“We’ll go down to the Mermaid Café and I will buy you a bottle of wine. And we’ll laugh and toast to nothing and smash our empty glasses down.” I sang over the phone.
“That’s great. Did you write that?” said Lefty, my fellow guitar-playing conspirator.
“No, Joni Mitchell did, but I was probably her inspiration.” (I met her once, in 1968).
I go down to the Mermaid Café quite a lot. I’d love to smash their empty coarse- rimmed glasses down. And not being overly padded in the old gluteus maximus and having a slightly dodgy back, I’d like to smash the ‘Shaker-meets -repentance stool’ chairs too. Also maybe chuck out a few tables and push the rest father apart. Where’s the joy in dining out if you can’t impart scurrilous rumour to your best mate without the world sharing the secret? Why should you have to save the scandal for the taxi ride home?
This said, the Mermaid Café is without doubt Dublin’s most enjoyable dining experience. No, it’s not a Thorntons or Guilbaud’s, nor yet a Chapter One or L’Ecrivain. ‘Fine dining’ is not where it’s at. But I love the hi-decibel conversation generated by the ponytail-to-pinstripe clientele. And while, to a pro’s eye the place seems understaffed, service never gets ragged – a little frayed around the edges maybe; still, they always find time to debate key topics like whether you’ll get more pleasure from the loin of lamb than the confit pork. House wines are well chosen and fairly priced – we liked the e20 Penedes Reserva. If you want to go upmarket, there are some nifty New World beauties you won’t find elsewhere. The food is modern in concept but tilted towards satisfying keen appetites rather than gaining the chef membership of the Royal Hibernian Academy. No pointillist paintings with jus or coulis, no LeCorbusier towers, no spun sugar abstracts.
The art on the other walls is modern, too, and maritime-flavoured. Picture windows on two sides lend, Lefty observed, an air of dining on a ship while gazing out at those on deck. I imagined Captain Ahab as a man with a beard and a peaked cap hove into view, though he was probably only parking cars. After a glass of Italian Chardonnay, which was, I’m pleased to say, light on boring old melons and peaches, our starters arrived. My confit of duck salad was succulent and stylish, but not a patch on Lefty’s New England crab cakes which, untypically, contained more crab than crumb. If these are what they eat in New England I now know why people try and row the Atlantic east to west.
When it came to the main course I had my revenge. He got a fillet steak, of good size and excellent quality. I got a whole aquarium! The giant fish casserole came piled high above a soup bowl. So high I had visions of the contents unbalancing and shoaling into my lap. The crown of this king size treat consisted of seven or eight fat-bellied langoustines. I devoured these, then attacked the stack of mussels. In the basement was an assortment of fish: hake, cod, salmon, ray and more, all enveloped in a delicious Thai-flavoured soup that I slurped up with a spoon before ignorantly and joyfully mopping the bowl with the Mermaid’s good bread. Which is why I could only manage half a dessert. Pity, their pecan pie, a benchmark by which to judge its kind. “I can feel my arteries shrinking,” said Lefty, climbing in regardless. We finished with good espressi then went out on deck looking for the great white whale. We didn’t find him – maybe he was in the casserole!
The Mermaid Café 69-70 Dame Street, Dublin 2 Tel: (01) 670 8205