The Saddle Room: 'The lunch menu is an essay in how to please all of the people'
The Saddle Room, The Shelbourne Hotel, St Stephen's Green, Dublin 2. (01) 663-4500.
I spent my wedding night in The Shelbourne Hotel. We danced to Hank Halfhead and the Rambling Turkeys until the early hours in a marquee in the Iveagh Gardens and had only just fallen asleep when a series of marching bands began to rehearse outside for a parade. It felt as if they were marching on the window ledge of the bridal suite itself.
Ah memories. Back then The Shelbourne was not quite the slick operation that it is now, but it was the hotel that I loved more than any other. It was to the Horseshoe Bar that my about-to-be husband and I retreated from our families (they were - inevitably - driving us mad) the day before the wedding, steeled our nerves and convinced each other that we were doing the right thing with the aid of the legendary Sean Boyd's spicy Bloody Marys.
And it was in the Lord Mayor's Lounge that we met our pals for the wedding post-mortem the day afterwards. You didn't have to book a table if you wanted a cup of tea in those days, and for years we all used the Lord Mayor's Lounge as our meeting place in the city centre.
Different restaurants perform different functions, and we choose where we're going to eat accordingly. A place that's good for a business lunch may not be right for a birthday celebration with a gang and it's unlikely to be the best choice for a romantic dinner à deux. There are very few restaurants that manage to be all things to all men.
But hotel restaurants are a breed apart. By their very nature they have to be the right place for every occasion and, inevitably, many end up with a neutral ambience that's neither one thing nor the other. Hotel restaurants don't tend to have strong personalities.
We are meeting an old friend whom we haven't seen in a decade and remember that he's a plain eater. We reckon that we'll be on safe ground in the Saddle Room and it turns out to be a good choice.
We're seated in the room to the side that overlooks Kildare Street, rather than in the main part of the restaurant with the glamorous booths and the central island for the display of oysters and seafood, past which we are led to our table. That part of the room doesn't appear to be in use during the day and seems a bit desolate. Perhaps it comes into its own at night.
As hoped for - and predicted - the lunch menu is an essay in how to please all of the people, all of the time. There are five choices for each of the three courses, and none of them is going to scare the horses. There's plenty of provenance and supplier name-checking in evidence - restaurants do this for the feel-good factor that it engenders - even if some of the information doesn't actually tell us anything. (A note at the foot of the menu says: 'As a member of Good Food Ireland, Executive Chef Garry Hughes is committed to prioritising the core ingredients using local and artisan food producers.' But what does that actually mean?) There's Castletownbere salmon, for instance, that's been cured in Dingle Gin. But Castletownbere is just a fishing port and the farmed salmon that's landed there is presumably the same as that landed anywhere else ... I'd prefer to see the restaurant using Clare Island organic salmon, which really is an Irish product worth shouting about.
Our friend's ordering preferences haven't changed over the past decade, and I guess correctly that he's going to order the ham hock terrine, followed by the chicken. The ham for the ham hock comes from Waterford, which - again - tells us absolutely nothing at all, other than it's Irish, but the terrine is tasty enough, served with a good celeriac remoulade, slivers of pickled carrot, and black olive bread. Shercock chicken must come from Cavan, but the description means nothing when it comes to telling us whether the bird has led a happy life. It's a perfectly fine dish in terms of flavour and presentation though, the roast supreme served with pearl barley in an onion broth.
A half dozen plump Carlingford oysters are rich and sweet; they come with a simple shallot vinaigrette. Our final starter is a St Tola feta cheese mousse accompanied by spiced beetroot gel and slivers of baby beets: it's a beautifully presented plate with balanced flavours and textures.
A classic braised daube of Charleville beef has good, meaty depth from long, slow cooking. It's served with celeriac purée and plenty in the way of vegetable prettiness, while two generous, perfectly cooked tranches of Kilmore Quay turbot are accompanied by a cauliflower veloute and kale.
For dessert there's an impeccable vanilla-scented crème brûlée served in one of those wide, shallow dishes that ensures the correct ratio of crunchy topping to custard, and a warm chocolate and raspberry tart with pistachio ice-cream that delivers the required chocolate hit with panache.
With a couple of sides, two bottles of water, three glasses of house wine - a Picpoul de Pinet and a Rioja Crianza - and coffees, our bill for three came to €154.10 before service.
The food at the Saddle Room is good - and not just good for a hotel restaurant - but I wish that they'd up their game when it comes to provenance information that actually means something.
ON A BUDGET
The two-course set lunch is priced at €23.
ON A BLOW OUT
The six-course Taste of Autumn dinner menu is €80. If you go for the matching wines, it’ll cost you €120 per head. Alternatively, indulge in seafood and steak — a Grand Seafood Platter followed by Chateaubriand will set you back €161 for two — and that’s before wine or pudding.
THE HIGH POINT
Good food, exemplary service and a civilised environment.
THE LOW POINT
Some of the provenance information on the menu is meaningless.
8/10 value for money