A peculiar one this – as I write, the restrictions around restaurants (and most other things) are being unpicked with what seems like unseemly haste. After two years trussed-up, we’ve been liberated from the covid corset and it’s time to let it all hang out, ready or not. The patrons of Rosa Madre (just downstairs from my office) appear to be firmly in the former camp. The clamour of celebratory braying is being punctuated by the popping of many corks. Volleys fired over the corpse of a not-yet-cold coronavirus. The coming months will be interesting times indeed for the restaurant industry here and everywhere else. Our uncertain release from bondage also threatens to overshadow the real story of note for Dubliners – this magazine’s momentous milestone of reaching its 200th issue! I can’t tell you how long that has taken, I’m just a mouth for hire, but it doubtless represents many months and innumerable blown deadlines, much like this one. Kudos then, folks, for keeping a dialogue going with the culture of our capital and for drawing our attention to the things that continue to make the city distinctive and defiantly itself. I’ll leave it to the editor to blow kisses in the direction of advertisers.
Yet again, I had intended to write about another place, but they made the (not at all unreasonable) decision to stay shuttered for the bleakness (and restriction) of January. There is though, a through line. The owners of the restaurant in question here recently acquired the restaurant I had planned to review, so this can read as a sort of preamble. L’Gueuleton opened in 2004, the year that I met the slip of a girl who would become my current wife. We spent a lot of time in that original dining room making goo-goo eyes over plates of plump Toulouse sausage. Restaurant years are like dog years (they too also tend to go off their food as the end approaches), so 18 years is a decent innings and an achievement to be lauded. Much like this august publication, L’Gueuleton is a survivor, a stalwart. Nevertheless, I recall going cold on the place some time after it expanded into the space next door, noting a decline in the quality of the food and the level of service. I’m glad to say that the decline has been reversed.
On January 6th, having ceremonially torched the carcass of the Christmas tree in the yard we strolled downtown for a lunch that would draw a line under the festive period. With the place virtually empty save for a couple of two-tops and two solo diners eating onion soup with their paperbacks it was easy to appreciate just how well this handsome room has aged. The warm brickwork, bentwood chairs and abundance of dark wood finishes combine to make this one of the loveliest dining rooms in town. Comfortable in its skin, nothing to prove. Coincidentally, the one that I consider loveliest of all belongs to the restaurant I should have been writing about here. The owners have a good eye. For the duration of a (very good) Bloody Mary we say little and just soak it in.
There was never any question of my not ordering steak-frites this time out and it is dually unimpeachable. A well-sourced, well-aged rib-eye is cooked as requested and served with well-made Béarnaise and good French fries. Throw in a couple of glasses of modest vin de soif and I’m feeling pretty good with the way of things. When I ask our friendly, attentive server whether there’s a Crème Brûlée to be had she responds in the affirmative, before adding ‘the best in town!’ She’ll get little argument from me.
On a subsequent evening (just before the lifting of restrictions) as we squint to read the menu we become creepingly aware that we are the most seasoned diners in the place. Better dressed and better looking, perhaps, but certainly better seasoned. Fully flavoured, tasty AF. Irish Garden Snail Tortellini also tastes great, with the sweetness of black garlic pureé balanced with the brightness of a parsley velouté. The dumplings are let down however by some heavy handed pasta making. There’s too much thickness, too much chew. A fried duck egg sitting atop a beermat-sized pancake purportedly stuffed with confit duck is fine but maybe better suited to a brunch menu.
There’s a confidence and skill in the fish cookery, apparent in two different hake preparations on different visits. One that featured a beautifully cooked tranche sitting in an ochre pool of profoundly powered bisque was quite superb. There’s a tendency, though, toward embellishment in a number of dishes. That hake dish didn’t need the cauliflower component for example. The folks in the kitchen clearly know what they are doing, they just need to let the principal elements of the dish to settle the arguments. It’s like that thing Nancy Reagan apparently said about removing one of your earrings before leaving The White House. Or was it Cyndi Lauper? Whatever.
Back when the restaurant grew from bistro to brasserie proportions, I had harboured a hope that it might adopt that kind of character, with a fixed list of dependable French classics supported by changing specials or a plat du jour. Maybe that’s a hide-bound notion, maybe it would be regarded as drudgery in the kitchen. I don’t know, but I do sometimes yearn for that kind of menu that wants to remind rather than surprise you. Where the execution is the idea. The kind of place that feels like the easy embrace of reacquaintance. You know which cheek to offer first, you know which hand goes where. You know what you like. Is it wrong to want a place to shut up and plate the hits? Probably a conversation for a different time.
I’m told that the restaurant descends into club-like vibes on weekend nights, with tables and chairs cleared for dancing. I don’t like to think of this dining room as a sticky-floored spill-over for the bar next door and I’m too long in the tooth to swap out my petit fours for disco biscuits but maybe that’s simply the cost of doing business these days. Perhaps certain owners regard such moves as recuperation of genuine losses incurred during the plague. There has always been more bread to be made selling feeds of pints in this city than plates of food. I’m just glad that the place continues to soldier on and that it has survived this long Covid war of attrition.
Finally – thanks to chef Cúán Greene for stepping into the breach last time out during my momentary indisposition. I enjoyed his piece very much and look forward to my reciprocal stage on the line in his new culinary venture.
Words: Conor Stevens
2 Fade St