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