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RESTAURANT REVIEW – The Hungry Monk

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Flashback to twenty five years ago. I’m sat in a pub in Rathdrum, County Wicklow with cartoonist the late Terry Willers with whom I’m collaborating on a writing project when in walks a guy I know from the wine business. He is accompanied by his wife and daughter, the latter porting a long cardboard tube. From his briefcase the man takes a ring binder filled with notes, observations and naive sketches. He takes the tube from the daughter and extracts a set of plans, which he spreads out on the pub table. 

 

Pat Keown, the incomer, now proceeds to unravel his dream, his vision for a new restaurant. It is a strange concept, involving medieval monks and a good deal of religious imagery from churchy oak furniture to gregorian chant piped to the toilets, sorry, ‘convent’ and ‘cloisters’. Wife and daughter do not seem entirely convinced the project is a goer, judging by the sly way they look at each other before simultaneously raising their eyes to heaven as your man speaks. Terry is initially diffident until his cartoonist’s imagination takes over, whereupon he waxes enthusiastic and commences to visualise glasses place mats, menus and framed cartoons to reinforce the theme. A deal is struck.Later, Bill, the colleague who has driven me down, and I laugh all the way back to Dublin. “I’ll give it six months” he ventured.

 

Well, Bill old son, no second career as a prophet for you. Last week I dined in that very restaurant. Pat Keown’s off-the-wall vision is still extant, full of monky business. Pat  himself is still around. His son Julian runs the bistro that the original restaurant has spawned. Here we dined and observed it full-to-bursting. The restaurant’s masthead, ‘The Hungry Monk’, set in a mock medieval typeface that would seem ludicrous and vulgar in any other context, has been a fixture in Church Road, Greystones these past twenty-five years.

 

We had not bothered to book, not thinking it necessary of a Monday and were gobsmacked to find the dining room near-full. However, the pleasant waitress found us a table without any delay. We leaned back into our upholstered, somewhat less than penitential monks’ benches. I suggested to my companions that saying grace might be seemly.

 

A peek at the menu told us that the food offering, too, falls short of being penitential. We could see from the plates going to adjacent tables that portions were ‘humonkous’ (might as well get in on the act). The grub is unashamedly retro-mainstream, reading like a history of home cooking between 1960 and 1990, with a few nods to modernity here and there. There’s a fair bit of ‘monk-style’ this-and-that, as in the chips, the spicy chicken wings, etc. Clonakilty black pudding features, a yesteryear Irish success d’estime, considered abroad an epicurean treat. Did nobody tell them that this pud is largely passé, that 2013‘s chef favours a softer, oozier style of black pudding? Would they care?

 

My starter, the lamb’s kidneys Dijonaise, was a throwback to the days of Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson. I don’t know how many Wicklow lambs had donated their organs to this hunger-salving dish which comprised a substantial plateful of properly pinked tender slices, smothered in a rich fudge of cream, brandy, Dijon mustard and more cream. “Aren’t you afraid for your arteries?,” enquired Fenella, a local who had led us there in the first place. “Yes, but what the hell, I’m back on the rabbit food and green tea tomorrow.”  Sibella and Fenella were sharing the nearest The Hungry Monk gets to a ‘healthy option’, the goat cheese salad and the tautological ‘deep-fried Dublin Bay prawn scampi’. “Go easy on the homemade tartar sauce, dears,” I advised, mockingly.

 

The menu lists suppliers, denotes vegetarian dishes with a ‘V’. There is also a ‘C’ but I am unsure what this is for – mayhap the dreaded traces of nuts? The wine list, as one might expect, benefits from proprietorial input. The bistro offers ‘A selection of beauties from our list upstairs’, around 35 bottles, plus another 20 or so listed ‘house wines’ and a few half bottles. I know, from my omnipresence as a food and wine award judge, that the full Hungry Monk carte makes many a short list for ‘Wine Experience of the Year’. I was surprised, though, that vintages were not detailed. The thought of, say, an oaked white Rioja more than a couple of years old fills me with dread. I had the gut feeling that mark-ups were slightly high, but not enough to get antsy about. With two of us destined to drive we took it easy, ordering a bottle of the ever so reliable Joseph Drouhin St.Veran, priced, at €30.

