, for example – they are always sensible, with flavours contrasting but harmonious. There’s a substance and, at the same time, a lightness of touch – here, I’d instance the slow cooked shoulder of lamb, combined with celeriac purée, and a dusting of fragrant gremolata, enjoyed by both Sibs and Calluna. There’s a deal of Irish about, including the indigenous charcuterie trolley, instituted some years ago. We wondered at the time whether there was enough Irish charcuterie to cover an espresso saucer but Ross, sourcing impeccable, managed to procure enough variety to make up a decorous plateful. Calluna’s starter, the escabeche of red pepper and oven dried plum tomato jelly, smoked Ardsallagh goats cheese, asparagus and basil was all the above, shaped into one stylish presentation.
The three course dinner, available between 6 and 7pm, costs €37.50. Double this up, add a brace of coffees and you’ve spent €78. You could blow more than this on chicken liver paté/rib eye/banoffi pie with paper napkins and crude glassware at a run-of-the mill Dublin steakhouse. This modest pricing leaves you scope to select an amicable bottle of wine from the genuinely exciting list. If you want to keep things frugal the house wine, thanks to Ian Breslin, currently Ireland’s sommelier of the year, is particularly well chosen. Going just a tad upscale I grabbed a single (luckily, Calluna is not yet of drinking age, ha ha) bottle of Pezat, made from grapes grown within welly-chucking distance of some of the finest plots in St.Emilion by a genius called Jonathan Malthus. (I’ll take this opportunity to apologise to readers of our sister publication for boring their butts off about this gem.)
Word had reached Sibella via the feminine bush telegraph that the warm chocolate mousse was the dessert of choice and so it was voted by both her and the fair Calluna. Me, I wimped out and opted for the less calorific lime parfait. It’s good to be able to report that the espresso here has vastly improved since my last visit, too.
Abandoning my usual excessive modesty, I shall reveal that I was hollering for the Michelin men to acknowledge the worth of Chapter One long before most of my southside neighbours had even heard of its existence; a feat akin to picking a Triple Crown winner at a yearling sale. Each time I go back I see no reason to change this opinion. No disrespect to Messrs Guilbaud, Thornton and Dublin’s other great restaurateurs and chefs but I believe it is Chapter One who hold most of the high cards when it omes to providing what I’d call ‘the complete dining-out experience’. I’ll head off any criticism that, being known, I got special treatment. Everyone in the restaurant, without exception, looked as happy as we did. I’ll leave the verdict to our fifteen year-old gourmet, who is as I write, prising the lid off her piggy bank to see if she has enough for a return trip.
Verdict: In Calluna’s words – “Amazing”.
Chapter One, Basement of Writers Museum, 18/19 Parnell Square, Dublin 1 Tel: 353 1 8732266
3 x 3-course Pre-theatre dinner 112.50
2 x coffee 3.00
1 bottle Pezat red 40.00