Tag Archives: Value

First Floor at Harvey Nicholls


 A week ago me and my buddies sat down to discern what the recession meant to us. “Well, in gastronomic terms, it’s pretty bloody unpalatable,” quipped Jocko who had been caught holding too many bank shares. The company divided naturally into two camps. One party vowed to take a “draw the wagons into a circle” strategy. This means dining out less often and when doing so, forgoing frivolities like fizzy water and post-prandial cognac; hand-in-hand with this goes a sworn intent to squirrel out discounts, early birds, promotions and pre-theatre dinners. The opposition clung to a manifesto that could be summed up as “Sod it; we might be on the Titanic but at least we’re going down first class.” As usual, yours truly, aware of the need for stringent economies yet unwilling entirely to give up life’s little luxuries, parked his butt in no man’s land.

A day or so later I received a press release from Harvey Nichols advising that wines, at least those above €30, were, for the month of January, to be flogged less 50% discount with lunch or dinner, same price that you could buy them for in the wine shop. I was excited by this, not as you’d imagine because it would enable me to have a bottle of wine in a good restaurant for €15 but because I would be able to drink so much better for the sort of money I usually spend – the thinking man’s view of the credit crunch if you like.

Let me give you a ‘for instance…’ In Clare Valley, South Australia, there’s a man called Jeffrey Grosset who makes some sublime Riesling. His Polish Hill is truly world-class. The last time I was in Chapter One, Grosset Polish Hill featured at €85. At the less exalted Winding Stair it sold for €60. On Harvey Nichols restaurant list it was €68, so, at €34, a snip, a steal. We also took a bottle of Seghesio’s excellent Family Estate Zinfandel, likewise a steal at the discounted €30

Let’s clear the crap out of the way first. The receptionist, having taken our coats, marched us into the dining area and showed us to The Worst Table In The Room. There were several tables-for-two in better locations that were unoccupied. Naturally, we assumed that they were reserved. As the evening wore on, this proved not to be the case. Secondly, I must take issue with the background music. It was actually “foreground” music, loud, bland, tedious and intrusive. Lastly and I’ll take Sibella’s word for this, the female toilets were a bit “untidy”. The gents was pristine. My only gripe was the Lilliputian buttons doubling as taps made life difficult for optically challenged me.

After that, onwards and upwards. Ambience-wise, they’ve made the best of an unpromising room, kitting it out with good furniture, linen, table and glassware and installing a battery of atmospheric lighting that takes out Eddie Rockets across the way. Sibella opted for the table d’hote; Old Greedy Guts, the à la carte, affording a more exotic choice. I figured out early enough that I wouldn’t have room for desert which would balance out what we spent.

The bread, four kinds of which the black olive deserves a special commendation, was excellent. I tore it into soldiers to dip into the amuse bouche poached egg crème brûlée. My starter, a combo of scallops and crispy belly pork was stunning, Sibs’ crab rillette, a delight. Where was I a few weeks ago when I railed against the belly pork? They should send someone here to see how its done. Milady had it for a main and I managed to scam a chunk, succulent and tender. I had the wild pheasant, less deconstructed than elsewhere, the breast left whole. It came with a pithivier, posh name for a little flat-capped pie, stuffed with chestnuts, which made a pleasing contrast in texture and pointed up the flavour of the bird. Sibs was entitled to dessert; we clashed spoons over the mango and passion fruit parfait. I topped things off with a 7/10 espresso. The young Polish guy who seemed to be combining the functions of Maitre d’ and sommelier looked after us regally all-night, re-corking the last of the Grosset and presenting it in a Harvey Nics bag so that Sibs, the driver, could enjoy it when she got home.

The damage: €164.12 inc service for starter, main course, 3-course table d’hote, 1 coffee, 2 bottles very good wine

Verdict: One of Dublin’s most under-regarded restaurants. Get there in January to drink in some style at bargain prices. Confident cooking, too and good ingredients. Precise service. Cool décor but watch where they put you.

Rating: ****


January Promotion – Harvey Nic's First Floor

Harvey Nichols First Floor restaurant is running an interesting promotion throughout the entire month of January. Basically every single wine on the wine list is available at a 50% discount off the prices listed below during the month – at lunch and at dinner – making the wine the same price you would pay for it in the Wine Shop. Now I’m a fan of Thomas Haughton’s savvy cooking and I wouldn’t mind partnering it with any of these, especially at half price
Heartland Viognier/Pinot Gris, Ben Glaetzer, South Australia 2006 36.00
Riesling ‘RK’ Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt, Germany 2007 37.00
Terrazas de los Andes Reserva Chardonnay, Mendoza, Argentina 2007 43.50
Sancerre, Les Celliers St-Rombles, Andre Dezat, France 2007 47.50
Craggy Range Te Muna Road Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand 2006 55.00
Chablis Premier Cru, Beauroy, Alain Geoffroy, Burgundy 2005 59.50