 

While Fenella was negotiating for a seafood risotto containing zero molluscs, Sibs and I bickered over which one of us was to eat the retro classic duck with orange sauce. Oh, joy, no mere quintet of fey fanned-out slices of breast here, imagine a  big bold chunk, half a duck, honey-roasted until the skin gets crispy-crunchy then laid  on a bed of good scallion mash, surely a feast fit for Friar Tuck. In the event, we both ordered it and were pleased to find that the sauce, unlike the cornflour-driven swamp of memory, was light, sweet and piquant, the orange’s appeal augmented by sensitive use of Cointreau and star anise. If I am to be picky Sibella’s was perfectly cooked, mine a tad overdone, to the extent where the leg meat had become slightly stringy. Again, a minor gripe, for roasting till crisp is, by its nature, an imprecise process. Fenella’s risotto, of which I scammed a spoonful, was excellent.

 

The Hungry Monk, I saw from the menu, has a dedicated pastry chef, one David Gonzalez. Sibella and I benefited from this by way of an enchanting mille feuille, while Fenella’s request for a small cheese plate was readily accommodated. Interestingly, it contained three cheeses which different from those listed on the standard platter. I finished with an unremarkable) espresso. All we ate and drank came to €134, including a 10% service charge which I only noticed in hindsight. All three of us gave the Bistro a thumbs-up. Behind the playful gimmickry there’s a serious intent. I’m already planning to go back for a venial glutton-fest on the dry aged beef and pale ale pie.

 

The Hungry Monk Bistro, Church Road, Greystones, Co Wicklow Tel: 287 5759

 

Food ***1/2

 

Wine ****

 

Service ***1/2

 

Ambience ****

 

Value ***½

 

Overall ***1/2

RESTAURANT REVIEW – M&L/The Imperial/The Good World

This week has been Chinese all the way, kicking off with a trip to M&L, a down-home unpretentious restaurant catering primarily for Dublin’s Chinese inhabitants, who now number close on 60,000. Latterly, the tastiness of the food and the reasonable prices, coupled with portions bordering on the humongous, have attracted an Occidental clientele. A couple of days later my omnivore buddy Foodmad and I embarked on lunchtime road tests of dim sum at two of Dublin’s longer established Chinese restaurants – The Imperial, which seems to have been here forever and the Good World on Georges’ Street, favourite of most of my Chinese friends.

The Gaffer and I rocked up at M&L bang on 8.30 and I was glad I’d taken the trouble to book. Nigh on every seat was taken and the buzz of happy dining conversations downed the Chinese pop music a treat. Initially, they ushered us to a table for two, near the door. The waiter taking our order showed alarm at the number of items we’d selected. “It’s okay, we have big appetites”, I said. As it turned out, this wasn’t the focus of his concern. “Table too small”, he sighed. He indicated that there were two options, either make the most of our cramped surroundings or wait a bit, until a larger table became free. He left us in no doubt that the second option was his preference, so we complied.

Eventually we were re-seated, along with glasses of that Chinese beer I have so much trouble spelling, Txingao, Tsingdao? Also a large pot of jasmine tea. The cooking style at M&L is predominantly Szechuan, a two-pronged sensory attack deploying chillies, generally little vicious beggars that should maybe come with a “handle with care” sticker and the Szechuan peppercorn – actually not a pepper at all. This reddish-brown fruit, a key component of five spice powder, is the berry of the prickly ash. While not as hot as chili pepper, it does have a unique flavour and is famous for its seriously mouth-numbing capability. In comparison to Cantonese, Szechuan comes over as a one-shot culinary style, at least to Western palates but sometimes plain is what you want.

One of the challenges in dining at this sort of establishment is to get behind the Westernized menu. Chinese at adjacent tables always seem to be tucking into some dish that looks twice as exciting as the one in front of you. Moreover, the waiters want to protect you from your own excesses, perhaps believing that if you are on the receiving end of an unaccustomed taste you’ll bad mouth the restaurant to your friends. The Gaffer and I are both adventurous eaters and come with fire-blankets pre-installed so were unlikely to be fazed but your man was not convinced. In our quest to push the frontiers of acceptability we were only partially successful, managing to acquire the soft shell crab but not the razor clams. He did allow us the whelks.

