Isometimes take a glass of stout in O’Brien’s, and it is what bar-stool purists would call "a fine pub".
The last time I ate there was more than a year ago and as I recall the food damn near knocked my chaussettes off.
Back then, the restaurant upstairs was called Olivier’s — after chef Olivier Quenet (of La Maison fame). Well, Quenet has moved on and the restaurant in O’Brien’s has been renamed The Sussex, and is now being run by Trevor Browne, the chickenwing king who runs the adjacent Canal Bank Café and Ranelagh perennial TriBeCa.
A lick of paint, different artwork, some fidgeting with table-top accoutrements, and the Frenchness has been eradicated, ethnically cleansed. This is no longer Olivier’s, it is Trevor’s.
Asked about the specials, our young waiter laboured over his notebook and read out a description of Barbary duck as fluently as if it had been written in Sanskrit.
It came with “pwee” lentils and “joo”, which he helpfully translated as “a kind of a sauce”. Anything else? we wondered. Probably, he said, I’ll go ask, before returning with a triumphant answer. Potato!
I tried not to jump to any hasty conclusions about the place. Trevor, it transpired, is socially acquainted with both my dinner guests. South Dublin’s like that, everybody knows everybody. The Home Economist, in particular, was rooting for The Sussex, after reading a stellar review in another newspaper. But I know from experience that reviews can vary wildly, because consistently good cooking and service are a rarity that only occurs in the very best restaurants.
But back to the case in hand — we liked the look of the starters, and particularly the fact that effort was made in sourcing from Irish suppliers. But does quality local food have to come at such a high premium? Most of the appetisers cost around €10. Take Ted Browne’s Dingle Bay prawns with lemon and garlic on toast (€10.95), mushrooms with Crozier Blue and shallot cream (€8.95), or crispy egg salad with Doherty’s black pudding and mustard dressing (€9.95). That said, if you’re watching the pennies, you could opt for soup of day at €5.95, or seafood chowder for €7.50.
We shared two of the more luxurious options: Treacle-smoked salmon with pickled cucumber and mixed leaves (€9.95). The salmon was thick and fleshy, but still the portion was, I felt, out of step with the price. The Home Economist was intrigued by the notion of treacle smoking — but it fell short of the rich sweetness she’d anticipated. For our second starter we chose duck-liver parfait (€9.95), which arrived with a mountain of Melba toast. The duck was more pungent than gamey in flavour; its delusions of grandeur spoiled by greasiness before being scuppered by a strangely bitter prune and apple chutney.
Pricing on the main-course menu is more realistic — most come in under €20. The Home Economist opted for the Barbary duck breast, which she ordered rare to avoid the very chewiness it exemplified by arriving overdone. It came with half a dozen unskinned baby spuds, when buttery mash would have been the obvious (and correct) pairing. The puy lentils were, again, overcooked, although smoky lardons and blackberry jus made a stab at saving the duck’s day, and might just have succeeded until The Home Economist saw the bill and was outraged anew by the price — €24.95.
The Good Time Gal was suffering, not celebrating, a hangover. She wanted steak and got a walloping rib-eye (€24.95). The sweet charred crust was smothered with glossy onions and a kicking pepper sauce, inside the meat was nicely pink. It hit all the right notes, with a couple of meaty portobellos and fluffy mash in lieu of chips. No complaints from that quarter then. Eyeing the fish specials, I went for plaice cooked in butter with baby potatoes and green beans (€17.95). It was blander than bland, drowning in butter, mushy in texture and in dire want of lemon juice.
Heading into the final lap, we were bracing ourselves for defeat, but a small miracle occurred — some of the best desserts I’ve tasted in an age. A demure-sounding lemon posset was a frothy bouffant of citrus pleasure with a fragrant minty kiss and a fat, juicy crown of berries. Divine. Sticky toffee pudding was just as good — steamed sponge doused with caramel sauce that may have been infused with rum. Crackly shards of toffee and some top notch vanilla ice-cream made for a killer finish.
The brilliance of the desserts, which were inexplicably cheap at €6.95, only highlighted the banality of the rest. The Sussex had well and truly made its bed. Despite the sweetness of our send off, there was no denying that the service had been clumsy, the grub careless and the prices exorbitant. Throw in a wine list that barely merits a mention, and I remain yours in disappointment,