I hadn’t seen an opening teased like this since I visited a smut-show in Amsterdam as a kid. Tidbits were drip-fed online, one day an image of the visual identity, the next a snatch of menu. I ended up watching their Facebook page the way a cat eyes up a gap in the skirting board. At last my gimlet-eyed vigilance paid off – Friday would see a ‘friends and family’ lunch. I pounced on it. It wouldn’t really be fair to review a place during a soft-opening so let’s call this a preview and ignore my indecent haste.
The term gastropub has been so abused in this country as to be rendered meaningless. The only individuals who use it with a straight face probably also describe themselves as foodies. Chicken in a basket and some snipes of tepid Blossom Hill do not a gastropub make. The term was coined to describe places in London like The Eagle, (a doff of the wig perhaps here in the name riff?) and The Anchor & Hope. Almost a quarter of a century ago they (and others) were in the vanguard of a new way of eating and of serving food. These were the kind operations that heralded and championed the notions of seasonality and provenance. They were ingredient-driven and they kick-started a movement that has elevated that nation’s gastronomic culture in profound ways over the last quarter century, democratising the dining experience along the way. In fact, it was no longer necessary to dine to eat well, or interestingly. There were things that you wanted to eat described on an actual blackboard. You could eat foie gras without the assistance of a tablecloth!
As I implied earlier, the idea of the gastropub didn’t really really survive the crossing of the Irish Sea. Those flag-waving ‘food writers’ who say otherwise can kiss my narrow ass. Rather than promoting our food culture they are complicit in the ‘good enough’ culture that continues to flourish. The taste that I associate most closely with eating in Irish pubs (in or out of the Pale) is that of bitter disappointment. You can’t get a bit of fresh fish in a fishing port, or a properly aged steak in a place surrounded by fields full of beef. We need to raise the bar and I would like to think that Elaine Murphy and business partner Brian Montague (The Winding Stair, Woollen Mills etc) understand this.
They have transformed The Legal Eagle into a very handsome room indeed, all exposed brick, olive banquettes and stout furniture and overseen a menu that pays homage to the very idea of gastropublicanism without sacrificing originality. From the Bar Menu we order ‘Homemade’ (who lives here?) crisps and some pickled eggs.Both are pretty much perfect and it’s a nice way to kick off. A blue cheese soufflé (from the dinner menu) might be a tad underpowered for some but it is very nicely executed and comes to life eaten alongside the accompanying pear fritter coated in pecans. I will never tire of consuming bone marrow and the version here, topped with long-braised oxtail and Irish snails (!) is sensational.
From a selection of ‘Irish Potato Flatbreads’ we choose one topped with smoked haddock brandade, shaved fennel and a poached duck egg. Another win and take note Roberta’s/Sophie’s, these guys actually know how to get their wood-burning oven up to temp! A rabbit and bacon pie with cider prompts some debate about the very definition of pie. This one comes in a bowl with a pastry lid.
Taxonomy aside, the shortcrust pastry is textbook and the filling tastes forcefully of its ingredients. Rendered infantile by the quantity of food we order some jelly and ice cream. It is both jolly and good.They are taking their wine program seriously too, as evidenced by the recruitment of sommelier Sean Gargano, a Chicagoan whose enthusiasm for his subject could have averted prohibition. The list he has put together is a delight, fairly priced and approachable but full of unusual and eclectic choices. Of the wines he pairs for us a standout is an Argentinian Torrontes/Riesling blend from Amalaya that begins with ripe apricots and finishes tartly with lime.
God is in the details for ventures like this and it is abundantly apparent that a lot of consideration has gone into The Legal Eagle. Producers have been carefully chosen (check out the meat platter), the menu has been designed with utility in mind. You could drop in for a beer (from a vast list) and the daily-changing roast in a roll (I’ll be back for Wednesday’s smoked pork neck) or you could split the (1kg) Chateaubriand and sluice it down with a pour of stellar Les Tilles Bourgogne Rouge. Hell, you could have a cup of tea and a DIY crisp sambo. Before we leave the lovely Bronwyn affords us a sneak peak at the more formal dining room upstairs, slated to open with thirty-plus covers in October. If they sustain the levels of ambition and invention on display right now I doubt they will have any trouble filling it.
Words: Conor Stevens
Photos: Killian Broderick
1/2 Chancery Place
(01) 555 2971