I took my sister for a birthday lunch one wintry Friday afternoon. I was after somewhere smart yet comfortable, somewhere to eat late and stay even later, with a sense of occasion but where the food wouldn't distract too much from the conversation. We set off to the heart of Dublin 4.
Marcel's is one of the prettiest in the city. We slipped through the hedge-sheltered terrace into one of the city's most grown-up restaurants. Inside, shirt-and-tied floorstaff floated through the quiet hum of the dining room. Mirrors have been hung at auspicious angles to facilitate people-watching should your date prove a bore.
Despite not offering a much-discussed main course of braised celery heart of which I had heard effusive reports, Marcel's short lunch menu of old reliables makes ordering easy. Soon we could settle back into plump orange leather seating and allow the business of lunch to unfold on the crisp linen before us. Lovely things came and went at a leisurely pace set by us rather than them, always a reassuring sign: excellent bread, decent wines by the glass (with a nod of approval for our choice of Saumur Chenin Blanc with my cod, Valpolicella Ripasso with the venison), and of course the lunch itself.
A piece of acceptable salmon was elevated by a nuanced gravad lax cure and a dill-heavy herb crust, while slices of pickled cucumber added texture. We did debate whether the shallot jam was a little robust but it added a warm base note to the mouthful I got. On my own plate, slivers of golden, pink and ruby beetroot provided an earthy but elegant anchor to the goat's cheese fritter, its inner airiness contained by the outer crunch of panko coating. An underbedding of piquant purple mizuna busied both plate and flavours nicely, although a smear of Cabernet Sauvignon reduction was too sticky to make an impact other than visual.
My fillet of cod was pan-fried, sadly without that attention to the skin that turns a good piece of fish into a great one. Well-crisped fish skin can transform into something akin to pork crackling minus the heart attack; this was more like crinkly shower curtain texture, which isn't the same thing. Still, the flesh wasn't overcooked, the crushed herb potatoes made moreish by a silky cauliflower puree, and the caperberry and brown butter sauce lent a dirty decadence to the dish.
The haunch of venison was an attractive but ultimately underwhelming dish. It was a carefully considered combination, with a clever almond and cocoa crumble framed by chestnut purée on one end of the flavour spectrum and amaretto sauce on the other. Unfortunately the meat had been resting too long. Eating it lukewarm was deemed better than sending it back and either eating it over-cooked or waiting for a fresh one to be cooked, so we didn't complain. Besides, we're Irish. We'd rather keep quiet and carry on.
Desserts were also well-conceived. I indulged in a silky chocolate pavé which, with the imaginative addition of blackcurrant sorbet and candied popcorn, made a fun finish to my meal. The birthday girl tried the warm plum cake with spiced anglaise and roast plums, another grown-up treat of a dish. Two double espresso macchiatos hit the spot.
Then we sat around for ages having those great chats that a Friday afternoon in an old-school restaurant can induce. So long in fact that we were eventually given a little shot on the house: a signature 'Red Hen' involving Chambord, Baileys and cream. A nod to the extensive cocktail list of sister restaurant, The Green Hen, it was far more delicious than I would have imagined and added a merry pep to our step.
Not one but two waiters had suggested we pop our heads upstairs before leaving. Passing under some of the prettiest chandeliers I've seen, the narrow stairs leads to what used to be a private apartment made up of several small rooms, now turned into assorted dining rooms and a lounge. The layout has been left untouched along with the high ceilings and other charming original features. Marcel's felt like it had been here forever. I was already looking forward to many more happy returns.
To secure something important – that business deal, a parent's approval or another date
What to order?
Braised celery heart, if available, and a round of Red Hens
Who to bring?
As above, or book a private dining room for that special family milestone
€72.50 for three-course lunch for two plus wine and sparkling water