Harvey Nichols Malbec, Catena Zapata, Mendoza, Argentina 2007 28.00
Valpolicella, Allegrini, Veneto, Italy 2007 31.50
Cairanne, Cotes-du-Rhone Villages, Domaine de L’Ameillaud 2006 35.00
Harvey Nichols Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Maréchal-Caillot, France 2006 36.00
Morgon, Domaine de la Chaponne, Laurent Guillet, Beaujolais 2007 40.00
La Montesa, Palacios Remondo, Rioja, Spain 2004 43.50
Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, Stellenbosch, South Africa 2005 47.00
Château Patache d’Aux, Cru Bourgeois, Bordeaux, France 2001 47.50

Loads of others on the very comprehensive and interesting list but these are my personal picks. I’d be quite tempted to Charles Melton’s Nine Popes at €40 (list €80) but the vintage on offer (2006) is miles too new to get the nuances and subtleties from this massive wine. The Craggy Range Te Muna Road gets my vote over Cloudy Bay, also on the list.
Seems to me this is the sort of creative thinking we need for the times that are in it. Well done, Harvey Nic’s.

Harvey Nichols First Floor, Dundrum Shopping Centre, Dublin Tel: 01 291 0488

Vaughan's Eagle House

In my penultimate year at school I struggled through ‘Ulysses’ from first page to last. It was a ‘classroom cred’ thing. If you had read both ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Tristram Shandy’ you were considered a literary genius by your peer group. I can’t say the exercise was a pleasure, nor did ‘Ulysses’ bestow an everlasting reverence for Joyce and his convoluted prose – where was David Norris when I needed him?

Nevertheless something must have stuck. When I came to live in Dublin and first saw Terenure on the local map, I recalled Joyce detailing some connection between that village and ‘trams’. Looking it up, I found Terenure Cross, which many call Vaughan’s Corner, was a terminus for the city trams. Indeed, Terenure was once ‘Tram Central’, boasting no less than three depots. Now, ironically, it’s been bypassed by the LUAS.

Notwithstanding claims on Joyce as a son of down-the-road Rathgar, he had strong Terenure connections, including being baptised in the parish church of St. Joseph. His mother, Mary Jane (May) Murray was born in the nearby pub known as The Eagle House. It was to this haven of refuge that a soaking Bangles and I rocked up on a Wednesday night during the recent monsoons.

Terenure would be far from the gastro-suburb of my (or indeed anyone’s) dreams and eating pub food in Dublin is, by any measure, a chancy business, so what were we doing here? I’ll confess we’d received a tip off that Vaughan’s Eagle House was well worth a visit and not just to see the plaque dedicated to Mammy Joyce.

We thought we were on the minute, as a sign read “Food till 8pm” and it was ten-to. However, that turned out to be a hangover from the previous regime no one had bothered to take down. We were directed to the upstairs dining room, which turned out to be two dining rooms, the first an upstairs bar. Beyond and at a slightly elevated level was a charming hexagonal room that offered more intimacy.

The cutlery came wrapped not in napkins but large linen glass cloths, a great idea. The person who invented the dining napkin must have been either a woman or a bloody eunuch. Whoever, did the fool not realise that real men don’t sit with their legs together? Dining out on a regular basis, I am permanently depressed by having to keep picking the damn thing up off the floor and by the cost of the dry cleaning bills.

The wine list was “compiled by Charles Derain, formerly sommelier at Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud”. Did this mean “pricey”? No, even the dearest bottle cost €27. We chose a Côtes-du-Rhône at €19, which, though it started out steely, mellowed with the food, something you often find in French wines.

Bangles took the smoked salmon and crab claw salad. Underneath the generous portion of salmon hid cubed salad potatoes, boiled and simply dressed. My fishcakes were as good as I’ve had anywhere, three decent discs, with a crisp breadcrumb coating concealing the perfect blend of fish and potato. Thankfully, there was no smoked fish in the blend. The necessary tangy element was provided by a good, possibly home made sauce tartare and a sparingly-dressed salad.

We both fancied the steak-and-Guinness pie, me because it’s a bar food staple that’s almost always a disaster. I deferred and settled for the lamb shank with colcannon. The pie came in quite a large rectangular dish, looking almost enough for two people, and was topped with a whisper-light puff pastry crust. Delving deep, we found the meat tender and the gravy moist and nourishing. This pie reminded me of my late mum’s and I can bestow no higher praise. The lamb shank was exactly how it should be: meat starting to peel away from the bone but, withal, still juicy, not in dry shreds. Nor could I fault the colcannon. It was beginning to dawn that what was put in front of us was real rustic Irish food: simple, hearty, made with really good ingredients. At the same time, there was an extra element in the cooking; a confidence, a lightness of touch. Much of the bar food around, even when not frazzled under halogen lights, gives the impression that it was slapped up by some chancer whose previous job was slinging hash on a tramp steamer. In contrast, the cooking at Vaughan’s bore the hallmark of a trained and talented chef. The truth of this was rammed home when our dessert, a gorgeous summer berry tart with crème fraîche and (which we asked for) pistachio ice cream arrived. We couldn’t leave without finding out who this paragon was. I can now reveal he’s young, he’s a Breton, his name is Olivier Quenet and his CV includes La Maison des Gourmets, the aforesaid Guilbaud’s and some three-stars in France.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that Vaughan’s Eagle House now serves the best bar food, lunch or dinner, that you can get in Dublin and, better yet, at prices we can live with in these necessarily frugal times. Taxis, in true Dublin fashion, stuck €27 on the night out. What we need is more trams.

