Review: Confident cuisine... Gavin McDonagh has hit his stride at Brioche
Brioche, 51 Elmwood Avenue, Ranelagh, Dublin 6. (01) 497-9163
Affluent D6, and Ranelagh in particular, is spoiled for choice when it comes to restaurants, so it comes as a surprise to find Brioche, tucked away just off the main drag on Elmwood Avenue, full to capacity on a Tuesday evening. The room is buzzing with cheerful bonhomie; the clientèle a mix of friends catching up and a group of work colleagues celebrating a deal.
The last time I wrote about Brioche, I had not had a great experience. Back then, Chef Gavin McDonagh was serving a French spin on tapas - Dublin was on an inexorable climb to Peak Small Plate - and although some of the flavours were excellent, the conceit just wasn't working. The table was too small to accommodate the succession of dishes and the service too rushed for it to be relaxed. We were in and out in an hour-and-a-half, feeling aggrieved at the size of the bill, and with little intention of returning any time soon.
But a couple of weeks ago I was invited to attend a Wines of Spain dinner at Brioche designed to showcase the potential of a selection of sherries as food wines, rather than something to be drunk only by great aunt Margaret at Christmas, or tipped into trifle. Paddy Murphy of The Vine Inspiration, who combines his day job as an engineer with moonlighting as a sherry expert and educator, worked with McDonagh to pair different sherries from Spain's 'sherry triangle' with a five-course tasting menu.
We kicked off with cured and charred salmon with cucumber, vadouvan, yogurt and dill paired with Fino, and progressed to monkfish and octopus with pork scratchings paired with Manzanilla. Next up, a dish of roast carrots, baked turnips and artichokes matched with Amontillado, and pigeon, red cabbage and beetroot paired with Oloroso. We finished with a Jerusalem artichoke cheesecake with PX ice-cream accompanied by Pedro Ximénez.
My favourite courses were the pigeon and the pudding, and it was a treat to be talked through the sherries by Paddy, who wears his knowledge lightly and is commendably unpretentious. I was impressed by how McDonagh's food had evolved over the years, and relieved to hear that the small plates format had been ditched in favour of a return to a more traditionally structured menu.
So I go back unannounced a week later, having made the booking under another name. Front of house maestro, Patrick McArdle - who'll be a familiar face from Stanley's in the city centre - manages to look pleased to see me, although I know that the arrival of a critic on the premises gives rise to mixed feelings. Restaurants want to be reviewed, because reviews generate business, but only if the review is going to be any good.
There's a three-course dinner menu with a choice of four starters, four mains and two desserts priced at €35, and we opt for this over the seven-course tasting menu (€65) or the five-course chef's surprise (€49). First up: an amuse of charred sourdough topped with a little smear of chicken liver parfait and pickled vegetables. The bread has fantastic flavour rather than being just a vehicle for the topping. Individual brioche loaves come warm from the oven and are gorgeous served with whipped salted butter.
We're having trouble deciding on starters, so we go for three to share. Roast mackerel is crisp-skinned and fabulous with rhubarb and watercress, while oxtail tortellini (just two, *sad face*) comes with an intense parsnip consommé and pickled onions. The crab and buckwheat porridge with ginger and gooseberries stumps us. We like the textures of the dish - there's crunch from toasted wild rice on top to provide contrast, and an intense gooseberry/citrus curd as well as whole (pickled?) gooseberries - but we're struggling to taste either the ginger or the crab. "I would," says my guest, "have either used more crab and more ginger, or called it something else."
For mains, very good skate (off the bone, how do they do that?) with wild garlic gnocchi and broccoli, and lamb loin with a strong lamb-y flavour cooked sous-vide and served with aubergine, kale, celeriac and anchovy. We try a side of sauerkraut potato croquettes - how could we not? - and are underwhelmed; the flavour of the sauerkraut barely registers. Roast cauliflower with hazelnuts is excellent.
We are divided in our opinion of a dessert of pear cannoli, cacao sorbet and white chocolate. I'd have preferred proper dark chocolate to the wimpy cacao, and for the pears to be caramelised, but my guest disagrees. Horses for courses. Cheeses - a mix of French and Irish - are in impeccable condition, good and whiffy.
With two glasses of Marsanne, a bottle of Spatburgunder (€52) ("a match for any burgundy", says McArdle, and he's right), sparkling water and coffee, our bill comes to €161.20 before service. (We were not charged for the extra starter or for the cheese supplement.) McDonagh has hit his stride at Brioche, no doubt about it.
On a budget
Brioche serves lunch from Thursday to Saturday; one course costs €15.
On a blowout
The seven-course tasting menu with matching wines is €100. For that you'll get a comprehensive run-through of Gavin McDonagh's repertoire of contemporary Irish cooking: quality ingredients plus some cheffy panache.
The high point
Confident food and service, and a great buzz in the room on a Tuesday night.
The low point
The student bedsit art on the walls - a missed opportunity. ("Like something your brother would have bought you in the Dandelion market for Christmas in 1976", says my guest.)
8/10 value for money
Whispers from the gastronomicon
Entries are now open to producers across Ireland for this year's Blas na hÉireann Irish Food Awards, now in their 9th year. Awards take place at the Dingle Food Festival in October and are the largest blind-tasted food awards on the island. Last year's winners include Sharon Greene from the Wild Irish Foragers and Preservers who won Best New Product 2015 for their Honeysuckle Shrub, and Cornude Popcorn was Best Food Start-Up and also won Gold for Pistachio Caramel Popcorn. Early bird entries close on April 30.