Tag Archives: Dublin

alexis

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Alexis

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

Food ****1/2

Wine ****

Service ****

Ambience ***1/2

Overall ****

 

 

box tree1

RESTAURANT REVIEW – The Box Tree

 

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

Food ****

Wine ****

Service *****

Ambience *****

Volume 3 bells

Overall ****

 

McHughs 2a

Restaurant Review – McHUGH’S WINE & DINE

On Christmas Eve a US food critic who remained anonymous for 16 years has had her cover blown by a Los Angeles restaurant. Irene Virbila, who works for the Los Angeles Times, had her picture taken at the Red Medicine restaurant in Beverly Hills and was asked to leave. The restaurant then posted the picture on the internet.

Noah Ellis, managing partner at the restaurant, said some of Ms Virbila’s reviews had been “cruel and irrational” and had “caused hard-working people in this industry to lose their jobs”. The aggrieved restaurateur said “I asked her and her party to leave, as we don’t care for her or her reviews.” Ms Verbila riposted “I never expected that a restaurateur would stick a camera in my face.”

A few days later, I got a call from a radio station in LA, asking for my views. For what it’s worth, I said there are more important issues than anonymity – like honesty and integrity; like the ability to entertain one’s readers; most of all, like the experience and cop-on to see things for what they are – a good critic should be able to tell the difference between a crap restaurant and a good restaurant that’s having one hell of a catastrophic night.

The subject was also aired on my website forum, where I invited contributors to air their views on what makes a restaurant critic. One of them (presumably another miffed restaurateur) wrote “the ability to travel more than 15 minutes from their home”. I don’t know if it was aimed at me – during the recent spell of inclement weather I certainly didn’t stray from Dublin 2/4. Shamed, if not named, I used all my powers of persuasion to get Sibella to spirit me to one of the “here be dragons” enclaves of Dublin for the purpose of this week’s review.

I’ve nothing against Raheny. Well, yes, I have actually – because 66.33% of the people who have done me a bad turn in my 24 years in Dublin hailed from there. Still, all in the past, I mused, as we queued to cross the river. The journey from Sandymount took us the guts of an hour. We found out later that we could actually have got there in half the time on the Dart as our destination was only 800 yards from the station.

Situated in an improbable location, in a small parade of shops in a quiet residential street, McHugh’s Wine & Dine was buzzing. The room is warm and inviting, with slightly larger than average tables and very comfortable chairs. We arrived on the cusp of the early bird and the regular dinner menu and it therefore seemed appropriate to try one of each. It was a night for comfort food and I immediately plumped for the bowl of spicy free range chicken wings. There were a full dozen of them, enough for me to trade with Sibs for some of her inviting looking slow-roasted butternut squash salad, a mélange of squash, crispy pancetta, sage and crunch hazelnuts over crisp green leaves. The wings themselves were delightful, piquantly spiced, with enough flavour in the meat to stand up and be counted, with a clean-textured glaze, light years from the habitual ketchup-and-sump oil treatment this dish usually receives. These were among the best I’ve ever eaten. Apparently they are popular with young people in the locality of who order an even bigger bowl as a main course. I can see why. We took two glasses of Zenato’s admirable Lugana, likewise crisp and spicy and a perfect match for the food. The wine list as befits a restaurant related to the local wine merchant was concise, sensible with a few intriguing items and a couple of stunning bargains. The Oriel ‘Lo Zoccolaio’ Barolo, for example, at €40, is a steal.

Continuing the winter warming theme, I took the ‘special’, the daube de boeuf. This comprised a mound of slow cooked beef cheek, meltingly tasty, accompanied by what appeared at first to be a sausage roll, some excellent truffle mash and rivulets of a pale purée, maybe parsnip. The ‘sausage roll’ turned out to be filled with succulent oxtail, a super idea. Herself, after a flirtation with haddock and chips, settled on the burger and we were both glad she did. It was generously topped with melted cheddar and supplied with a crisp salad and some good relish; neither of us could think when we last had a burger as good. It came garnished with those big square chips seen everywhere these days, of which I’m not a huge fan. These, though, were well fettled, perfectly cooked and didn’t have me yearning for the thin crispy variety. I was so stuffed I couldn’t manage dessert. Well, except for a smidge of Sibs’ choice, a sort of pear and ginger sponge served with vanilla ice cream. Coffee, espresso, was on the decent side of acceptable.

