In the catering world, there are a few eternal truths. Here's one: it's really hard to get people to go upstairs or downstairs to a restaurant.
A restaurant needs something over and above the average to make the diner change that habit.
Here's another truth: hotel restaurants need to try harder than standalone restaurants in order to be taken seriously. I'm not sure why that should be the case, but I suspect there's a long-standing prejudice against hotel restaurants.
This week, I went to review a restaurant that is both on the first floor and is also part of a hotel, so it ticks both of the above boxes. But let me tell you why I felt the trip would be worth it.
Do you remember the last venture of Conrad Gallagher? It was called Salon des Saveurs. It got nominated for a number of awards, and, in 2010, Conrad was nominated best chef in Leinster as a result of the good reports coming from the restaurant.
A few of us on the judging committee, including me, argued that the accolade should go to the chef who was doing the cooking – Matt Fuller. By 2010, Conrad was concentrating on his Sligo venture and had left Salon des Saveurs in Matt's capable hands, so we felt the award should be his, and indeed that's what happened.
So when I heard that Matt was now in the kitchen at Citron in the Fitzwilliam Hotel, I was keen to see what he'd do with the menu. I arranged to meet Bairbre Power there for an early meal and it was a good place to meet, as we were both in the city centre.
From the hotel foyer, you take a lift up to the first floor where you are met with a desk and greeted. In truth, the dining room is not an easy space. It's open on one side to the lobby and sounds drift up from there, which can be distracting if your table is alongside that edge.
We got a table on the far wall, which had banquettes against the wall and rather uncomfortable chairs on the other side of the table. After a while, I gave up my hard chair and we sat side by side on the banquette.
I've reviewed Citron twice before, once when Conrad Gallagher was head chef and again when Stephen McAllister was head chef, so I was aware of the room's limitations. But I'm a man who enjoys good food, and I suspected that was what we were going to get.
We had a choice of three menus: an à la carte, a pre-theatre menu and a tasting menu. The pre-theatre menu was very well-priced – two courses for €20 or three for €25.
The à la carte had starters clustered around €10 and mains from €23-€30, and the tasting menu was €55.
I was tempted by the value of the pre-theatre menu, but both Bairbre and I wanted to see what the tasting menu would bring. It offered five courses plus coffee or tea, and an amuse-bouche.
I suggested to Bairbre that we do something I like doing in good restaurants, and that is leaving the choices up to the chef. So, we sat back to await whatever the kitchen was going to send us.
You can do the same with the wine. For €30 each, you'll get four glasses of wine matched to your dishes. We ordered a glass of Sauvignon Blanc for me and a Merlot for Bairbre.
The first thing to arrive was our amuse-bouche, and it really did amuse. A tiny washing line arrived, on which was hung four crisps, all in the shape of clothes. Below the line there was a small dipping pot, but it was almost a shame to eat the perfectly formed laundry.
There were two good breads on the table, a crispy ciabatta and another that was called 'crystal bread'. The crystal bread was delicious, a Spanish recipe making a bread with a small amount of crumb and lots of crunchy outside.
Our first starter was pan-smoked mackerel, served with an orange and garlic vinaigrette and a really delicious apple and fennel salad. The mackerel was hot smoked with tea, tender and full of flavour, making this a very good dish.
Next, we got a pea risotto made with carnaroli rice. Apart from the peas, the risotto was flavoured with chorizo, squid, soya beans and chilli. It's not often I pick up a piece of bread to mop my plate clean of the last vestiges. Then, I noticed that Bairbre was doing the same. Not surprising – it was probably one of the best risottos I've ever eaten.
Our first main course was Atlantic cod, served as a loin with salmon roe and a tarragon rosti. This was delicately flavoured and prettily presented.
Then came the next main course, which was roast venison. A nicely roasted piece of loin came surrounded with a scoop of fennel puree, Lyonnaise potatoes with Jerusalem artichoke puree and a small dollop of black-cherry compote. Once again, a good dish.
Last came the dessert, a strawberry and basil soup. It may sound odd, but it was one of the best dishes of the night. We got a bowl with a soup made of strawberries flavoured with basil, and sitting in the soup were basil jelly, a basil mousse, a basil and lime sorbet and a dollop of Port cream.
Very rightly, it's a house signature dish.
An espresso for me finished this meal, which has ended the year very nicely for me. I'm told the dining room is due for a re-fit in the New Year, so some of my concerns will be dealt with.
But don't let that put you off going right away – this is top-class food at affordable prices. Our bill came to €140 without service.