Soon the food started to arrive and it became apparent that, quantity wise, we’d over done it. The whelks were super – I’d wholly commend these ‘sea snails’, similar in texture to squid but with a more pronounced flavour – as were the soft shell crabs, coated in an egg yolk and spice dip and deep fried. We crunched them like crisps, savouring the succulent meat and there was such a mountain of them we didn’t bother with the extremities, leaving them to litter the plate. We ploughed on, working up to the chicken dish you could maybe describe as ‘death by a thousand chillies’ via a plate of steamed bok choi combined with those caramel-flavoured  rubber-textured mushrooms, a Chinese cousin of the shitake. The food was all glorious with one sad exception – a beef hotpot. I’ve eaten this dish from Glasgow to Hong Kong. Usually it comes in a tightly-sealed earthenware pot; delve within  and you pull out big hunks of long-cooked brisket, slices of ginger and whole scallions, all in an involving, rib-sticking gravy, yum double plus! M&L’s version was straight off the babies’ menu as interpreted by the waiter – bland beef the texture of a wet blanket, hammered into submission then, I’d reckon, dipped in cornflour and fried before drowning in a bland broth.

So it goes. You win some you lose some. One poor dish on the debit side, some exciting gastro treats for credit. Authenticity by the bucket load and portions to match; cheap too – it cost under €70 for everything including tea and copious beers.

The Imperial v Good World face-off was the conclusion of a two-year quest to find Dublin’s best dim sum, those tasty Chinese tapas equivalents. There are few better ways of lunching than to enjoy a selection of these with a pot of Chinese tea. Foodmad is also a fan and together we hatched a plan that would involve trying a similar selection at both restaurants. We decided on prawn cheung fun, a wide rice noodle roll, filled and served with a sweet soy sauce; siu mai, a steamed pork and shrimp dumpling  and the crispy squid. In addition we sampled a further dish at each restaurant  – fried turnip cake at the Imperial and  fun quoi  which, from the look and taste, I’d guess, is minced prawns in a crispy torpedo-shaped pastry.

Food wise, The Good World shaded it, earning plaudits for the succulence of the squid, cased in ethereal  batter and  for the delicacy and the surplus of prawns  in the cheung fun. Pricewise, there was nothing in it – around €24 for the selection, including tea. Service-wise, though, it was a different story. At the Imperial we were grudgingly given a table by one of the two waiters. Both bore the demeanor of pile-crippled undertakers who’d just read that the elixir of life had been discovered and made us feel we were lucky indeed to get any service at all.  Contrast with the Good World where we were civilly ushered to a communal round table which we shared with some jolly Chinese ladies and looked after by caring staff. This is where we’ll be doing our dim sum in future.

M&L, 13 Cathedral Street, Dublin 1, Tel: 01 08748038

Food ***

Wine *

Service ****

Ambience ***

Overall ***

Imperial Chinese Restaurant

12A Wicklow Street Dublin 2 Tel: 01 677 2580

Food ***

Wine **

Service *

Ambience *

Overall **

The Good World

18 South Great Georges Street Dublin 2 Tel: 01 677 5373

Food ****

Wine **

Service ****

Ambience ****

Overall ****

 

READ Ernie’s reviews on Thursdays in The Dubliner, FREE with The Evening Herald

 

 

 

 

RESTAURANT REVIEW – Admiral

Fado, fado, there stood, hidden amid the barrows, butchers and barbers of Moore Street, a self-styled Russian ‘delicatessen’. The inverted commas are mine for the shop stocked only three products, at least one inedible. Foodies intent on availing themselves of the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the cuisine of the USSR could purchase tins of borscht, jars of gherkins or both. Alas, there were no queues to enhance the ethnicity of the shopping experience. Still, if your Soviet feast needed cheering up by the addition of some atmospherics, the shop would happily sell you a set of ‘matryoshka’, those nesting wooden dolls. The deli has since vanished, along with the excellent Chinese restaurant next door, the one with three names.