Oops, nearly forgot. Commendably, Mc Hugh’s sports a small range of interesting beers including Budjevicky, Leffe, Chimay, Sam Adams, Fuller’s London Pride and the rich, coriander and apricot-flavoured Bishop’s Finger (the name refers to the signposts which pointed the pilgrims towards Canterbury) that proved the perfect accompaniment for the lavish flavours of the daube and oxtail. Overall, we spent just over €74 to which we were happy to add a tenner tip for the efficient and friendly service from two local girls.

Good neighbourhood restaurants are one of the oft overlooked blessings of Dublin dining, frequently unconsidered as, lemming-like, we rush uptown. Browne’s in Sandymount, Alexis in Dun Laoghaire, Bistro One in Foxrock and many others are doing a smashing job in allowing locals to dine out well but without formality for reasonable cost. They are also well worth travelling to get to. On this evidence, McHugh’s Wine & Dine is up there with the best of them and I’m already looking forward to my next visit.

Rating

Food ****

Wine ****

Service ****

Ambience ****

Overall ****

Mc Hugh’s Wine & Dine, 59 St.Assams Park, Dublin 5 Tel: 832 7435

Restaurant Review – The Lock Brasserie

As one who once put his money where his foodie mouth was, I have an enduring admiration for restaurateurs, most of whom work heroic hours for the sort of reward that could probably be exceeded if they’d stayed in bed and put their savings in prize bonds.

Very few of the restaurants now considered members of the Dublin dining establishment have had it easy. I can’t think of one that was an overnight success and most have had wobbles along the way. Ask Ross Lewis, Kevin Thornton, Derry Clarke, I’m sure they’ll give you chapter and verse.

What always amazes me is when a restaurateur who has climbed inch-by-inch up the greasy pole of profitability by dint of a combination of talent, hard work and that rare commodity cop-on decides to open another outlet. Take, for instance, Sebastian Masi and Kirsten Batt who, within weeks of begetting a first child, have begat a second restaurant. Having nurtured Pearl Brasserie to the age where, in Sebastian’s words “it rattles along nicely” and, obiter, picks up awards along the way (Food & Wine Magazine Restaurant of The Year 2009) they decide to acquire and re-open Locks. Mad or what?

Making a go of Locks is undeniably the most challenging yet intriguing restaurant project in Dublin. Picked up and dropped into any other city in Europe the canal bank at Portobello would be awash with restaurants, cafés, bars, etc. As it is, Locks and the estimable Nonna Valentina stand alone and the adjacent waterside remains the province of swans, joggers and snoggers.

Back in the 1980s Locks, along with the Coq Hardi and the Mirabeau was a place that caused you to exclaim “Hey, someone in this benighted country must have money!” I was taken there once; you could hardly see across the room for Havana cigar smoke and a tramp could have got a year’s pleasure from a night’s discarded butts. Paradoxically, Locks descent started around the time the rest of us acquired enough sponds to dine out under our own steam. In decline, it changed hands and became an all-things-to-all-people eaterie and that didn’t work either. Despite good chefs, a semi-scenic location, parking outside the door and a room other restaurateurs would kill for, Locks Mks 1 and 2 eventually didn’t hack it.

So what of Mk.3? Sibella and I arrived and were delighted to find  Thomas Pinoncely, formerly of Pearl Brasserie, installed as maitre d’. Thomas is one of those suave-but-not sticky, friendly-but-not effusive meeters’n’greeters and it was early evident that his version of hospitality is rubbing off on the front-of-house staff. Chef is Rory Carville who has done stints at The Four Seasons and L’Ecrivain in a peripatetic career, a man with a reputation for revering the fresh, wild and real.

From the a la carte Sibs selected the goat cheese beignets, a tastefully appropriate presentation of this eternal crowd pleaser. I homed in on the (bottom to top) daube of beef, monkfish cheek and foie gras. For ages I just stared, marveling at the serendipitous combo of three of the things I like most; the glistening fish, the crisp-yet-deliquescent foie, the juicy beef – seduction on a plate. Or thankfully in a dish, as there remained a heavenly sauce to mop up with the good bread provided and enjoy like the encore at the end of a great gig. A short odds candidate for ‘starter of the year’, I decided.

