Downtown Dublin restaurants: from classic to contemporary

Dublin is awash in fine-dining choices and the cosmopolitan nature of the city is reflected in the ranging ethnicity of hosts and servers, as well as the variety of international dishes. Here are six of the best.

Friendly and central

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlex Restaurant, on the ground floor of the Conrad Hotel, is named after ‘Alexandra Ladies College,’ which once occupied the site, a five-minute walk from prestigious St. Stephen’s Green. Boasting a modern setting with touches of art deco, as well as an impressive triptych of traditional Dublin scenes by Kildare-based artist, Elizabeth Cope, we allayed travel tiredness with a fine ‘surf ‘n turf’ dinner. Kicking off with fresh scallops from Kilkeel, a northern Irish fishing town, spiced up with chorizo and tuna tartar with fresh cilantro, we were then served a refreshing ginger and rhubarb sorbet.

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For mains, it being a damp winter’s evening, we chose meats: duck breast magret with blueberry sauce and steak with Dublin bay prawns in a cheese and mustard seed sauce served on a wooden board. The restaurant features a comprehensive wine menu and we opted for a Napa Valley Zinfandel 2011 from Chateau Montelena.  Sumptuous desserts included a mouth-watering Tonka and mango panna cotta coconut crumble with crème de cassis sorbet and white wine poached pear, Viennese biscuit and chocolate ice-cream. Having requested herbal teas we were delightfully surprised by the lovely presentation: delicate designer tea pots each on its own special individual heater.

Contemporary and smart

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Aptly named, located right underneath the Dublin Writers Museum located off the city’s main artery, O’Connell Street, Chapter One emanates an elegant, contemporary ambiance with contrasting colors of white, black and navy, with modern art adorning the interior. The work of Irish artists is impressive with bog oak sculptures by Kieran Higgins; hand woven baskets by Joe Hogan; and crafted tables by David Coyne and Colm Hassett.

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Host and owner, Corbett Martin, greets guests cheerily at the door as if one has just entered his own home. Unique menu touches are dehydrated reindeer moss with pigeon terrine with smoked quince and mustard cream. Try the nourishing sweet corn soup with 36-month aged Parmesan ravioli and basil oil. Mains include roast salt marsh duck breast with salted Muscat grape, stuffed carrot with a ginger crust, caramelised bonito sesame seeds and roast pumpkin; or cushion of veal cooked in milk with veal boudin, smoked bacon cooked with yeast, slow cooked leek and Pommery mustard. Of the desserts, warm chocolate mousse with lemon jelly and praline mousse, vanilla ice-cream, confit orange and spiced bread biscuit is a must-have as is the pressed blackberries with cream cheese mousse, blackberry coulis, milk crumb and blackberry ripple ice cream. Spoil yourself with post-dinner Irish coffees prepared table side.

Romantic mood

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Named after its street number on prestigious St. Stephen’s Green, Restaurant Forty One is located in a plush 18th century Georgian townhouse with creative dishes to match its splendid interior. Furnishings include large canvasses, satin curtains, sash windows, Queen Anne and cane chairs, chandeliers, gilt mirrors and bronze sculptures. A mix of shapely carver chairs with pale upholstery and dark quilted banquettes fill the three dining rooms. Through curlicues of ivy and colorful window boxes on the upper floor – the most scenic, awash with Gustavian elements – are delightful views over the green.

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Highlights of the menu prepared by head chef Graham Neville are signature starters such as slow-roasted heirloom vegetables – celeriac and Jerusalem artichoke with a Glebe Brethan puree (an Irish gruyere artisan cheese) and garden herbs – and a mousse-like cold soufflé of Clogherhead crab and fresh water shrimp with avocado and grapefruit. While choices for mains are wide-ranging – such as wild turbot, aged O’Coileain sirloin and fillet of Irish Angus beef – we indulged in breast of duck roasted with honey and black pepper covered in preserved fruits sauce and set on a base of fondant potato; and roast noisette of Wicklow venison with crushed artichoke and chestnut cep sauce. Unique among the desserts is one consisting of milk jam, vanilla cream cheese with popcorn ice-cream, but the Valrhona Dulcey chocolate with passion fruit and mango sorbet also demands that one ignores calorie counts.