The History Woman is far too young to remember the pre-glasnost years. To her ‘USSR’ is merely a gnomic string of initials in the title of an old Beatles song. Nevertheless, my suggestion that we should dine at a Russian restaurant was not met with unqualified enthusiasm. This surprised me for, a few years ago, we enjoyed a meal at a Polish gaff, the late and, by us, lamented Gospoda Polska in Capel Street where we shared as fine a roast duck as I’ve had anywhere, served by lovely waitresses.

We agreed to meet at a pub in Marborough Street called  ‘The Confession Box’ (presumably titled thus for its proximity to the Pro-Cathedral). It used to be called ‘The Maid of Erne’. Anyhow, it’s a pub I’d thoroughly commend; an oasis featuring the twin appeal of a hospitable welcome and a really decent pint of Guinness.

From there we took a short walk up the road to Admiral, according to its own website ‘Dublin’s most popular nautical-themed restaurant, a mixture of sea going adventure and modern elegance’.  Yeah, right. I was, at first glance, disappointed. I’d heard from a friend that the waiting staff wore naval uniforms from the ‘Battleship Potemkin’ era and this proved untrue The nautical theme was there, in spades, though. The otherwise unremarkable, pub-like exterior featured, of all things, a small lighthouse. Indoors, the bar was housed in a recess, shrouded by a fibreglass rock face; the dining room  festooned with nets, coloured glass globes, ships’ wheels, lifebelts and other sailors’ paraphenalia. A giant TV featured nubile ladies, more navel than naval, was it a wink-and-a-nod that the place might be used, after hours, for pole dancing? This could  be a great idea, a sort of ‘Bada Bing-meets-Captain Pugwash’ vibe.

The menu indicated seafood. The chef’s speciality, not very Russian, was listed as ‘Whole lobster, grilled with tiger prawns, juicy pineapple and coconut sauce’. Oligarch food? Well, certainly oligarch prices – €45 for this dish, at a time when lobster has never been cheaper? But, for the oligarchicly-challenged,  cheaper and more conventional dishes were there – your steak, salmon and hen-tit, dressed up so as not to offend.  But, hang on, the most interesting items on the menu were genuinely Eastern European – Lithuania, Latvia, Russia and Ukraine were name-checked. “Maybe this restaurant isn’t Russian anyway?” said The History Woman. As if to reinforce the thought the waiter came back to our table and handed us a second menu, featuring sushi. By now we were totally confused. “Well, the Russians did fight a war with the Japanese, circa 1904,” I said. “Was it over fish quotas?”

To further shake the ethnic kaleidoscope we ordered a bottle of French wine, a Puisseguin-St.Emilion for what seemed a bargain €28. It turned out to be a 1999, which I would have thought would have given up the ghost but, no, it was delicious. It yelled  ‘red meat’ so we dismissed all thoughts of sushi and settled on two bowls of borscht which would have been absolutely delicious had they not been lukewarm. Next up, a couple of starters from the Steppes, a salad of beef tongue with pickled mushrooms and one of rabbit liver, wrapped in bacon, a different take on the ‘devils on horseback’ theme. Both were terrific, the delicacy of the tongue, in particular, contrasting nicely with the tanginess of the pickle and we quickly came to the conclusion that way to go was to stick to the East European idiom. We shared some cepelini, a traditional Latvian dish consisting of minced spiced pork, encased in a large torpedo-shaped potato dumpling and served with a tasty sauce of sour cream, onions and bacon, first rate comfort food.

THW tried to get dessert but was told brusquely (more pre-perestroika authenticity?) “The kitchen is now closed.” Clearly all the sailors don’t love a nice girl. Still, we were impressed with Admiral, at least with the ethnic food end of it. The chef, Pavel Steblovskiy from Latvia, clearly knows his business. It’s sad that he’s forced  to compromise and cook naffery like the aforementioned lobster and pineapple or the salmon fillet ‘stuffed with prawns and mozzarella cheese’ to earn a crust. Sad that this sort of stuff probably outsells his dumpling dishes and his fine rabbit stew by a ratio of umpteen to one. Sad that the restaurant’s proprietor feels he has to recreate the set of ‘Pirates of Penzance’ in order to make a statement. In truth it’s as much a reflection on ourselves and our lack of adventure when it comes to culinary exploration that most Dubliners would opt, on a bitter night, for a Mediterranean pizza rather than fuel up on one of Mr.Steblovski’s dumplings.