“The rare breed pork belly or the lamb?” I enquired of Thomas. “The pork, undoubtedly. It is the chef’s signature.” I needn’t really have asked. The words ‘rare breed’ always suck me in. There’s a universe of difference between the flesh of a cosseted Gloucester Old Spot or a Tamworth and that of a flabby cartoon porker that’s been fed on God knows what. This piggy king came crowned with two tortellini, both stuffed with pork shreds and soused with a sherry vinegar reduction. The presentation was modern – dots and zig-zags of a pea puree and good tart apple sauce. In contrast the vegetables we’d ordered were delivered in traddy-looking copper pots – crisp small chips (I’m getting a tad fed up of the ubiquitous fat feckers) and a harmonious mélange of small peas, garlic, pearl onions and celery, styled ‘a la francaise’. Sibs had a wonderful piece of hake, a much under-rated fish, again pristinely arranged. Locks’ new chef has created a see-saw where ‘food you’ve just got to eat’ and ‘food so pretty you shouldn’t spoil the picture’ swing back and forth before coming to rest at the ‘eat me’ end. Sebastian Masi has this talent in spades so I’d guess he was pleased to find someone cast in his own image.

I wimped out of dessert, taking only a selection of (excellent) ice creams and sorbets. Then I was mildly miffed to find I could indeed have eaten Sibella’s ethereal strawberry fool, with ice cream on the side too. Afterwards, I couldn’t resist espresso and was, of course, disappointed. Why is it the last thing you have before you leave a restaurant is so often a let-down? (Memo to all restaurateurs: get over to Third Floor Espresso on Middle Abbey Street and watch Colin Harmon in action). On the other hand wines, some available by glass or 375ml carafe, were excellent. We took an Alsace Pinot Blanc (Meyer-Fonne, fine producer) and a Cote du Rhone smugly secure in the arcane knowledge that they bore the hallmark of Le Caveau and Simon Tyrell, two of Ireland’s best specialist importers. Service throughout was first rate.

We parted with €121, ex-service, including coffee and two carafes of wine. I already love Mk 3 or The Lock Brasserie to bestow its proper title. I intend going back, next time for lunch and soon, picking a day in which sunlight floods that gorgeous room, lingering for as long as they’ll let me.

Rating

Food ****

Wine ****

Service ****

Ambience ****

Overall ****

The Lock Brasserie, 1 Windsor Terrace, Portobello, Dublin 8 Tel: 01 420 0555

Restaurant Review – Taste of Emilia/Alexis Pizza & Deli

One of the biggest culinary myths is that there’s such a thing as Italian food. There’s not. To comprehend this you have to realise that Italy, as we know it today, is a relatively modern creation, cobbled together out of a number of smaller states , each with its own heritage, culture and, indeed, cuisine. In these matters, Lombardy, in the north, has about as much in common with Puglia, in the extreme south-west as Tullamore, Co Offaly has with Tirana, Albania.

Still, there is some commonality. First and foremost is the love of food. All over Italy you find cooking is regarded as a pleasure, sometimes even a privilege, and not a chore. Secondly, there’s the generosity of the host. Get invited to an Italian home and, rich or poor, they’ll roll out the red carpet for you. Thirdly, whatever goes into the pot or onto the plate, the freshness of the ingredients is a given.

The mutilation of Italian food abroad that has resulted in much dire dining – the blood red synthetic sauces, the cardboard pizzas – is not the fault of the Italians themselves. It’s down to the timidity of Anglo and Celtic palates. The Italians who emigrated initially cooked the food of their home region. Alas, brought up on our sad, grey diets, we picked and chose only those things we could easily stomach and rejected the rest. Small wonder that Italian restaurateurs, in the main, gave up trying and just gave us the bits we craved.

Fifteen years ago, when I was cooking for a living, I decided to extend our café/restaurant’s vegetarian choice by including a dish I had found on a visit to Italy. It was simple enough, grilled aubergines and fresh sage, covered in a bechamel spiced with nutmeg and dusted generously with aged pecorino cheese. The first day I put the dish on I had two complaints. From a banker who told me I’d left the tomatoes out of the sauce in error and from a ‘head’ who moaned “De black tings have made me burd sick”. It didn’t last long on the menu.

There’s plenty of average-to-crap Italian food in Dublin. Going to som lengths to avoid meeting it I always end up in an outpost of the Dunne and Crescenzi empire, the exquisite little Pinocchio in Ranelagh or, occasionally in Mick Wallace’s Enoteca in the daftly-named Quartier Bloom. If I want to go slightly, though not extravagantly, upscale then Nonna Valentina or Il Primo have always proved authentic and reliable. Il Manifesto, in Rathmines can accommodate me at either end of the price scale.

