Siobhán and I sit in a booth in a high-ceilinged, dome-shaped room in the depths of The Merrion Hotel. Our plates bear the insignia of Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud and the table’s linen is crisp. Our waiters perform synchronised swoops to dramatically unveil our lunch that awaits underneath the silver lids of the serving trays. A seared calf’s liver tastes like butter, and the lyonnaise discs of fried potatoes sit alongside perfect halves of Brussels sprouts and crispy shards of bacon, a sauce diable (essentially an elegant onion gravy) bringing everything together. On my friend’s plate lies a generous portion of roasted slip sole, sprinkled with hazelnuts and brown shrimp, all dripping with delicious browned butter.
You know the way in regular restaurants, the prongs of a fork point upwards towards the ceiling? Here at Guilbaud’s, they are placed with the prongs facing downwards towards the table. Presumably so you don’t even have to twist your wrist to eat; the fork is already facing the *right direction* when you pick it up.
I suppose I should expect nothing less. After all, I’m having lunch in Ireland’s only restaurant with two Michelin stars. The team has clocked my friend and I as complete interlopers. We are not hard to spot; we are giggling like Benny and Eve from Circle of Friends for the entire lunch service. Guilbaud’s is so fancy that it makes us uncontrollably giddy, in a really fun way. I accidentally dip my hair in the truffled potato and leek soup, served in the most beautiful little soup bowl. We get a fright when the waiters perform their first swoop; we just weren’t expecting it. The charade of being Ladies Who Lunch hangs delicately in a balance that could be obliterated by a single dropped fork.
Despite our shortcomings in knowing how to behave, however, we decide that we are our waiters’ favourites. One young, French waiter in particular revs his hammy French waiter act up to eleven for our benefit. His young, French colleague says to us, with a smile and the most graceful of eye-rolls ‘ee sinks ee iz a comic.’
In fact, all the waiters appear to be young and French. We wonder if it’s a rite of passage for a stream of young, French waiters in training to come to Guilbaud’s. Presumably it’s a great place to learn the ropes of fine dining as well as an opportunity to learn English, and I’m guessing that lunchtime might be when the newbies get a chance to work on the floor. We are served by, literally, the most adorable trainee sommelier in the world. He can’t be more than 19, a golden bunch of grapes pinned proudly to the lapel of his impeccable black jacket. He looks like he might faint when my friend asks him should she go Sancerre or Chablis, but he finds his confidence and steers her towards the Chablis. Later, when she tells him how much she enjoyed the wine (€17 a glass – gulp) he tells us that we were his first table ever. We nearly applaud; I’m genuinely proud of him.
My dessert of caramelised comice pear with discs of biscuity chocolate arlette pastry and bourbon vanilla ice cream is exorbitantly fanciful. There is a great ceremony over the cheese trolley, too. Our young, French waitress wheels over a sideboard heaving with cheeses ranging from delicately fragrant to full-blown stinkers. She helps us choose four types of cheeses, which she slices from the wheels and arranges on a slate platter. She gives us extra homemade crackers – I told you we were their favourites.
The three course Table d’Hote lunch menu is €55 per person, and includes filter coffee and delightful petit fours. Our lunch bill, which includes a Margarita (€20), a grapefruit spritzer (€10) and a bottle of San Pelligrino (€6) comes to €163, without tip.
I’m not trying to be precocious but I didn’t find the food at Guilbaud’s life-changing. My starter of cold pressed terrine of smoked eel feels old-fashioned rather than classic. I’m not entirely wooed by such a formal atmosphere, through no fault of the wonderful staff who make us feel endlessly welcome. I’m aware that it’s a very trendy thing to say, but I’m more excited by Nordic sparseness than the ceremonies of French fine dining. My lunch at Guilbaud’s was my first experience of a double starred level of restaurant, and I’m so glad I now have it in my memory bank forever. I loved the historic traditions of the over-the-top servitude, the gilded plates and silver cutlery. And, though I respect the craft and training that goes into this kind of restaurant, I think I’m too silly for its world.
There is no doubt in my mind that my lunch at Guilbaud’s will prove to be one of the most memorable, for the experience if not the food. For a really special occasion, you can’t get fancier than Guilbaud’s.
Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud
21 Upper Merrion Street, Dublin 2
Words: Aoife McElwain
Photos: Mark Duggan