Tuesday 24 October 2017

Stewart dynasty reigns in kitchen

Mervyn Stewart's long established Guinea Pig restaurant offers dining fit for a queen, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan

NOW that Queen Elizabeth is coming to grips with new additions to the family tree, she might care to meet her long-lost cousins, the Stewarts, when she comes to Ireland next week. Not only would she get a chance to visit the beautiful heritage town of Dalkey in Co Dublin -- where, in Dalkey Castle, there is an interactive Living History 'Meet the Tudors' tour, but she would also be very well fed at chef proprietor Mervyn Stewart's legendary Guinea Pig restaurant, where he has an original menu from the dinner celebrating her Coronation on June 2, 1953 at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London.

Queen Elizabeth II is not only a direct descendant of the first Tudor, Henry VII, but also of the first Stuart, James I, the first Hanover, George I, and the first Windsor, George V.

The Stewarts originated in Brittany in the 11th century before moving to Scotland, where they ruled through the centuries. In 1745/46 the grandson of James II, Prince Charles Edward Stuart -- 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' -- led the last attempt to restore the Stuart dynasty to the British Crown and the slaughter of his army at the Battle of Culloden. Many Stewarts emigrated from Scotland to Ulster. It is from this family line, or clan, that Mervyn Stewart's family is descended.

Mervyn Stewart was born in Millicent, Clane, Co Kildare, in 1944. In the mid 19th century the Cooke-Trench family of Millicent House built St Michael & All Angels Church, which contains stunning art work including examples of cloisonne and scraffito, and many fine works from the arts and crafts movement.

Mervyn has many happy memories of singing in the choir. He was originally destined to go to St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin to sing in the choir there, with the prospect of becoming a minister. However, as Mervyn says, "Like all best laid plans, that didn't work out."

Mrs Handy, the then minister's wife, knew the legendary Ken Besson of the old Hibernian Hotel on Dawson Street in Dublin, and in 1956 the very young Mervyn was indentured into the Hibernian Hotel for five years to train as a chef. Mervyn recalls that during this post-war period, "Dublin was the Mecca for eating, as there was no real rationing in Ireland to the extent there was in England". The big hotels of the time --

the Russell, the Hibernian, and the Gresham -- were hotspots of good food. The Hibernian and the Russell brought over French chefs, while the Gresham brought in German chefs.

"Wealthy people used to fly in to Dublin, including American senior officials from Europe, specially to dine," Mervyn says.

On the dining scene there was also Jammet's restaurant in Nassau Street and the Red Bank in D'Olier Street, which

the wealthy frequented. Ordinary English people used to come to Bray, in north Co Wicklow, in droves and enjoy the lack of restriction on cigarettes or drink in Ireland.

Having completed his indentures, Mervyn then went

to work at the Metropole on O'Connell Street, where one day the head chef -- who had worked in Grosvenor House Hotel in London -- was doing a clear-out of his desk, and came across the Coronation night menu. Mervyn asked him for it. "I have kept it carefully now for 47 years," he says.

In 1965, Mervyn got married. In time, he became head chef at the Clarence Hotel, now owned by one of Mervyn's favourite customers at the Guinea Pig, Bono.

The Guinea Pig itself is famous for its fabulous seafood. It was founded in 1957 and was the haunt of all the movie stars who were working in Ardmore Studios in Bray -- "the busiest film studios in Europe at the time" -- including Maureen O'Hara, John Wayne, Peter Ustinov and Princess Grace.

Mervyn and his wife Florence bought the restaurant in 1977, and today it is a favourite spot for many famous people. Customers have to ring the doorbell to gain access to the Guinea Pig, as has been a tradition for over 50 years.

Mervyn has seen many celebrities through his doors, including Sharon Stone, Hugh Leonard, Maeve Binchy, Enya ("who has sung in the restaurant many a time"), the late Natasha Richardson and Liam Neeson, Chris and Diane de Burgh, Meryl Streep,and Bono ("whose favourite dish is a fillet steak, medium rare, soft onions and mashed potatoes. He likes simple food").

Mervyn would not feel one bit out of place meeting Her Majesty, having in 1987 been crowned King Mervyn I of the ancient Kingdom of Dalkey.

To celebrate the Guinea Pig's 54 years in business, the restaurant has a superb value Celebration menu on offer at €80 for two, which includes a bottle of wine. So the queen might kick off with calamari and Tartare sauce, followed by Dublin Bay seafood chowder, then Mervyn's four-fish mixed grill with lemon or garlic butter, or maybe baked Dalkey crabmeat with cream and cheese, or even crisp honey-roast half duck with apricot sauce. And if she fancies real lobster Thermidor, this is the place for it.

"Chefs nowadays don't know what a real lobster Thermidor is," says Mervyn.

So, the Queen should go and ring Mervyn's doorbell for the real thing!


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