Last week, I found two others to add to my list. The History Woman, a regular dining companion with the appetite and exuberance of me at a similarly youthful age, dragged me to Taste of Emilia in Liffey Street and boy, am I glad she did. The place is tiny, twenty seats tops, the menu plain, unvarnished. You can have plates, or rather, boards, small or large, of prosciutto and salami, cheeses or a blend of both plus tuly wonderful bruschetta and a few other delights like good olives and especially fine artichokes. A couple of Italian ladies run the place, bestowing civility and smiles in equal parts, the whole vibe is like dining in the kitchen of someone you’ve just met but liked instantly. The provenance and condition of all the ingredients is first rate. Wines are Italian, with a reliable Prosecco, a Valpolicella ripasso of no great distinction and a Brunello di Montalcino which, as ever, didn’t justify the asking price. There are no desserts but a ‘chocolate grappa’ – I forget the full title – will keep your sweet tooth hopping happily.

Later in the week, Sibella was dining with her golfing chums and I needed something more substantial than the left-overs in the fridge. Fate caused me to happen across Alexis Pizza and Deli in Deansgrange which must surely be one of County Dublin’s as yet undiscovered gems. It’s a sister ship to the excellent Alexis bistro in Dun Laoghaire. In a spotless café, nicely appointed, I partook of a substantial roasted vegetable antipasto, a plateful of aubergines, courgettes, tomatoes and peppers, nicely garnished and some good bread to mop up the residue of the fine olive oil in which the ingredients had been marinated. Afterwards, I designed my own pizza with tomato, aged parma ham, buffalo mozzarella, anchovies, mushrooms and a scattering of sprightly rucola over the top. The crust was thin, crisp and as far removed from your average take-away as it’s possible to get and the toppings generous. It cost €11.50. The wine list is a small jewel. I took three glasses, the first a white Custoza from the Veneto house of Zenato, a quantum leap from ubiquitous, bland, boring Pinot Grigio. The second, again from Zenato (whose wines currently feature ‘on special’ at many Dublin wine merchants in honour of the winery’s 50th birthday) was a Ripassa della Valpolicella, one of the best around. It’s a huge wine though and somewhat overwhelmed the pizza’s delicate flavours so I backtracked and took a glass of Rosso Piceno Superiore from Brecciaolo, a maker I particularly admire. This proved the perfect complement. The trio, by the way, set me back €16.40, which I consider extremely reasonable.

Alexis Pizza and Deli, 31, Deansgrange Road, Deansgrange, Co Dublin  Tel (01) 289 7503

Rating

Food ***

Wine ****

Service ***

Ambience **

Overall ***1/2

First published in The Dubliner Magazine, free with The Evening Herald on Thurdsdays

Restaurant Review – Wolfe's Irish Artisan Bistro

With a significant birthday to celebrate I decamped to Brittany for two weeks in August, renting a house and gathering my nearest and dearest together to ensure the occasion did not go unmarked (we’re woeful at sending cards and giving presents). In the evenings we took turns to cook. On the last night I fettled a Thai green curry, one of the best I’ve ever cooked. Not, I hasten to add, because of my culinary skills. Simply because the prime ingredients – langoustines, scallops and a huge monkfish tail that glistened like diamonds in a mountain stream – were the finest you’d see anywhere. A joy to buy and a joy to cook with.

In Ireland we have a problem with seafood. We love to eat it. But we rarely cook it at home because it’s (wrongly) perceived as fiddly, even difficult. At the same time, for a nation surrounded by sea, there are remarkably few reliable seafood restaurants.

I found Wolfe’s Irish Artisan Bistro after a quick trawl through the forums on my website www.forkncork.com. It’s on Capel Street, roughly half way between Jack Nealon’s and McNeills if you are travelling by pub and easy to miss as Bangles and I walked past it twice. Telephoning in advance, I had taken the receptionist’s offer of “a nice table upstairs, by the window.” On arrival we were initially disappointed as the ground floor room seemed busy-buzzy whereas upstairs we were the only diners. The room was decently tricked out, though, and the chairs comfortable. As Bangles and I had a deal of catching up to do we soon forgot about the lack of company. Someone has good taste in music. Tom Waits and Nick Cave, damped down as not to impede conversation, entertained us.