Local produce and attention to detail

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Located at the end of a narrow laneway in Donnybrook, Dublin 4, Mulberry Garden prides itself on local Irish produce including rapeseed from Donegal, honey from Skerries served in an earthenware pot and eight different cheeses from places such as Waterford, Wexford and Cork. It even serves O’Hara’s Ale, a fine craft beverage from Carlow. Out front is an open terrace where a mulberry tree grows and a blazing wood fire emphasizes a thoroughly cosy atmosphere. Inside, an intricate net woven around the walls hints at silk-making and the origin of the restaurant’s name. A mix of polished wood flooring, full-size windows along an entire wall and pink and tartan soft-fabric chairs make for a bright and airy atmosphere. Frequent humorous anecdotes enliven the property, ‘Be yourself as everyone else is taken’ and ‘Women are meant to be loved not understood’ being but two examples.

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Dishes prepared under the direction of Tom Doyle, some presented on delightful Mulberry wood plaques, include creative starters such as caramelized cauliflower, capers, raisins, vanilla brown butter, shaved cauliflower, herb oil and cauliflower foam; and a main dish combining fish and chicken flavors – roast cod, braised celery, scallop, fennel, crisp chicken skin, onion, fennel cream, truffle oil and chicken jus. A moist chocolate dessert that sinks delicately like a black-hole, oozing its deliciously-rich content over salted caramel ice-cream, is a wonderful choice. A lovely gesture from the kitchen are complimentary macaroons on a bed of crumbled chocolate biscuit.

International and elegant

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Located in the leafy Ballsbridge area of prestigious Dublin 4, The Reading Room is contemporary in style with an open fireplace, rows of vases along the mantelpiece filled with seasonal berries, a tall bookcase and modern, eclectic framed paintings on its walls. Rebranded just this year, it is part of the InterContinental Hotel Group (it opened years ago as The Four Seasons). International fare dominates the cutely entitled ‘Commence, Continue, Conclude’ menu with Chef Alberto displaying his daring nature. One of our starters featured balsamic roasted octopus, with juicy tentacles intact, accompanied by a rhubarb sauce and compact cubes of melon, while the second one was tempura-style Clarenbridge, Galway rock oysters with citrus mayonnaise and pickled vegetables, including coins of carrots.

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For mains, we selected two contrasting meats: ‘head-to-tail Hereford beef slow-cooked tongue, tripe and tail’ with roasted vegetable mash, quince puree, and cinnamon jus and loin of Wicklow venison with duxelles, brussel sprouts, glazed baby carrots and cashews, both dishes washed down with a Chateau Cantemerle Haut Medoc Grand Cru 2004.

Historic and classic

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The Saddle Room, the main restaurant within the luxurious Shelbourne Hotel on St. Stephen’s Green, features dark oak walls and rich splashes of gold, with creative ice sculptures as elegant decorations. It offers contrasting seating choices – tan leather chairs around an elegant table or more discreet padded booths. Focusing on seafood and steaks, its menu ranges from fresh oysters – from a sleek Oyster Bar with varieties from West Clare, Carlingford, Galway and French Claire – to 45-day aged cote de boeuf.

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For starters, try the pan-seared veal sweetbreads with mustard jus and crispy potato or the Dublin Bay prawns with artichoke and shellfish sabayon featuring oriental flavors including cumin. For mains, we chose roast breast of wild Irish pheasant with choucroute and garlic sausage and a rib-eye steak with pepper sauce and onion rings. Baby green beans as a side dish came al dente with a distinct nutty flavor. Accompanied by a bottle of Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Merlot 2004 and with modern jazz playing softly in the background our evening proved a most relaxing one.

With Dublin having such a compact downtown area, many of its excellent restaurants – such as those mentioned above – can be visited conveniently on foot, making culinary enjoyment all the easier while providing the opportunity to admire some of the city highlights enroute.

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