If a restaurant is ‘not really about the food’ then what is it about? I invite you to read on as I attempt to answer this and other questions. So I ‘dined’ in the ‘actual’ Ivy in the mid nineties with a luxury blonde using money that wasn’t mine or hers. She had a subscription to Horse & Hound and rarified tastes. That particular gastro-bender also included trips to Nico at Ninety, Quaglino’s and Rules. Those were high times in London Town. I remember dishes from each of those places, almost a quarter of a century later, but from The Ivy, not a jot. Oysters may have happened but I do know that a plurality of crab eventually scuppered the union. The fact that I don’t remember what I ate is probably because The Ivy is not really about the food. Loathsome paps used to coagulate outside the place hoping for a newsworthy glimpse of Liz Hurley’s gusset or a visibly refreshed Hugh Grant. On the night of our visit to the Dublin outlet we get Eamon Dunphy. I guess you get the Ivy you deserve.
The front of house girls (all five of them) are sweet and welcoming but none of them are seasoned enough to have any experience in the hospitality industry. It transpires that The Ivy is not really about hospitality either. Everyone in the room is gussied up, perhaps mindful of the restaurant’s ‘smart casual’ dress code. They should be doling out decorative dunce hats upon entry. The breathless web copy promises ‘effortless glamour’ and ‘unparalleled service’. Perhaps there was a mix-up. The service is certainly effortless. If less effort were put in the staff would be lolling around with their trotters up. The glamour has certainly been paralleled. One of our party (who just happens to design restaurants) likens the decor to that of a crèche. It is elaborately hyperactive. Twenty minutes more in the place would require a session in a sensory deprivation tank. We wait at least that long to have a drink order taken. When the suggestion “some prosecco for the ladies” is proffered I can feel my chest tightening. The glamour of it. Both women remain polite. My editor orders a salted caramel espresso martini because…well, I can’t really answer that. I decline to taste it. My decent heteronormative vodka martini will end up costing €17. An hour and fifteen minutes pass before food hits the table. That is not a typo. It does little to lift the mood. An order of oysters have been dumped on a small plate. There is no ice, no mignonette and no fucks given. A Tempura prawn dish, while not unpleasant, is nothing of the sort. They were at least given a better send-off than their comrades condemned to appear in a tasteless, lifeless cocktail. The duck salad is redolent of old duck fat. Mealy scrapings of dried bird are sprinkled over tired ingredients.
Mains are still absent two hours after arrival. Once they are delivered, we are pretty much abandoned by the floor staff, marooned on our island table of abject disappointment. That feeling perhaps misses the point. This joint is operating exactly as it was conceived – a round of three card monty to separate the Irish oiks from their silly queenless currency. If shepherd’s pie is the signature dish on a restaurant menu you could be forgiven for anticipating that it might be in some way special, lifted beyond the quotidian or perhaps executed with a hitherto unseen fastidiousness. In its way it is special. It is especially vile. A beermat sized round has been cookie cut from a sheet pan and the portion is at once mean and over-generous. The only discernible flavour is that of aggressively sweet industrial tomato puree. The jug of ‘gravy’ (how does this dish produce gravy?) that accompanies the insult, watery and acrid with dried rosemary, improves the dish in the way that urinating upon excrement might improve that. It was deemed (very Irish critic usage) delicious by a ‘prominent’ ‘critic’ recently. Her critical faculties should clearly have been put out to pasture long ago. Flat-Iron Chicken (generally referred to as brick chicken), spatchcocked and weighted on the pan is fibrous and nasty. Gremolata manifests as some old parsley and lemon zest. A side of ‘olive oil mash’ is a giant quenelle of starch that could be used for breast augmentation. A split grilled lobster expressly ordered to share, arrives on a single plate. Nobody can be bothered to bring the chips to go with it.
It’s commented that dessert would mean breakfast at this rate. In any event no confection exists that could sweeten this deal. Half-eaten plates of food are removed without comment. I’ve never found it more difficult to attract a bill that I wanted to pay less and I’ve never before felt the need to apologise to those I invited to eat with me. We need a new category for this kind of cynical big-box farce, discomfort food maybe. If vulture funds did restaurants (they surely do) this is the taste they would leave in your mouth. This is a gaudy smoke and mirrors operation and it feels to me like an augury of worse to come. There’s a dee-jay pointlessly twiddling things on his digital decks, playing tunes at a volume that make a nonsense of his very existence. His eyes have a look that I imagine those charged with policing online child abuse must take on. I’ve decided not to make the gag about hanging him. This sort of invective takes a toll. Another critic has gushed about the theatre of the place. Listen to me, if you consider this theatre you belong at the panto. It would be unreasonably charitable to describe this shitshow as a comedy of errors. The shame of such ventures is that they inevitably leech custom and revenue from actual restaurants with actual kitchens who actually care about food and feeding their patrons. I hear that Barclay’s have taken the upper floors of the building. Makes sense for them to have a gilded trough on the ground floor. We pass Dunphy on the way out, contentedly dragging on a tab. This is happening. Let the good times roll. Baby.
Words: Conor Stevens