I noted with approval that there was a fifteen euro bottle of wine on the carte, not a bad one either. We went medium upscale, taking the always reliable Willunga 100 viognier at €27.Most expensive wine on the list was €34. Bangles nabbed the chicken terrine, following up with the rack of free range pork, my initial fancy until an urge to continue the shellfish-fest I’d started in Douarnenez surfaced. The starter was total ‘me’ – four plump scallops, quickly caramelised and finished with girolle mushrooms, a little cream and a scattering of summer truffles. Bangles’ coarse terrine was tasty yet delicate, served with a rivulet of carrot purée kept the right side of bland with a touch of citrus and garnished with spicy carrot cress, nice touch. I was initially dismayed by the absence of bread, needed for mopping up the delicious residue of the scallops and cream. A call to the personable Czech waiter remedied this but really it shouldn’t have been necessary – it would cost little to provide a basket of bread and should have been put on the table when we arrived.

The pork, an emperor-sized chunk with the crackling on it, came topped with crispy morsels which, the chef informed us later, proved to be slivers of pig’s ear, (don’t shudder, they were delicate and delicious) and robust mustard mash. Though the pork was a gastro-treat in itself, it could have done with some spicy chutney, maybe a little Hungarian style red cabbage or even plain apple sauce to point up and enhance the flavour. My Irish lobster, a monster, did full justice to the cold sea around our shores, a submarine gymnasium where these kings of crustaceans develop muscle tone, and hence texture and taste. It was cooked to perfection, springy but not tough. Lobster is filling food so I didn’t eat too many of the excellent, properly crisp chunky chips. I thought the price of the dish, €38, even given the size, was a trifle expensive. There’s a glut of lobster at the minute and the price per kilo has dropped considerably. Many restaurants are using Nova Scotia lobster (of only average quality), enabling them put it on the menu for under €30. Were I in charge of The Artisan I’d maybe dispense with the chips or just add a few for garnish and keep the price down to around €32.

We shared a passion fruit panna cotta which Bangles thought on the tart side (she has a sweet tooth). For me, the taste was fine. I enjoyed the sharp tang of the fruit, heaped on the top, complementing the mellow cream heavily laced with what I detected was good vanilla.I lost a mark or two for texture. The perfect panna cotta is, to borrow from Paul Simon, one that slip-slides away. This was ’hearty eating’.

Open three weeks, Wolfe’s Irish Artisan is not yet the finished article though it shows much promise. Suppliers, all of excellent repute, are listed on the menu; cooking, by young chef Peter Fisher, is extremely sound; prices are reasonable, extremely so if you shy away from plutocratic items like lobster and scallops. There’s a 3-course pre-theatre for €30. Service-wise, we initially felt somewhat neglected. On the night the bulk of the business was downstairs and in such circumstances there’s a need for real awareness if the restaurant has to keep in touch with diners aloft; this initiative was lacking until we brought the waiter up sharp, after which his head would appear round the doorway at regular intervals. All-in-all it’s certainly a contender for ‘best place to eat north of the Liffey if you can’t get into Chapter One’. The Artisan (full name’s a bit of a mouthful) is a plain, unvarnished bistro, so don’t expect things too fiddly-farty, it’s a ‘what you see is what you get’ sort of gaff. None the worse for that.

Wolfe’s Irish Artisan Bistro, 153 Capel Street, Dublin 1 Tel: (01) 874 9570

RATING

Food ****

Wine ***

Service **

Ambience **

Volume 1 bell

Overall ***

Originally published in The Dubliner, FREE with the Evening Herald on Thursdays

Les Freres Jacques

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.

Rating: **

Les Freres Jacques, 4 Dame St., Dublin 2  Tel: 01 679 4555

Pichet

The juxtaposition of Hell’s Kitchen’s battered-but-still philosophical maitre d’ Nick Munier and ex-L’Ecrivain head chef Stephen Gibson was bound to produce something interesting and Pichet is exactly that. I’m not décor obsessed but I did like the cool grey walls and stylish, comfy royal blue seats – just sitting there felt like being aboard a rather smart train, waiting to be whisked somewhere more exotic than Dublin on another dull day.

The building has enjoyed several manifestations during the time I’ve been rattling around – a cheese shop, an Italian enoteca-style restaurant, a Cafe Leon and a weird place selling American candy bars spring to mind. Now there’s a cafe bar at the Trinity Street end, which is now where the entrance is located, with the restaurant behind it, flanked on the Andrews Lane side by a protected, heatable terrace which should delight smokers and fresh air freaks. It was here I chose to park myself while waiting for The Knocklyon Princess.