We’d spent just over €56, half of which was down to wine. Overall, the two of us felt we’d love to eat this man’s food in simpler surroundings. Plain tables, white napkins, decent cutlery and proper wine glasses would suffice. There’s absolutely no need for the any of the ‘Pugwashery’. Underneath all the mixed metaphors (culinary and décor-wise) and muted by all the “Yo, ho, ho” and “Shiver my mainbrace” crap there’s serious food struggling to get its message across.

Admiral, 1 Q-Park Ground Floor, Marlborough Street, Dublin 1 Tel: 01 873 5472

Food ****

Wine **

Service ***

Ambience **

Overall ***

 

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Ernie Whalley has chicken overload at ‘Crackbird’

These are the protected Gallina Padovana. NOT on the menu at Dublin's new chicken shack. (Photo courtesy of SLOW FOOD)

 

The ‘pop-up restaurant’, a phrase I guarantee you’ll be hearing a lot more of, was conceived as a fly-by-night dining event where a chef with a background in fine dining takes over a restaurant or vacant space for a brief window. There’s an indie, even underground vibe to the concept. The menu changes daily at the whim of the chef; the price is often fixed, and you usually need to make reservations. Pop-up restaurants might serve for only a single evening, or several days, or several weeks. But the menus and locations are never permanent. The internet and the associated social networking phenomena are key tools in marketing these “now you see me, now you don’t” eateries.
Pop-up restaurants are said to have started in Los Angeles and the man most commonly charged with inventing them is French-born, California-domiciled chef, Ludo Lefebvre. He prefers to call his restaurant, Ludo Bites, a “touring restaurant’’ declaring that “like many a band we have been ‘touring’ locally since 2007 and we’ve played at various locations all over Los Angeles”. Since then many prominent chefs have identified themselves with the concept. Many of the roving supper clubs in the US have acquired reputations that are the stuff of legend along with serious waiting lists.
London has its far share of these guerilla dining establishments, perhaps the most famous being The Loft Project where fledgling chefs from The Ledbury and other top establishments were permitted to strut their stuff. The food served is frequently sophisticated or, at least, well off-piste; sample: ‘carpaccio of roe deer with walnut-oil mayonnaise, burnt bread, flowering claytonia, pennywort and hairy bittercress.’
Pop-up restaurants have until now been conspicuous by their absence in Ireland (apart from a couple of RTE staged stunts involving, among others, Kevin Thornton in unlikely locations like the Rock of Cashel). However this may be about to change with chefs and restaurateurs monitoring the success or otherwise of the new Crackbird in Crane Lane, Temple Bar. In Ireland, we like to do things different. Our first pop-up restaurant, brainchild of Joe Macken of Rathmines’ Joburger and open only until 22nd of May, is no sort of homage to gastronomy. Crackbird, a singular name you’d imagine would attract a dodgy clientele, can only be described as a sort of ‘KFC GTi’ selling but one product, chicken, which comes in two versions – ‘skillet-fried buttermilk’and ‘super crisp soy garlic’, priced at €9.95 per half bird per person or €17.95 for a full bird. Wings are sold by the dozen (€11.95) and there are semolina or chilli ‘chicken crunches’ with a choice of dip included at €4.95. Value-addeds for the restaurant include five sides at €3.75 each and a choice of seven dips at a euro a throw. The room is dimly lit and noisy, with music that can only be described as ‘foreground’. You wouldn’t come to Crackbird for a quiet read or a heart-to-heart with your bezzy. Some of the furniture is distressed to the point of busrting into tears. Cutlery and crockery are very ‘church fete lucky bag’.

