Friday 15 December 2017

Refuel: Chez Max * * * *

133 Lower Baggot Street, D2. Tel:016618899

I hate it when people ask me to recommend restaurants to them. Strange as those words may sound, coming from the mouth of a reviewer, it's true. When you read about restaurants in this column, I'm not telling you to go, or not to go. I'm merely passing on what happened when I went.

I do, however, feel a degree of blame if I suggest a restaurant to a friend and they have a miserable time. And, believe me, they're quick to grumble about how you sold them a pup. So, now the only advice I give them is this: wherever you go -- go hungry and in good company.

It makes bad restaurant experiences bearable, and good ones unforgettable.

It was in this spirit that I went to Chez Max with Ui Rathaile for lunch. All I had eaten by two o'clock was a Nestle chocolate animal biscuit (elephant) and two rashers. Ui Rathaile, typically, was running on caffeine, cigarettes and toothpaste. We were, in short, ravenous.

Ui Rathaile, it transpired, has quite a penchant for Chez Max. He said he'd be having moules frites. I wanted moules frites, but in keeping with the French habit of feminine self-denial, I held my tongue. He wanted paté to start. So did I.

And thus, having set a precedent of putting my own desires second to his, I found myself caught in a rusty old trap. My only hope of wriggling free was with a ladylike strategy of flattery and seduction.

Twirling an errant curl around my finger, I began to read to him from the menu. Softly suggesting that he might consider starting with soupe a l'oignon, or even roast quail served with hazelnut butter and grapes. Oh, how enticing the smoked chicken and poached pear salad sounded. It was almost sexy, I said. He smirked across the table at me and said: "I'm having the paté."

"Have the fucking paté," I told him. "I hope you choke on it."

To my mind, the paté was more of a terrine, it was chunky and rustic -- mostly pork, but with a gamey touch of venison to it. Served with a crusty demi-baguette, a well-dressed green salad and a couple of fat cornichons -- it was, on its own, ample lunch for a slight appetite. Priced at €7, it gave Ui Rathaile no cause to quibble. At least one of us was happy.

From a choice of four salads, which included goat cheese, or marinated salmon with celeriac remoulade, I opted for smoked duck and was not entirely happy. Bien sur, it looked like a duck. However, it tasted unlike a duck, especially a smoked duck. It was mysteriously bland, with veins of sinewy fat running through it and a chewy texture that belied its fleshy pink appearance.

Moving sullenly on to the main courses -- bar the foregone moules frites -- my options included striploin steak (too safe), boeuf bourguignon (too wintry), and roast skate (too Catholic). There was a vegetarian crumble (too worthy) and a sold-out plat du jour (too late). I settled on poulet a la Provencale, which was good enough to make up for the unambitious duck. It was modest -- just a leg and thigh on the bone -- but it tasted of childhood Sundays. The crisp skin glistened with oil, beneath it, the cream flesh was textured and moist. It came with chunky discs of sauteed potato and was traditionally dressed a la Provencale -- with capers, black olives, cherry tomatoes, olive oil and a spliced anchovy fillet.

Moules frites is a signature dish at Chez Max. The quality is consistent, they arrive en masse -- with their fat, peachy centres bursting through a giant pile of glossy black shells. There's no meddling with sauces -- just a pool of garlic, white wine and cream.

The frites aren't 'skinny', they're classically thin, and golden and salty. Godammit, when you have a hankering for Max's mussels it just doesn't go away until you bury your nose in the trough, and come up only for a cleansing slug of Sancerre. On that note, the wine list is excellent -- no want of choice, despite being exclusively French. For dessert, we had a lemon curd meringue and an open-topped apple tart with cream -- both delicious. With two potent espressos (and wine), three-course lunch for two came to €80.

Typical dish: Moules frites

Recommended: Paté

The damage: €80.80 for two starters, two mains, two desserts, three glasses of wine and two espressos

On the stereo: Piaf

At the table: Political hacks

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