Amazingly Her Royal Highness swept in on the dot of 1.30. I met her immediate request for red wine by ordering a bottle of Torres Iberico, a reliable, if unspectacular Rioja.

Having carelessly left my false dreadlocks, monocle and chequered waistcoat behind, I was recognised by the management. Nick came over for a chat. I opined that he seemed to have made a bright start and he responded “Yes, thanks to some favourable reviews.” He cited Tom, Ross, Aingela and someone called Katie. “Well you won’t bloody need my approval then” I mock-snarled – since watching Sandra Bernhardt in ‘Dinner Rush’ for the fifth time I’ve aggroed-up my persona, I’m now practising ‘criticism with attitude’. Nick promptly retreated, leaving the menu and wine list.

For the moment at any rate, it’s all a la carte. Still, two people should be able to eat and drink for €100 unless they are me and The KP. Herself, who I’d figured as something of a chicksteaker surprised me by choosing the suckling pig belly pork for her main, leaving me the rump of lamb. I craved the Castletownbere crab as a starter. At the same time I hankered to try the crispy fried egg, fast gaining a reputation around town as a smart bit of trompe l’oeul cuisine. Luckily, the Princess spotted it too so I was able to scam some.

The crab had that ‘foreplay with a mermaid’ aroma that both means ‘fresh’ and heightens the anticipation – I’m always suspicious when crab, purportedly ‘fresh’, arrives smelling (and subsequently, tasting) of zilch or is doused in eye-watering vinagrette. The accompanying pot of mussel meat and chorizo, a good dip for the excellent bread they provided, was a sound detail. The crispy egg was, put simply, a tour de force. If I was to try to de-construct the dish I’d say it was par-poached, wrapped in Serrano ham, coated in breadcrumbs then flash-deep fried and served with the yolk still runny. Still, I could be wrong.

The belly of pork was a ‘how to do it’ demo. Certain other restaurants, like the one I reviewed a couple of weeks ago should pop along and see for themselves. My Connemara hill lamb came exactly as I’d ordered, “pinked, on the rare side of medium, rare”. A great piece of meat, tender, with burgeoning flavour. The chips were no great shakes though.

By this time we were into the second bottle of red. The aussie Shiraz Vignier I’d asked for was out of stock so we reverted to one of Nick’s original suggestions, a Côtes du Ventoux 2007, wine from a region where committed small-scale producers make interesting gear. It was hefty, rustic stuff. Nick did warn us that it threw a crust. He should also have warned his waiter not to dump three inches of sludge in my final glass, I was picking the grouts out of my teeth all that night.

To say that we shared a dessert was not quite true. The Knocklyon Princess doesn’t have a sweet tooth. I was therefore condemned to eat a whole portion of white chocolate cheesecake, topped with passion fruit jelly, and dotted with raspberries, a very lenient sentence. Afterwards I was almost shocked by the correctness of the espresso, so unusual.

Bright start” is right. This modern bistro cookery is springing up everywhere. Whether as a response to recession or simply a rejection of the fiddly-farty stuff practised by formal restaurants in the last ten years I’m not sure. Anyhow, the food at Pichet is at the very cutting edge of this trend. The staff are obliging if a trifle come-day, go-day. Nick’s own predilection for ‘hands on’ will keep them on their toes, good job, for a few details (like the pacing of the meal) need tidying. I was pleased to spot Caitriona, who served us so well at The Pig’s Ear a few months ago. Apparently, she’s Nick’s sister-in-law; nothing like keeping these ventures in the family, as the French know full well.

133.25 for 2 starters, 2 mains, dessert, 2 x bottle and a glass of wine

Verdict: Smart cooking, fab décor, willing service, good addition to the Dublin dining scene.

Rating: ****

Pichet 14-15 Trinity Street, Dublin 2 Tel: 01 677 1060

Venu

 

Keogh’s in South Anne Street, early doors on a Wednesday eveningvenu1, was well nigh empty. Which isn’t to say publican Louis Fitzgerald was having conniptions. No, the customers were all outside, a great raft of them lorrying down the bevvy while savouring the sunshine. Great to see that the good old Dublin custom of drinking pints/talking shite is still in vogue. Bangles, resplendent in flamboyant summer plumage, rocked up bang on time.