We hadn’t booked, indeed we’d hardly have known how to as there’s no phone number listed and booking a restaurant on Twitter is, as yet, an alien thing. It took half an hour’s wait to gain a table, during which time the three of us (me, Daughter One and her partner) placed our order, sat at the bar and drank Pilsner Urquell, only beer on offer and sold by the bottle, four-pack or case, discount for quantity. There was wine – a NZ Sauv B, surprise, surprise and a basic Rioja but beer seems more appropriate. Around us the place was packed, the clientele, I’d say, 25-35 and 70-30 female to male on the night. There was one empty table which apparently is reserved for ‘Tweets’ on a bi-hourly basis. If you are lucky enough to book this table you get the food free gratis. This seems a smart marketing ploy, further helping to spread the word.
We ordered a whole bird of the soy-garlic variety plus a dozen wings. This took another half hour to arrive. Whether through design, organisation or lack of practice I can’t say but Crackbird struck us as being by no stretch of the imagination a fast food restaurant. We chose three sides – a slaw, a roast parsnip & nigella seed salad and had some couscous pressed upon us by the helpful waiter. The others praised the slaw, especially for the lightness of the dressing but I found the cabbage a tad bitter. The parsnips (small portion of)were unmemorable, we agreed, and the couscous (masses of it), excellent. We took four sauces. I’ve often found that the hottest chilli sauce is the one that’s hardest to spell or pronounce so we kept clear of ‘Srirracha’, opting instead for ‘Chipotle’. Pick of them was the burnt lemon and whipped feta which D1 vowed to emulate at home. Seeing the mountain of bones from afar, the waiter returned to offer us dessert – there was only one, a huge chocolate gateau –gorged to our tonsils, we declined. We did take three filter coffees which turned out to be truly excellent – quite the best coffee I’ve had in a restaurant for ages, emphasising that good filter coffee is preferable to average espresso.
Were I to pick two words to crystallise the night they would be ‘fun’ and ‘salty’. There was far too much NaCl on the chooks, the flavour I came away with was that of neat salt, as if you’d been sucking on a rock of it. The wings, in particular, should carry a health warning, so those with cardiac problems could steer clear. The whole bird was drenched in dark soy sauce. Later, as I lay in bed, I felt that ‘Chinese take-away buzz’.
We had good craic at Crackbird and, for sure, that’s half the point of dining out. As I’ve said, fast fast food, it ain’t and we could have done with a bowl for the bones but these are niggles set against the joyous cacophony of people having fun. Nor is it particularly cheap when you factor in the sides and sauces. We spent €82.65, ex service, which included two beers each – rough equivalent of 3 x an early bird and a glass each of wine at a ‘proper’ restaurant.
Food wise, I have reservations. I’d had a fun evening but, when push came to shove, the ‘craic’ was better than the ‘bird’. I felt it was an opportunity missed, a chance to show us that simple  food could be tasty and of honourable provenance. Considering Crackbird goes beyond the call of duty in name-checking suppliers – 3FE coffee, Hall & Keogh’s tea and David Llwellyn’s ‘local’ cider all get a mention – the chicken man’s name is curiously absent, reinforcing my view that these birds may not be the Mae West when it comes to texture or  flavour, hence the soy and salt overload. In the unlikely event of my getting a craving to eat chicken I’d probably head for Georges Street and the cuisse de poulet a l’oignon at Café des Irelandais – although I note that, even there, they’ve stopped flagging the bird as ‘Label Rouge.; Now, on their website, it’s just chicken tout court. C’est la vie.

Crackbird, Crane Lane, Dublin 2
Food **
Wine *
Service ****
Ambience ****
Volume 5 bells
Overall **

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 ****

 

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 – China-Sichuan

The China-Sichuan is unique among Dublin restaurants. Firstly, for its uncompromising culinary credo. Secondly, for the clean-cut way in which it divides the dining out fraternity. The China-Sichuan you either love or hate, it seems. Extreme foodies, the sort who rattle their Globals on my website forum, are in the former camp. They agonised when the restaurant shut down earlier this year and rejoiced when, phoenix-like, it reopened. Many others, particularly people who relish Chinese food of the sticky toffee sauce variety are dismissive of the China-Sichuan and I can see why.

The food we’ve got to know and love as Chinese comes from Canton province. It was brought to the western seaboard of the USA by Chinese sailors and labourers, whence it got re-exported to Europe. Canton, in the south of China, enjoys a sub-tropical climate, giving two crops of rice a year and all manner of vegetables and exotic fruit in addition to an abundance of fish, fowl and meat. The variety of foodstuff available allows its culinary artists to paint with a rainbow palette and produce food that’s as beguiling to the eye as it is tasty to eat. The Cantonese are the poster boys for Chinese cuisine.

