Sunday 19 January 2020

Roly's remains close to the heart of family life

This Dublin institution has survived the passing of those wild mushroom icecream days, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan

ON a recent busy Saturday, more by accident than design, we stopped off for lunch at Roly's Bistro in Ballsbridge in Dublin 4. Roly's is firmly entrenched in society as a real Dublin institution.

Sitting surrounded by families, from couples to parties including three or four generations, it came home to me how important it is for a city to have a restaurant where every special occasion is marked and remembered with affection. My boys, along with many of their peers, celebrated their first communions, confirmations, graduations and birthdays in Roly's, and like many, they now go there with their girlfriends, and so the tradition carries on.

In the old days, Dublin had Jammet's in Nassau Street, and the Red Bank in D'Olier Street, which were probably exclusively for adults. At Roly's, whilst it is a buzzy, sophisticated destination, grandparents and children mingle at the table in a grown- up atmosphere that is all encompassing and above all is not in any way elitist or snobby. This is where future sons and daughters-in-law are brought into the family arena to meet granny and grandad or where ladies who may have lost their husbands will lunch securely with old friends.

The idea for Roly's Bistro came about in the early Nineties when a group of restaurateurs on a golf outing were discussing their ideal location for a great restaurant -- Ballsbridge, D4, was where it was at for all of them.

The idea came to being in 1993 when Roly's Bistro was opened by Roly Saul, John and Angela O'Sullivan and John Mulcahy, with Colin O'Daly as head chef. It was an instant success and I remember the buzz and anticipation of 'would we be able to get a table for Millennium Night' seven years later -- we couldn't possibly be anywhere else!

The dynamic of Roly's changed over the years with John Mulcahy departing the business, and Roly Saul now having his own restaurant in Dundrum Town Centre. John and Angela O'Sullivan, who live part of the year in Florida, are still firmly at the helm along with executive head chef Paul Cartwright, who is also general manager and a director. Colin O'Daly, whilst not actively involved in the restaurant, is still a director.

Being at the helm of a great ship that sails, as it were, seven days a week, is an all-consuming occupation for Paul Cartwright but then he got his sea legs early. Paul, now 42, married to Joanne, who works in the Bank of Ireland, and with two small boys, recalls how he got started in the food business.

He says: "My dad was a radio officer in the merchant navy and when I was 16 I went away with him to West Africa for three months. It was a holiday for me obviously but I needed something to do so I used run the crew bar and the officers' bar with him. I spent a bit of time in the engine room and in the kitchen, which I liked. Out of the profits of the bar we'd have parties. In, say, Nigeria, we would go down to the markets and get big bags of prawns and cook them up so I suppose it gave me a bit of interest in cooking. When I came back, I did my Leaving Certificate and then went straight to Guernsey. I worked in a restaurant where I was a waiter for four days of the week, kitchen porter for one day, and second chef for one day!"

He had to come home then because his grandfather was ill so, in 1987, he did a one-year catering course in Ballyfermot Senior College and then worked for a year as a trainee manager in Fitzpatrick's Hotels. He was then offered a place in Cert in Galway in the RTC (now GMIT) on the culinary course.

He did a year's placement in Jury's Hotels and in Tinakilly House in Wicklow under the then chef, the excellent John Moloney. "I then worked in the Michelin-starred Commons restaurant before being offered a scholarship in France. I went to work in Rheims in a restaurant that wasn't great so I went to Paris to try and get a job, which was difficult, as work permits were different then. I walked into the Relais & Chateaux offices in Paris and said I was willing to work anywhere in France for the experience. I just needed somewhere to work and sleep, and a few bob to live," he explains.

Paul ended up working in Honfleur in the fabulous Ferme Saint Simeon. After that he went to work in the Savoy in London where he stayed for six years, starting as a commis chef, a sous chef after two years, and then head chef. "However, when I went to London, I had it in my head that I always wanted to work in a three-star Michelin restaurant so when I was 28 I left the Savoy and went to work for Pierre Koffman at Tante Claire. After that I came back and met John O'Sullivan and Colin O'Daly and joined Roly's as head chef and in due course became general manager/executive chef and a director."

Paul is totally hands-on with the day-to-day running of the restaurant and now also has a superb head chef, Hugh Hyland, who has been with Roly's for some 10 years. "However, 80 per cent of my day is still in the kitchen. I come in every morning, check the cafe and the restaurant, and the bookings, and prep all the fish which takes me an hour or so. We spend €9,000 a week on fish and whilst we have a huge team who can, of course, do it, I have a big investment in the fish and I like to do it myself. I like doing it, it gives me time to think. I can also see what is going on in the kitchen; I would be discussing things with Hugh, who does most of the organising in the kitchen."

Whilst John and Angela O'Sullivan live in Florida for part of the year, where there is also another restaurant, they would all consult on a daily basis. John O'Sullivan is a great restaurateur, a man who would think nothing of wiping down a table himself -- there is no standing on ceremony in Roly's, it is all hands to the wheel. They have a prep kitchen, two service kitchens, and a bakery. Three years ago they added a cafe on the ground floor which has proved hugely popular.

"We had initially thought of opening a separate cafe locally, however, in 2007 the dynamic of dining changed with the recession when it came to lunches. We went from being open for lunch seven days a week on two floors, to doing lunch five days a week on one floor. We were still phenomenally busy but then John and Angela said why don't we open the cafe here on the ground floor and that has been fantastically successful. It was the best thing we ever did, it saved a lot of jobs, and there is literally a queue out the door.

"These days everybody wants early birds and set menus, people want to be out but the spend is down. Everybody comes in earlier, they want good food, but value. People have also gone back to wanting simpler foods, they don't want 10 different ingredients on a plate. The days of people wanting salt on their dessert, or wild mushroom icecream with their fillet steak are gone. Steak with peppercorn sauce is still the most popular dish, as is Kerry lamb pie which has been on the menu since day one. People will still eat a la carte on a Saturday night.

"When I started in Roly's in 1996, Saturday lunch was more a hindrance than anything else, you would do maybe 70 or 80 lunches, Saturday night was the big thing. Sunday and weekday lunches were also very busy. However, Saturday lunch then exploded to maybe doing 200. During the Celtic Tiger years, it was mothers and daughters, or maybe sisters or friends meeting, now it is back to families."

Roly's Bistro has a fantastic wine dinner at €42 -- you can drink as much wine as you want, which is terrific as you know your spend in advance. This is available every night except Saturday

So, here's to a great Dublin institution.

Sunday Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News