I thought I knew how to get to Stepaside. I did know how to get to Stepaside -- once upon a time -- in the last century. You just drove to Dundrum Village and pointed your car in the direction of the mountains until you arrived at a scattering of houses, a shop and a pub.
That was Stepaside, then. Stepaside, now, is corralled by motorway slip roads, roundabouts, and towers of concrete and glass. Monuments to negative equity and the mistakes of the not so distant past.
It was all too apocalyptic for the motorphobic Cartoonist, who was cowering in the passenger seat with his paws over his peepers, whimpering words to the effect of "are we there yet?" We were headed for Eamonn O'Reilly's newish restaurant The Box Tree, which stops serving lunch at three o'clock. According to the clock on my dashboard it was 14.38, I had just taken the wrong exit off a roundabout and we were headed back towards The City Centre. Scenic Saturday drive, my eye.
Oh Eamonn O'Reilly, the things I do for you. Yes, it's true to say that over the years you have pleasured my palate, tickled my taste buds and made my stomach sing. But how many hoops of fire does a gal have to leap through to get fed by you?
"There it is!" the Cartoonist roared. "Pull in! Pull in!" Then he jumped from the moving car, sprinted across the road and disappeared into a doorway. When I caught up with him, he was slumped, ashen-faced, at a table in The Box Tree, clutching a glass of water. "You are," he said, "the worst driver in Dublin." "Never mind," I said, continuing the superlative theme, "we are about to be fed by the best chef in Dublin." Arguably.
Of course, it could have gone either way. Nobody is brilliant (or in my case, terrible) all of the time. But O'Reilly has put in the hard graft, solidly, quietly building up a reputation. You won't see him on the telly, or hear him endorsing stuff on the radio. He cooks, you eat. It's a novel concept -- and hopefully one that will catch on.
Lunch at The Box Tree costs €16.95 and you get two courses from a choice of 10 dishes. Plus, if you're willing to fork out a €3 supplement, you can start with foie gras parfait. A €5 supplement will buy you a Hicks 30-day dry aged Hereford Ribeye steak. God, that types so good, I'm sorry I didn't order it. There was plenty of good stuff to choose from, you see, much of it derived from O'Reilly's menu at the flagship One Pico off Molesworth Street.
I kicked off with ham hock terrine, a chunk of sweet and vaguely salty pinkness wrapped in a band of savoy cabbage that came apart in moist, gorgeous chunks. A dollop of mayonnaise cut with chopped capers and gherkins raised it from delicious to divine. The Cartoonist ordered goat cheese and beetroot salad -- something so tired and ubiquitous, I'd normally fall face down asleep into it. But O'Reilly manages to carry it off with flair. Five stacks of meticulously arranged baby beet slices, filled with mild and creamy Ardsallagh, a spray of candied walnuts and a Jackson Pollock splash of beetroot and goat cheese mousse.
So far, The Box Tree hadn't missed a beat. The service was quick and genial. The predominantly French wine list, interesting and affordable with plenty of choice by the glass. The bread basket was well stocked -- the Guinness bread, in particular, was a treat. Proper cutlery, linen and glassware. Water glasses filled regularly and discreetly. Can this man put a foot wrong?
Apparently not. Our mains were as outstanding as the appetisers. I had to wrestle The Cartoonist's plate out of his hands to get a taste of his black pudding tart. "Can't I just describe it to you?" he pleaded. I advised him to think of his cholesterol and helped myself to a generous forkful of buttery pastry, topped with moist, spicy pudding. Baked apple joined in on the act, as did Cashel Blue and mixed leaves that tasted predominately of mustard. Sweet harmony.
In return for his sacrifice he got to try my fish -- a walloping fillet of cod that came asunder in supple petals of virgin white. It was mild and fresh and perfectly timed on the pan. Beneath it a creamy pillow of potato and a swirl of vermouth cream, but what really set me off was the mix of sweet green peas and black bacon lardons. Just what you need -- salt sugar, and smoke -- to give the cod a shot of character.
For dessert, I swooned over fruit pavlova -- a cumulonimbus of crunch and cream, crowned with syrupy berries of red, black and purple. The Cartoonist was humming and nodding over a bowl of steaming apple crumble. This time I left him to it -- for fear he'd want a cut of my pavlova. Blame The Box Tree -- so good, it brought out the worst in me. Our three-course lunch, with sides, wine and coffee came to €70. "What's the catch?" The Cartoonist wanted to know. "There isn't one," I said, turning the key in the ignition. Now close your eyes and think of Ireland.
TYPICAL DISH: Black pudding tart tatin
RECOMMENDED: €16.95 lunch deal
THE DAMAGE: €70.70 for two starters, two mains, two desserts, two sides, two coffees and two glasses of wine
ON THE STEREO: Jazz
AT THE TABLE: Locals