Paolo Tullio: Salon des Saveurs
16 Aungier Street, Dublin 2 Tel: 01-475 8840
There are chefs whose names transcend the realms of gastronomy and become part of a broader celebrity. Conrad Gallagher is one of them -- his career has been played out in the media almost from the very beginning, when as a talented young chef he first became known for his restaurant Peacock Alley. Even people not remotely interested in food or gastronomy followed his very public rise to prominence and, later, fall from grace. If you like analogies, there are endless parallels you can point to about flawed genius.
Personally, I think it takes balls to pick up the pieces of a broken career and start afresh, especially if you've had to do it more than once. His New York venture ended, as did the London and South African ones, all with some controversy.
Yet there was always a constant -- Conrad was a talented chef. So if you missed it in the press, he's back in Dublin again after his peripatetic world tour and he's opened up in Aungier Street under the name Le Salon des Saveurs, or The Tasting Room.
I'd arranged to meet my old friend Michael Colgan and Noelle McCarthy there and I met them as we all arrived at the front door together. It was great to see them both; they're such busy people. Noelle has launched her new Blow outlet in The Four Seasons and Michael is such a busy man that he found himself with a far from unencumbered evening. He'd arrived straight from an early supper meeting and he had a cast dinner to go to later in the evening. Not surprisingly he wasn't intending to eat, but instead just wanted to keep Noelle and me company.
After we'd settled at our table and got the menus, I began to think it was just as well that Michael wasn't intending to eat.
You see, the menu at Le Salon des Saveurs is unusually constructed. There are four tasting menus, priced at €24, €34, €44 and €54. Each menu follows the same format: a soup, two starter courses, a main course and a dessert. There are no alternatives for any of the courses, so you have to pick the menu that best suits your tastes.
But here's the rub: if there's a few of you around the table, this system seems to be a perfect way to start arguments, because the entire table has to go for the same menu. I can see why this would simplify both the delivery of the dishes and the preparation in the kitchen, but unless your table is made up of people with exactly similar tastes, choosing a set menu for a group is going to be difficult.
As well as that, the whole table will need to agree on how much to spend, if the bill is to be shared.
The wine list is laid out on similar lines to the menu. There are four price points, exactly the same as the menus, and each price point has six wines (three reds and three whites), a total of 24 wines.
Not a long list, but some decent wines are there and all are available either by the bottle or by the glass. Furthermore, by the simple process of doubling the cost of the set menu, you can have a tasting glass of wine paired with each course.
With only two of us eating, choosing the menu was easy enough -- I left the choice to Noelle. She chose menu two, the €34 one, and told Michael he could have a taste of her dishes. We let Michael pick the wine and he chose the Ted Seghesio Arneis from California, a Sauvignon Blanc priced at €54. I liked it; it had less acidity than the New Zealand offerings from Marlborough, which made it easier to drink.
So we settled into menu two. The first course that arrived was pumpkin soup with pancetta, which came with Parmesan shavings and trompettes de la mort, the black mushrooms also known as horn of plenty. A dab of truffle oil really brought out their flavour and, right from this moment, it was clear we were in the hands of a good chef.
The next course was risotto, made with asparagus (in early spring?), flavoured with caraway seeds and with shredded duck leg. I enjoyed this dish almost as much as the first one, but it was something I find time and time again: risotto very slightly undercooked.
I do understand the concept of al dente, but chefs who apply it to risotto have clearly never eaten a risotto in the country it emanates from -- Italy. Rice should be cooked through.
The second starter was crab ravioli, which was really good. It came with some delicious pan-tossed spinach, beetroot and a froth that was flavoured with curry. Again, it was a dish that displayed the kitchen skills very well, with delicate mixes of flavours and excellent presentation.
This led to the main course, a cannon of lamb. As if to remind you that you're in the Salon of Tastes, not of trenchermen, the main course was delicately exiguous. Three small medallions of lamb, the size of the old 50p piece, were served with slices of slow-cooked aubergine -- which had hardened a little -- red onion, pieces of goat's cheese and a nicely made saffron aioli.
Last came dessert, a tasting of lemon. Five perfectly made little desserts on a long, thin plate arrived: a lemon tart, a lemon soufflé, a lemon rice pudding, a spiced lemon cake and a lemon ice cream. Frankly, the amount of work that had gone into this one plate was astounding.
We finished up with coffees and the bill came to about €180. Usually I'd have the bill right next to me when I write a review, but I'm still waiting for it to arrive in the post.
"Why's that?" I hear you ask. Because in the Salon des Saveurs not only do they not take credit cards, they don't take bank cards such as Laser either. They take cash and nothing else. This left me a little embarrassed, but we agreed I'd sign the bill and they'd send it on to me.
So be warned, take wads of folding money should you decide to go.
Value for money 8/10
25-30 = EXCELLENT
20-25 = GOOD
15-20 = FAIR
0-15 = POOR
Although I’ve rated the restaurant eight for value, the €24 menu has to rate a 10. Five beautifully made courses for dinner at €24 is extraordinary value for money and I urge you to try it — should you be able to persuade the others with you to agree. Another €6.50 will buy you a glass of wine to go with this.
Go for the €54 menu and add another €54 to have a sommelierchosen tasting glass with each course. There’s a pleasing simplicity to this, because once you’ve settled on menu four you’ll have no further choices to make. Everything will just arrive at the table and all you have left to do is enjoy it.