 I tilted the panama to a jaunty angle and we sauntered down the street to dine at Venu Brasserie. Entering the building involved a Tardis-like experience. With the noise of the revellers fading in the distance, you stepped into an office building whose bland, impersonal interior could have held suits selling pensions, if any such still exist. Descending into the basement, you were fast-forwarded into the disco bar slickery of 1980s London. Here, we paused while we awaited a call to table, watching the resident ‘mixologist’ juggling ingredients, which he did rather well. Eventually, we found ourselves in the dining room, a veritable split personality – 1950s railway buffet-meets-60s coffee bar. All sorts of gimcrack vied for attention – the lights, coloured glass versions of the old-time driers that hairdressers lowered over madame’s newly-coiffed beehive; the small gilded nymphs, perching in bare trees; the abstract art (large nipple-free tits) on the back wall. Altogether the sort of mish-mash that gives interior design a bad name, in my opinion.

 A waiter came to take our order, making an attempt as he did so to flog us a brace of pre-prandial cocktails. “No thank you,” we said. For starters I took the Clogherhead crab salad, prettily fettled. Topped by a ring of pink grapefruit, it screamed “fresh!” It was, however, upstaged by Bangles’ asparagus salad, where the arrangement was picture perfect, a wrapping of lamb’s lettuce and a small pool of lime mayo studded with dark-roasted pistachios counterpointing the green spears and giving you that hard-to-define feelgood feeling. The asparagus was cooked to perfection. This clean, green, not overly cheffy treat claims our nomination for Best Presented Dish of 2009 if such an award exists.

 The bar had been set high. In contrast, my burger seemed a bit of a plain Jane – until you actually bit into it. Under the flat and, thankfully, crusty bun magical things were going on. I stuck the fork in and melted foie gras oozed out, double yum; the flavoursome patty and the onions in red wine were interleaved with a black truffle mayo that tasted of… surprise, surprise.. black truffles. Here was the ultimate kick-ass gourmet burger. All other burgers masquerading as ‘gourmet’ – and there are loads around town – should keep a low profile. Nice chips too, if shaded by the ones at Chez Max the week. Bangles had commandeered an oriental-style chicken breast. Dubbed ‘Bombay’, it was one of those things chefs dream up from time to time to stop themselves getting bored with the classics. This one, unlike most, worked, majoring as it did on the quality of the chicken and the accompanying coriander couscous.

 I had almost forgotten that Venu’s proprietor is Charles Guilbaud, son of the unsinkable Patrick, a man who’s already seen off two recessions, earning a Michelin star for each. In fact I glimpsed Patrick and Sally dining there that night. They can be proud of what their son-and-heir is putting on tables. Doubtless he spent his childhood watching RPG’s Guillaume Lebrun.

 The wine list, old world biased, held some interest. Neither of us was in great drinking form, though, so Climbing Hill, a relaxed, uncomplicated but sound Aussie Chardonnay, not too tinned-fruity, fitted the bill nicely. In view of the brasserie’s connections I did feel slightly traitorous, not drinking French.

Come dessert time I was fairly stuffed, having pigged out on the chips. I took an espresso and it was a good one. Bangles opted for the peach melba of childhood memory. It was a lateral version, a return to the high presentational plateau evinced by the starters. As she said “A far cry from the Slieve Donard version, circa nineteen blahdy-blah” (doesn’t want to give away her age!). The friendly waiter redoubled his efforts to sell us cocktails “A refreshing dessert cocktail, sir and madam?” And afterwards, “May I recommend a cocktail to finish with?” This kid has some go in him, fair play. His pitch, too, had a playfulness, a pleasant manner that didn’t have you saying “Piss off and take your cocktails with you.”

 All in all, we spent €96.50 and didn’t begrudge it. There is a ‘Summer Menu’ that represents incredible value for money – 3 courses for €22.50 – though as none of the mains on it were what we felt we needed on the night we were not tempted to try it. Overall, we liked Venu. So much so we’re going back for the cocktails when we’re in better drinking form.

 The damage: £96.50 ex-service for 2 starters, 2 mains, 1 dessert, coffee, bottle of wine.

 Verdict: Spot-on cooking, friendly service, good value. You may love the room, I didn’t.

 

Venu Brasserie, Anne’s Lane, Dublin 2 Tel: 01 6706755

One Pico

 

Some years ago I lost my senses, opened a small café-cum-restaurant and went cheffing for a living. I never made any money but the experience has proved useful enough in my present role as restaurateurs know I’ve been there and, on those rare occasions when I do put the boot in, it’s not for lack of understanding.

