What's the most important thing about a restaurant? For me it's the food. For Ui Rathaile, it's everything else. Now, I am the first to admit that shoddy service and a want of atmosphere can all but scupper even the most accomplished efforts in the kitchen.
But still, I am willing to forgive almost anything when my palate is pleased. If I want service with a smile, I go to my mammy's. For conviviality, I go to the pub.
Matt The Thresher opened recently in the former home of The Pembroke pub. The chef is one of the fishmongering Cavistons of Glasthule and appropriately the focus is on seafood. As you enter, there's a wet counter piled with great glossy slabs of fish, which was the first thing to catch my hungry eye. Ui Rathaile, I could see, was itching to turn on his heel and retreat into the rain-drenched street.
His face is an open book to me, I can read his complaints before he even has them. There was a dark scowl that said "get me out of here". Beneath it, a grimace as the acoustics were too harsh, accompanied by a disdainful twitch beneath his left eye -- which I took to mean that the decor was not to his liking. He did a walkabout until he found a table he could bear. We snagged it and he said, "this place is a barn, it's noisy and uncomfortable with no atmosphere".
What did I tell you? I'm a mentalist.
To be fair to Matt the Thresher, there are, I imagine, plenty of people who have a passion for wrought ironwork, who do not find white walls sterile and who do not see book cabinets with unread sports books and self-help manuals as an affront to literacy.
On the noise level, however, I had to agree with Ui Rathaile. The clatter of glasses, tills, shrill conversation and heavy footsteps made for a grating cacophony that echoed off every hard surface in the place. Then, to top it off, there came a live crucifixion on a grand piano of everyone and anyone from Elton John to Adele. The executioner's non-pedalling foot hammered the floor above our heads.
There was nothing for it but wine. A glass of Pinot Grigio took the edge off Ui Rathaile's irritation. My Meyer-Fonne Gentil D'Alsace was not chilled enough, so it was taken away and exchanged by our waiter, whose infectious energy quickly distracted us from the din.
He was all enthusiasm, quick to tell us what had run out and what he would recommend, the specials rolled off his tongue with remarkable fluency -- punctuated with commentary about the quality and origin of the ingredients. Suppliers were referenced, which impressed me, but not Ui Rathaile.
His cynicism was quashed by the arrival of his starter -- a Trojan serving of Ted Browne's smoked salmon, deeply peachy and decadent to behold, and even better to bite into -- soft, creamy texture with an earthy whisper of smoke. It was stunning.
So, too, were the fat, juicy capers, sweet salad leaves and tangy semi-dried cherry tomatoes in a balsamic dressing that betrayed a hint of raspberry. There was also half a loaf of crumbly brown bread, all excellent value for €8.95.
Prawn cocktail was a paragon of retro chic -- as pale and plump and delicious as a nibble on Norma Jean Baker's thighs. The Marie Rose sauce: delicate, and the lettuce cold and crisp. The swell of pleasure was almost enough to drown out the sound of Radiohead being murdered above our heads. But not quite. More wine, and on to the main course.
Ui Rathaile's 10oz sirloin of dry-aged beef was cooked precisely medium rare as ordered, the blackened crust contrasting beautifully with the juicy red interior. It oozed tenderness and flavour. The bearnaise was wickedly buttery with a sharp tarragon kick and the thick salty chips bordered on divinity.
Mussels were off the menu, I wasn't in the mood for garlicky crab claws, and while the fish offerings included haddock and ling, I opted for beer-battered gurnard with chips and pea puree. The fish was fresh, meaty and pristine and wore its golden shell lightly. I'm not a fan of pureed vegetables, give me minted, intact garden peas any day. The chips, like I said, were irresistible, but by now we were sated and mine remained unfinished. Is there a problem? I told the waiter there wasn't, everything was just perfect.
That was true, until our dessert -- a dry lump of chocolate lime cake appeared. I won't dwell on it since everything else was faultless. Even Ui Rathaile was converted to the point of evangelism. Today's lesson: Never condemn a restaurant for the crimes of its piano player.
Day & Night