I got taken to task in strange fashion the other day. I was having a quiet pint in Neary’s when a guy I hadn’t seen for years hailed me. I did the “hello, haven’t seen you for ages, must do lunch” thing and sat down with him and his mate. On learning I was a restaurant critic, the latter’s manner changed from affability to antipathy, going on the offensive with “Why is it you lot never review restaurants beyond the pale?” My flippant retort – “I review many restaurants I’d consider beyond the pale” – only served to provoke his aggression. Soon I was on the back foot, struck dumb, unable to explain that The Dubliner/Evening Herald didn’t have too many readers in Roosky, Cashel or Carrickmacross.
I recalled this conversation last Satuday as Sibella and I were driving out to a restaurant in the boonies. Stepaside is, in all honesty, about as far as I’d drive for a meal out, unless maybe Juan Mari Arzak was cooking in Kildare. I suspect most people feel the same, hence the recent rise-and-rise of locality restaurants. Stepaside’s version, The Box Tree, is one-tine wunderkind Eamon O’Reilly’s latest brainchild. Eamonn’s career started with a stint under the guidance of his father and mentor Patrick O’Reilly chef at a leading Dublin hotel, going on to become the youngest chef ever to complete the London City & Guilds cheffing course. He then worked at a number of leading hotels and restaurants including The Ritz-Carlton Boston, The Sheraton Casablanca, ending up at the Michelin 3 star Restaurant Meurice in Paris. Aged a mere 25, he opened his first restaurant in Dublin, One Pico.
2010 was, for Eamonn, an extraordinary year. One Pico gained numerous awards and Eamonn was lauded for kick-starting what’s been called “the move back to realism” being the first to do a competitively-priced three-course lunch of gastronomic propensity. The year ended with the opening of The Box Tree and its adjacent gastro pub, The Wild Boar. Eamonn is very much a chef’s chef. I first heard of the Box Tree’s existence from a couple of his contemporaries who were singing its praises.
When it comes to dining out, we are looking for a balance of the three significant components: (a) good food (and drink) (b) congenial ambience and (c) decent service. Most people I believe would prioritise by putting ambience first and food second. Deviants like me would have them the other way round. For the evening to work, though, all these components have to meld, fusing into the total experience that can be deemed enjoyable. Let’s examine how The Box Tree matches up.
First off, the room is warm and inviting. There is one duff table, immediately before the front door but more of that anon. The décor is immaculate; tasteful grey pastel shades, offset by burnished lampshades adding a note of warmth. Seating is comfortable. That marvelous buzz of people enjoying themselves over-rides background music, if there was any.
On the night, the food was pristine. Sib’s salad of beetroot and Ardsallagh goat cheese mousse, garnished with candied walnuts and ‘baby leaves’ (unfortunate term but we seem to be stuck with it) was a gem of presentation and tasted as good as it looked. My Castletown Bere crab salad actually tasted of crab, no mean feat these days it seems and came with a lightly-curried crème fraiche and excellent Guinness bread, causing me to feel guilty as I’d already whopped up the best part of the bowl of good assorted breads placed on the table on our arrival. We were dining on the early bird – two courses for €19.95; lured by the magic words ’30-day aged’ I plonked down an extra fiver to secure the rib-eye. This superb piece of steak had been manicured, for presentation purposes into a round and was, again, nicely styled. The accompaniment, a fiery, retro (but none the worse for it) green peppercorn and Armagnac sauce, delighted. It also came with ‘three times cooked fat chips’, Heston Blumenthal’s patent version of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. Twice-cooked thinner ones would have done me. Sibs had the special, ‘confit of salmon’, whatever that means, with a mussel risotto and a lobster bisque, stylistically and taste-wise a “Wow!” We both took a dessert, greedy pigs that we are. I had a generous platter of good ice creams, of which the Bailey’s and brown bread was the standout. Sibs collared the hugely satisfying baked apple and wild blackberry crumble. I applaud the wine list for its quirkyness. I hope people take to the Wirra Wirra ‘Lost Watch’ Riesling, a personal favourite deserving of wider appreciation. From Adelaide Hills, with much less minerality than its Clare of Eden Valley cousins, and a surprisingly substantial mouthfeel, it’s available, like much of the list, by the glass or bottle or by the 50cl carafe.
Service was calm, professional, without being intrusive, invigorating to see young waiting staff up on the balls of their feet, looking out for each other and for the diner. A grease spot on my steak nife was spotted and the tool replaced without me having to raise a finger. A couple fretting at the aforesaid draughty table were moved at the first opportunity and given a complementary amuse bouche for their pain. My late mother, a lifetime in the serving game, would have appreciated this display of competence and care. I can bestow no higher praise.
Value? Oh, yes, we spent £86.30, ex-service for three courses, a carafe plus a glass of good wine and a correct espresso. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, as of today, The Box Tree is the most complete and involving dining experience you can get in Dublin for anything like the money. In fact it might just be the most complete dining experience full stop.
The Box Tree, Stepaside Village, Dublin 18 Tel: 01 205 2025
Volume 3 bells