 

When I set out to find suitable premises for my new venture, friends were prompt to remind me of the old adage “location, location, location”. Of course that’s all very well if you have the money to afford the location of your dreams – a chunk of the ground floor of Brown Thomas would have done nicely – but if you haven’t you have to cut your coat according to your cloth. Heart set on opening up in Dublin 2, 4 or 6, I looked at quite a few premises, some fit for the purpose, others palpably less so. One place I looked at had an ingenious USP; it was called “Bernie’s Cosy Corner”. “You’ll only have to change one letter – just drop the ‘B’”, Sibella sniggered.

 

I was reminded of this some years later when Eamonn O’Reilly moved his restaurant, One Pico, from a Camden Street then more down-market than of late into a swanky premises in an alley off Molesworth Street vacated by another restaurant. The latter was called Polo One. “He’ll only have to change two letters,” was my remark on hearing the news.

 

One Pico has hung on in there ever since, offering a far-better-than-average version of fine dining without maybe enjoying the acclaim that others have enjoyed. At the same time Michelin, Zagat, Frommers and Conde Nast have all included One Pico in their publications. Perhaps Eamonn’s restaurant, like prophets, is more celebrated abroad.

 

I bust a gut to get there on the dot of 1.30 (even after 22 years in Ireland, the old English punctuality dies hard). Really I needn’t have bothered because I knew, in my heart of hearts, that Esmeralda would be late. Sure enough, as I walked into the restaurant, the mobile rang. I used the ensuing twenty minutes for exploring a glass of Picpoul de Pinet, sommelier Arnaud Legat’s recommendation for a pre-prandial tipple.

 

The fragrant Esmeralda, as dining companion, would be at the opposite end of the spectrum from the likes of Foodmad. The latter is wont to dissect every morsel, to notice every nuance of integrity or the lack of it. Ezzie, on the other hand, is one for ambience and the like, caring not overly about food and, by her own admission, knowing less. We go back a long way, to a time when an employer decided to imprison the noisiest (me) and the untidiest (her), or maybe it was the other way round, in the same room. She’s great craic and offers more in the way of eye candy than Lefty and Foodmad lumped together. She has an eye for a bargain too and when she saw that One Pico was offering a three-course lunch for under \20 she immediately warmed to the place.

 

My crab, sweet peas and saffron risotto was brilliantly executed. Risotti can be fairly bland; this one was anything but and the quality shone through. The texture was terrific – a correct halfway staging post between rice pudding and soup. Esmeralda took the celeriac and thyme soup, which came prettily presented with young spinach and a tower of braised venison, the flavour of which made a pleasing contrast. In her own words, Ezzie is “a sucker for duck” and rapidly appropriated the duck leg confit, braised red cabbage and a carrot and star anis purée, leaving me to console myself with the pheasant breast. This flavoursome kit came with a wonderful chestnut and bacon stuffing which I’m going to try and replicate at home when ‘Porkgate’ is but a distant memory and a rich sauce of ceps, truffles and cream. Esmeralda only drinks red – I’ll deffo have to get her and Sibs out together, the Jack Sprat and Missus of wine imbibers – so we consulted Arnaud who suggested one from Languedoc, mainly Mourvedre with a touch of Carignan, which pointed up the rustic, natural flavours of both duck and pheasant.

 

On to dessert. I’m by no means a Christmas person but the plum pudding and hazelnut chocolate parfait with its brandy sabayon certainly cheered up my non-festive season. We also took a selection of rather good ice creams. The amazing value of this lunch must be now clearly be apparent. We were in self-congratulatory mood for picking the perfect venue for our reunion so indulged ourselves in a Cointreau frappé and an Armagnac, accompanied by, surprise, surprise, a rather good espresso, which, looking back, they missed off the bill.

 

A word on service. My mother, a catering professional of the old school, could recognise good or bad service five miles away, without recourse to binoculars. Halfway through the meal I got the feeling that, were she still with us, she would have been nodding appreciatively at these guys, who got the balance between civility, friendliness and formality just right.

 

The Damage: €99.35, ex-service for 2 x 3 courses, 1 bottle, 1 glass of wine, 2 post-lunch drinks.

 

The Verdict: Get there. This has got to be the best value lunch in town and certainly a candidate for the best lunch exclusive of price. Food, ambience and service, all faultless. Interesting wine list, including some fine Americans. Special commendation for the loos from Esmeralda who is notoriously pernickety about such matters.

 

Rating: 4.5/5

One Pico, Molesworth Place, Dublin 2 Tel: 01 6760300