For a fair city, Dublin has seemed a little overcast of late, and the hotel and restaurant businesses have suffered as much as any. Hospitality, though, is part of the Irish DNA, and it would take much more than the country’s present economic woes to subdue it.
Take The Merrion, for instance; the quartet of elegant Georgian townhouses that constitutes perhaps Dublin’s finest hotel. Its Cellar Bar is a lively, brick-vaulted watering hole that attracts as many locals as hotel guests. There is a formidable selection, naturally, of Irish whiskeys, and irreproachable pints of Guinness, but also a fine menu both in the bar and at the adjacent restaurant.
Executive chef Ed Cooney hunts down the best of Irish meats, seafood and cheeses, all sensibly complemented – not overwhelmed – on the plate: local scallops, for example, with Tommy Doherty’s black pudding and Jerusalem artichokes, or a tartare of lightly smoked Macconnell’s salmon with spring onions and ponzu.
Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, its eponymous chef the doyen of Dublin dining, is also in The Merrion. The dining room is bright and high-ceilinged, boldly decorated with abstract art, and the cuisine is as lofty as its surroundings. My visit on a Saturday lunchtime found the restaurant full and quietly buzzing: standout dishes included unctuously porky croquettes of suckling pig, partnered with foie gras, quail’s egg, wafer-thin slices of pancetta and a punchy red mostarda, and a lovely chunk of turbot with a sunny, citrussy sauce, sitting on a small mound of Sardinian fregola. The puddings, too, are intricate and delicious.
Vying for the laurels of Dublin’s best restaurant is Ross Lewis’s superb Chapter One, so named because it occupies the basement of the Dublin Writers’ Museum on Parnell Square. Sit at the chef’s table and admire Lewis’s new kitchen, or install yourself in the sexily lit, darkly stylish dining room.
Lewis has an empathetic grasp of flavours; during my visit I enjoyed a deceptively simple soup of carrots and buttermilk, cubes of scallop lurking in its depths; a brilliant dish of cured venison with perfect foie gras, fried onion bread, Madeira jelly and an ice-wine verjus; and a smoke-kissed fillet of John Dory bathed in a light, lemony, sorrel-spiked broth. The wine list is, like the food, both thoughtful and exciting.
Chapter One is not just one of the finest restaurants in Dublin, it is one of the finest restaurants in any city. If anything can reignite the smouldering ashes of Ireland’s economy, it is the passion of its hoteliers and restaurateurs. Which reminds me; after dinner at Chapter One you really should try the flambéed Irish coffee. It is, like the restaurant itself, an illuminating experience.