Even as I bear down on the state of early middle age (a kind of semi-fermented over-ripeness that precedes withering) I still like to pride myself on the keenness of my recall. Regardless of what others might regard as persuasive evidence, I retain the ability to convince myself of the faithfulness of my account. Quite why there was no food whatsoever served at the grand opening of Luna back in 2015 continues to confound me though. Worse still, neither do I seem to remember the presence of any other guests. My pre-frontal cortex insists that owner John Farrell was there, as was left-hand man Leo Molloy and original head chef Karl Whelan. But as for the flotsam of food writers, boulevardiers, even the free booze crews, I can’t remember one. Perhaps we got the date wrong, or maybe it was the gas lines in the kitchen, but we had a swell time regardless. We drank some stiff drinks at the bar and just marvelled at the room. The fit, the finish, the feel of it. Designed by ODOS architects and lavishly appointed, it was hands down the most handsome dining room in all of Dublin. The super-luxe, maximalist Italian food wasn’t half bad either. It would go on to win ‘Best Restaurant in Ireland’ at the Irish Restaurant Awards in 2016 (for what it’s worth) and when Whelan left in 2019 to have all kinds of fun at Hang Dai he was replaced by Vish Sumputh.
Revisiting my review (for this magazine) penned shortly after made me weak at the knees all over again. The show-stopping Watercress Risotto made on Acquerello rice. The ‘Filetto Rossini’ finished tableside with a flurry of grated foie gras butter. I signed off with a reference to the (surely imminent) Michelin inspectors. And then, when the numbers just stopped working, it was over. If I remember correctly the service, under the supervision of GM Declan Maxwell, garnered a hospitality industry award just days before the stoves went cold. I’m still dressed in black to this day.
When the news began to circulate last year that the space (and brand) had been acquired by publican Declan O’Regan I felt an odd mix of elation and trepidation. Ben Dineen (already on O’Regan’s payroll) was announced as head chef. It’s worth noting that the previous chef moved across from Chapter One while the current one is stepping up from L’Gueuleton. The ambition gap between those kitchens is considerable. Following some false starts around covid and those gas-lines I finally got to return to the scene of some of my greatest dining triumphs a few weeks back and I’m sorry to say that the years (of inactivity) have been unkind. The room feels as if it has been let go. The sheen has been replaced with shabbiness. The Overlook Hotel carpet could use a Shake N’ Vac to put the fun idea back and the worrying signs begin to stack up. The bathrooms, once detailed to the nth degree now feel dilapidated. Crap, poorly framed, pictures hang haphazardly on the walls. The natty blazers for the floor staff have been nixed. The wine list, once compendious and fit to burst with Barolos, now consists of two photocopied pages and reads like fourteen different ways of saying I couldn’t give a fig. It is certainly more affordable than before, if you can ignore the false economy of spending money on something you don’t really want to drink. Comparatively, it is the winelist of a pub.
I was determined that we would eat from the set menu, snacks and three courses at €69 per person, having tired of the joyless processions of modern tastings. Also, it’s nice to reclaim a measure of dinner agency; my gastro-intestinal tract, my choice. That menu read quite nicely, as they increasingly tend to. I’m told that the list will be substantially different by the time this is published and that’s probably for the best. Here’s a flavour nevertheless. From the snacks – 36 Month Parmesan Panna Cotta with Chambord Jelly presents as an alluring orb, russet and glossy as a toffee-apple and about the size of an adam’s apple. It sits in the bowl of a spoon daring us not to take a photo but, unfortunately, tastes of precious little. Not the powerful thump of that cheese and not the high raspberry notes of that liqueur. Pinkie-sized Beef Tartare ‘Cannoli’ is a cute idea, I suppose, but doesn’t really do much beyond delivering a lilliputian portion of adequate tartare.
A crudo starter of the prized Spanish Balfego Bluefin is not improved by the splots and dribbles of red and green sauces pollocked about the plate. Fish of this quality needs nothing more than a spritz of citrus and an anointment of good olive oil, or real wasabi root and good soy sauce. Our server seems genuinely astonished when we successfully identify the Furikake that also makes an appearance. I quite liked the idea of saucing a Raviolo of Lobster with the flavours of a south-east asian laksa, but the dish is let down by some heavy-handed pasta making. Too thick, too much chew. I made a similar observation when I reviewed Dineen’s previous place. The uneven theme continues into the mains.
There is a generous tranche of pan-fried Dory sitting in a mildly savoury spume. I don’t see any trace of the advertised vongole or taste the elderflower. A small mercy, I think. If I could be pried away from the steak-frites in L’Gueuleton I might consider ordering it as a special. Except I wouldn’t. A dish of boned and rolled Guinea Fowl with a pistachio stuffing is well executed as is a Dexter Ribeye. Broadbean and Nettle Souffle sounds interesting and was certainly memorable. A souffle in name only, this manifested as a dense, gummy, green puck and featured a deeply unpleasant mouth feel. Again, thankfully it tasted of not much, the supposed girolle dressing of nothing at all. I stopped taking notes at this point so you can draw your own conclusions about dessert. Service is upbeat and well-meaning but just doesn’t feel polished or well-drilled enough for the proposition. What Luna (1.0) had in spades was a sense of occasion, like Conran’s places in London or McNally’s in New York City. It’s that difference between going out for something to eat and going to dinner, but it’s not about stiff formality.
The competency of the kitchen is never in question, but that bar is too low for this room. I noted a quote from Dineen around the initial opening in December that he wanted “to let our food do the talking”. If that’s the case, then the kitchen will need to speak up and say something memorable. Right now this is Luna in name only, a cover version that only serves to remind you of how great the original was.
Words: Conor Stevens
Unit 2-3 Drury St