In contrast, Sichuan, in China’s western interior, has an altogether more austere culinary take. The main feature is an assault on the taste buds via a two-pronged attack using the tiny, russet berries we know as ‘Sichuan peppercorns’ which give a tongue–numbing sensation combined with dried red chillies, more potent than in their fresh state. This violent assault has to be curbed to suit Western palates and it may well be that Sichuan food, throttled back in this fashion, comes over as a tad monochromic, impeccably fresh ingredients notwithstanding.

Another controversial aspect of the China-Sichuan is its relocation to Sandyford, not so much a love/hate vibe as “Can I be bothered going there at all?” I can see the advantages of this non-City centre, non-Ranelagh dining strip location. There’s plenty of parking, easy accessibility via the LUAS if you want to have a jar or two.  It works in other cities – for instance in Adelaide, South Australia, where locals are happy to hike out to a nondescript shopping mall in the boonies because of the existence of a good restaurant. Yet there are many who would find the lack of external ambience depressing. A trading estate is only a trading estate, no matter how much it was bulled up as one of the seven wonders of modern Ireland during the Tiger Years.

Sibs and I rocked up on a Thursday night to find the China-Sichuan agreeably busy. Kevin Hui, proprietor, greeted us at the door and took our coats. The split dining room is decently got up in a restrained contemporary fashion. Chairs are comfortable and tables far enough apart to allow for intimacy, or at least the feeling that your bons mots won’t be repeated at someone else’s breakfast table. It was the first chill autumn night of the year so I kicked off with a hot-and-sour soup, made in Sichuan style with chicken shreds, not the typical mock-Cantonese assortment of pork, prawns and tofu. Greedy guts me also had a second starter, the chili soft shell crab, of which I could have eaten a mountain. Sibs, frugal darling, had opted to eat off the two course early evening menu (€20). Something of a connoisseur when it comes to spring rolls, she pronounced the China-Sichuan’s just about the best she’d had in Dublin.

Next came a complimentary dish on which Kevin asked for feedback. “It’s not quite on the menu,” he said. It was another starter. A roll of sea bass, cooked just a point, into which was stuffed spears of green asparagus and slivers of daikon. We gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

For a main course I took the ‘spicy’ aged rib-eye, coated in three peppers, a dish a friend had eulogised about as “better than the similar dish at Hakkasan”, praise indeed. Taking his tip, I asked for it a little spicier than the norm. More than anything else, this sophisticated dish gave a clue as to where the China-Sichuan is at; it’s now a restaurant that’s combining top-class ingredients and thoroughly modern cheffing, going upmarket to make the most of a relatively restricted culinary tradition. Unlike Cantonese cooking, where the saucing steals the show, Sichuan stands or falls on the quality of the raw materials and this was a top drawer steak, sensitively treated. Sibella was more than happy with her fried prawns with ginger and scallions, the prawns springy and flavoursome. The China-Sichuan is one of the few restaurants in which I’d be happy to eat fried rice, all too often the real culprit for the next morning malaise that’s normally laid at the door of MSG. We also took a side dish of perfectly cooked bok choi.

It was heartening to see the ever-more widely adopted practice of making wine available by the glass, carafe or bottle. Kudos to the China-Sichuan for a wine list that included the excellent Alsace gewürztraminer of Meyer-Fonne We drank it, by the way, not because gewurz is the best partner for Chinese food, a  daft old saw you often hear, but simply because that was what we fancied drinking.

To sum up, we were happy with the €91.50 ex-service, including wine and Chinese tea, we paid. Ireland needs some high end Chinese restaurants to remind us just how good the cuisine of that country can be. The China-Sichuan is working very hard to take pole position and I’d like to see a Cantonese emerge that has equivalent aspirations.

RATING

Food ****

Wine ***

Service **

Ambience ****

Overall ***+

China-Sichuan The Forum, Ballymoss Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18. Tel: 01 293 5100

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

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

Restaurant Review – Chapter One

“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”.

Rating *****

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

TOTAL 155.50