When the Whitefriar Grill opened for business in September 2011, it found not one, but two, salivating she-wolves at the door. As I remember it, myself and Lucinda O'Sullivan from the Sindo were the only customers for dinner that night. I've no recollection what Lucinda made of the place, but I filed my experience away in a box of dog-eared clippings, labelled: here be monsters.
As moral dilemmas go, the debate about whether you should review a newly opened restaurant or give it time to find its feet is a non-runner. My position has always been if a restaurant is ready to take my money, then it's ready to be reviewed.
I've never encountered a place that rejected praise and applause on the basis that it was only open a wet week.
You can't have it both ways, and to be fair to The Whitefriar Grill, they took the criticism without complaint and just got on with it.
I imagine they had the good sense to see that most of us get our restaurant recommendations from friends – people we know and trust – and not from strangers who write in newspaper supplements.
Anyhow, that was almost two years ago and over the last six months I've heard good things about the Whitefriar Grill from my own friends.
One evening, while I was off duty and wandering around the town with Ui Rathaile, we called in on the off chance they would take us. We were dispatched to The Swan pub for an aperitif – 20 minutes later we got the call: "Come back your table awaits you."
"Are you working or not?" Ui Rathaile wanted to know.
What he meant was: can I order what I want and do you swear you won't do an autopsy on it? Will you promise not to eat half my food? Or leave me staring at the wall while you tap notes into your phone and take out-of-focus photographs of the menu? Can we, for once, do what normal people do: eat our dinner without having to decipher it?
I said yes, but I meant no.
I am never off-duty. Annoying as that may be for the people I eat with, I'm the real victim of my vocation. I realised this when, after 10 years of reviewing, I took an eight-month sabbatical and found that I couldn't go to a restaurant and relax. I was still pilfering my companions' food, and invalidating their enjoyment of it with my own, more qualified opinions.
My "haughty" and "quasi-judicial" demeanour drove Ui Rathaile so mad that he stopped going to restaurants with me.
When I wasn't working, I was on a busman's holiday. And no matter how hard I tried, our impromptu dinner at The Whitefriar Grill was no different . . .
Have you ever tried to eat while biting your tongue? It's not easy. I allowed myself the odd "mmm . . ." over my hake with salsa verde, emitted an occasional "aah!" and threw a couple of tender smiles and attentive nods in Ui Rathaile's direction.
It seemed to work. Of his own volition, he offered me a chunk of creamy monkfish and invited me to taste the rest: a gently spiced jumble of shellfish with lemongrass and ginger that tasted sweet and exotic and reminded me of Goa. The hake was good, but this was better.
"Well?" he asked. "It's lovely," I simpered. "Thank you for sharing."
"There it is," he said, "that compulsion for sarcasm that will undo you in the end."
Naturally, I denied everything. I'd enjoyed our off-duty meal so much I felt inspired to come back in my professional capacity. And now I'd have to convince Ui Rathaile to join me. Check out the early bird, I told him, it looks really good. €19.50 for two courses and it's available all night Sunday. Fine, he said, but when we come back, I'm having the pulled pork sandwich.
And sure enough, before his arse hit the seat the following Sunday, he wanted confirmation the damned pig was still available. It was.
Then, as if to underline his indifference, he chose the first starter and read no further: prosciutto and melon. 'Meh,' I thought to myself.
But what a surprise it was. The prosciutto was top-shelf: velvety smooth, not too salty, with just a breath of sweetness and gentle notes of juniper. Among its ruby-red folds were scattered cubes of cantaloupe melon, bursting with syrupy juice. A lesser ham would have floundered.
The rocket salad was spruced up by curly tendrils of beanstalk, mizuna and French beans. The white balsamic dressing was super.
My own starter, McCarthy's black pudding, was cut into a thick bread-like slab.
It arrived in a dark speckled bowl, topped with a fried quail's egg. The pudding was intensely spicy. It came apart in dense moist crumbs, and probably needed a more robust red than the Ramon Bilbao Crianza I chose to drink with it. Between the pudding and the egg there was a greenish blob of mushroom duxelle, which added nothing.
I'd have cut the pudding into two rounds, added something fresh or sweet and then topped each piece of pudding with a quail's egg. The base ingredients were good, but the presentation could have been prettified.
Drum roll . . . the pulled pork. A mammoth construction that was topped and tailed with puffy sheets of Turkish bread, between which there were pickles, fine hoops of red onion, beef tomato and a crunchy horseradish-laden coleslaw – and then the pale shredded mass of pork shoulder.
It oozed slow-cooked flavour – the meat's natural sweetness basted and coaxed to the fore. Served on a board, with a tin bucket of fat, salty chips and a cup of spicy homemade ketchup, it's the kind of grub that turns ladies into savages and makes grown men swoon.
The warm salad I ordered for my main was, on paper at least, a grander proposition.
In reality, the scallops were slightly overcooked, the squid was rather tough and while the chorizo was good, it smothered the salad greens in red, oily juices. It needed some citrus to cut through the seafood and the grease – but not mandarin orange. It struck me as a dish in need of a radical rethink.
That said, the Whitefriar Grill has come a long way. It has an unusually democratic mix of locals and blow-ins, the music is good, and the service is excellent.
While the evening menu needs tweaking, it's extremely good value and I have it on good authority that the brunch is a knockout. One last thing . . . a simple, aesthetic observation: dim the lights – it makes us all look better.
ON THE MENU: Rump steak and BBQ ribs
RECOMMENDED: Pulled pork with slaw and flatbreads
THE DAMAGE: €95.05 for two starters, two mains, four glasses of wine and two coffees
ON THE STEREO: JJ Cale
AT THE TABLE: All walks