Refuel: Just off Francis * * *
78 Thomas Street, D8. Tel:014738807
If you got lost in the Liberties you wouldn’t want to take directions from the person who came up with the name Just Off Francis. Maybe they thought Right On Thomas was less attractive than being Just Off Francis. That’s probably true, but trust me, you don’t want to wander blindly down alleyways off Francis Street at night looking for restaurants.
I pass by this restaurant all the time, Ui Rathaile and The Cartoonist live nearby, while The Terminal Bachelor works around the corner.
It’s in a space that used to be occupied by a café called Piedescalso — an unpredictable and painfully arty place that I found myself in simply because there was no place else to meet and eat on Thomas Street. The new tenants have given the place a makeover, and while it lacks the character of its predecessor, Just Off Francis is a more reliable place. Still, it’s not without challenges. The lay-out, for starters: a corridor so narrow it can only accommodate lines of two-top tables.
There are a few larger tables at the back, but this is basically a restaurant for couples.
Aware of these limitations, the owners have wisely done what they can to lure in couples. There’s a Nifty Fifty deal, where dinner for two with a bottle of wine costs ¤50. I would have gone for that if Ui Rathaile and I were eating alone, but he had invited his publisher along. They barely consulted me about the wine.
The list is under reconstruction, and each of us had a different copy of it. The only white wine on my list was a Chardonnay. When I asked the waiter about it, he huffed and waved me away with a dismissive sigh: “Chardonnay is soooh 80s.” The others conspired with him. Eventually a bottle of Chenin Blanc appeared. There’s nothing extraordinary about the menu at Just Off Francis. It goes for broad appeal: salads, pasta, mussels, burgers, pies and a couple of specials.
First to the moules, which could be served either “red” or “white”. The Publisher asked for white, but what arrived was patently red, thanks to a flotilla of cherry tomatoes. There was also onion and chilli in the soupy mix. The mussels were plentiful, uniformly fat and juicy, and there was lots of soft bread for mopping — perfect fodder for a damp evening.
A platter of Italian meat was stingy for €9: tasteless bresaola, unremarkable salami and passable prosciutto arrived on a carpet of rocket, which failed in its bid to cover the gaps on the plate. My Caprese salad, meanwhile, was decent enough. The mozzarella was properly wet and milky, the tomatoes were sweet and unchilled, but I would have preferred fresh basil leaves to pesto. Is it any wonder I was pesto-ed out when my linguine Genovese arrived? With a mountain of springy noodles, the pesto became tedious and was all but scuppered by the strips of tough chicken breast tossed into the pot.
Another bottle of Chenin Blanc appeared. The Publisher was so engrossed in Ui Rathaile’s next novel that he seemed to forget we were still working on my current review. His trio of lamb chops carried the delicious caramelised smell of the grill. I pilfered a bite of one, and it oozed salty, flavoursome juices. The chops came with roasted cherry tomatoes, spinach and roasted baby potatoes, which were too waxy to be crispy. Chicken and leek pie was creamy and wholesome, although the “carrots for colour” were either absent or so anaemic they dissolved without a trace. It needs greenery, Ui Rathaile complained, prompting the kitchen to dispatch a well-intentioned but inappropriate side of grilled courgette.
No dessert for me. The Publisher had a fair to middling apple tart. Ui Rathaile had a gooey lump of dark chocolate cake, which was sloppily presented, but tasted irresistible and decadent. A bit like himself, I suppose.
Yes, it was an evening of mixed feelings. The cooking at Just Off Francis has its moments, the service is cheeky, but competent, and it takes balls to open a restaurant on Thomas Street, albeit with a disclaimer in the name. Worth a shot if you’re heading to Vicar Street.
Typical dish: Sliders
The damage: €133.50 for three starters, three mains, two desserts, and two bottles of wine
On the stereo: George Michael
At the table: Couples