Vaughan’s Eagle House, Vaughan’s Corner, Terenure Road North, Dublin 6. Tel:
01 490 1251

€67.75 for 2 starters, 2 mains, 1 dessert, bottle of wine

Ambience: ***1.2

Quality: *****

Service; ****

Value: *****

Overall ****1/2

Alexis Bar & Grill

Amateur night at Fawlty Towers. Basil and Sybil had gone to the flicks and left other lunatics in charge of the asylum. At one point there were three (really pleasant) young people clustered round our table. One had a bottle in his hand and was trying to persuade us that it was what we’d ordered, though it wasn’t. Another was apologising, saying no, sorry, the bottle we’d ordered was out of stock. The third was even more contrite, agreeing with my contention that there was no way the wine (correct or no) should have arrived at table after the starters. Dear, oh dear.

I didn’t know my dining companion that well. Just before we met, at a Christmas party, she had been described to me as “an all-round nice person, a really good egg”, a testimonial that caused me subsequently to invite her to accompany me on a restaurant review. I was already thinking her good-eggedness would be severely tested. I had dragged the lady out of the D4 comfort zone to the arse end of Dun Laoghaire to dine at Alexis Bar & Grill and things were going pear shaped, even before the first mouthful. It had to get better.

It did. From the second the Really Good Egg stuck her fork into the smoked haddock flan. There’s a world of difference between pale naturally-smoked undyed haddock and the yellow peril that tastes as though it was retrieved from a fire damage sale. This was the real thing, subtle and succulent. The flan crust, too, was an object lesson in pastry making, retaining a crisp bite and with good flavour. For my part, I took Jane Russell’s ‘Italian sausage’ – and the quote marks are mine. I know Jane; she’s a lovely person and a damn good sausage maker with a with a righteous attitude to using top class ingredients. But ‘Italian sausage’ it wasn’t. I’ve sampled snags the length and breadth of Italy and this one didn’t say “Ciaio” to me. It’s a textural thing. Jane’s didn’t have the seductive ooze of cotechino or the springy bounce of luganega. Hers was more an ‘Italian-flavoured Irish sausage’. The mash that accompanied it was absolutely exemplary, smooth, creamy but not elastic – much of the mashed potato that people point at you these days could be used as chest expanders. It seems we’re so scared of lumpy mash – a throwback to where we were before we got the Tiger by the tail? – we overwork it.

The RGE, like me, has a healthy thirst. Between us, the very smart bottle of Austrian Riesling disappeared in no time and we were ready for some red. Alexis’ list is compact but interesting, obviously put together by someone with a keen appreciation of wine. We lined up a bottle of Cote de Ventoux and awaited the next course. Here the Really Good Egg proved herself to be free range and double-yolked. I think she sort of sensed that I was really up for the crispy leg and pink-fried breast of Challans duck (was it that obvious?) and backed off, opting for the rack of matched exactly the execution of the dish. The pork, which I was graciously allowed sample, was an egg of the curate’s variety, being good where it abutted the bone but a wee bit dry towards its extremities. Maybe a slight re-think is called for because there’s no doubt it was a well-sourced piece of pork. The Cote de Ventoux, a Southern French region whose wines normally punch above their weight, coped perfectly with both mains.

For dessert, the RGE and I split a selection of Irish cheeses, in peak condition, and a delicious fruit tart with crème Anglaise. Coffee was certainly the best so far reviewed. Flavour wasn’t amazing (commercial Lavazza??) but temperature, extraction and crema were about as good as it gets.

It’s maybe time to own up and say I’d been to Cafe Alexis several times before and really liked it. Indeed, I feel an almost avuncular interest in the restaurant’s well being because a full year before it opened its doors one of the proprietors appeared, incognito, on my website quizzing the hardcore food freaks who contribute to the discussion forum as to their likes and dislikes and what might or might not be an appropriate direction to take. By the time it opened my virtual cronies I felt like midwives at the birth. I’m so glad the infant has grown up into a healthy child – Alexis was packed and buzzing that Tuesday night. Few would-be restaurateurs would take the trouble to go to the lengths Pat did. His co-proprietor and brother, Alan, is the chef; with a pedigree going back to two excellent restaurants, Clarets and Morels and beyond.

At Alexis there’s a reverence for really good ingredients underscored by sympathetic treatment of them; there’s nothing fancy or tricked up about the food but it’s all very well done. Authentic French bistro cooking if you like, transmuted into what, given the very reasonable prices, must be the near-perfect neighbourhood restaurant. There should be one for every suburb of Dublin.

Ignore the first paragraph – what a bitch I am!

The damage: £110 ex tip, 2 starters, 2 mains, 2 desserts, 2 bottles of wine, 1 coffee

Ambience: ****

Quality: ****1/2

Service: ***1/2

Value: *****

Overall: ****

Alexis Bar & Grill, 17-18 Patrick Street, Dun Laoghaire Tel: 01 280 8872