Eating out: The review - Luna has the perfect balance of style and substance
LUNA, 2-3 Drury Street, Dublin 2 (01) 679 9009
What makes a great restaurant? It's a question that exercises John Farrell, Ireland's most serious of serial restaurateurs (Dillinger's, The Butcher Grill, 777, and Super Miss Sue are all his), and keeps him awake at night. Farrell's latest venture is Luna, located - not to put too fine a point on it - in the basement of the Drury Street car park. The schtick is New York Italian, and the food offering is pitched higher than in his other establishments.
Particularly at this time of year, in the wake of the Michelin Guide's recent pronouncements, it's a question that the rest of us should take a moment to consider too. However much the chattering classes of the food world gripe about the tyre company's annual list, and question its relevance, its importance to the chefs whose work is vindicated by bibs and stars (or damned by the lack of them), and punters - especially those unfamiliar with a city - who use it to guide them in the direction of some decent food, is undeniable.
But restaurants are about so much more than food, and the experience that you have is determined by many more factors than what is on your plate. This is where Michelin can fall short.
I know that I'm not alone in having eating technically brilliant dishes in restaurants where the service came with a sneer rather than a smile.
Or been expected to listen to mind-numbing explanations of the chef's 'vision', and excruciating detail as to the provenance of ingredients, when all I really wanted was for someone to pour me a glass of wine and let me get on with my conversation.
When I go out to eat in a restaurant of course I expect the service to be efficient and the food to have been sourced with integrity. I don't want to have anything spilled on my clothes and I do want to eat delicious things that arrive on the table when they're supposed to. But most of all, I want to have a good time.
Dublin has been having a food moment for a few years now; the capital is spoiled for choice when it comes to good eating, even if there are mutterings that prices have started to creep up after years in which value has been undeniable. But I'm going to stick my neck out and say that I think Luna is the capital's first really great new restaurant in a long time.
What Farrell has done at Luna is create a restaurant in which there is the perfect balance between style and substance.
First off, he has turned a challenging space into the most glamorous restaurant in the city, which is no mean feat. Much has already been made of the Mad Men feel, and it's impossible to overstate it. From the low lighting to the mirrored bar, from the horseshoe booths to the funky carpet, from the velvet Louis Copeland tuxedos worn by the staff to the vintage dessert trolley, the ambience is pure mid-century Manhattan. The only things missing are the fug of cigarette smoke and Don Draper slumped over a cocktail in the corner. On a Friday evening, the room is buzzing happily with customers dressed for dinner.
Next, Farrell made the smart decision to hire Declan Maxwell, formerly of Chapter One, to run front of house. Maxwell was recently named restaurant manager of the year at the Georgina Campbell awards; it's an accolade he well deserves. He's a professional who understands the importance of a proper welcome, the need to put customers immediately at their ease and to reassure them from the outset that they are in good hands and that everything will be taken care of. He has a lightness of touch that belies the all-seeing eyes in the back of his head, and he instils in his team the value of a smile and the need to remain unflustered no matter what goes wrong. Mistakes happen in every restaurant, the key thing is how they are dealt with. Nobody wants to be waited on by stressed-out staff.
With the room and service ticking all the boxes, Farrell hired Karl Whelan, also formerly of Chapter One, to head up the kitchen. Whelan is joined by Hugh Higgins, who used to work with John Wyer at Forest Avenue, and the pair are knocking out some seriously magnificent food, using lavish, old-school, indulgent ingredients that you won't find on too many other menus in the city.
We started with a selection of olives, marinated artichokes, and an unctuous cinnamon-scented lardo toast that it would be remiss to pass by (although perhaps don't tell your trainer), before 'primi' of roast cauliflower with more lardo, cheese, lovage and hazelnuts that delivered a serious umami hit, and beef carpaccio with warm bone marrow and truffle that was as decadently delicious as it sounds.
Next up, a shared portion of wild boar ragu over Parmesan ravioli, the sauce slow-cooked and rich as Croesus. For mains, a meaty tranche of turbot roasted on the bone with a tangle of oyster tagliatelle and charred leeks, and grouse with squash, swede and layered 'Stampetti' pasta with crisp trompette mushrooms. Both dishes superb, packed with big flavours. The whole roast Hispi cabbage with parsley sauce and bacon (served as a side) is a modern twist on the classic Irish dish and tastes a whole lot better than anything your mammy ever served up. We shared a pudding of black figs with a pistachio cake served with mascarpone, fig honey and crystallised pistachio, and spent the taxi ride home planning our next visit. With a bottle of Geil Pinot Noir and water our bill came to €176 before service. If you have something to celebrate, don't go anywhere else.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
The three course pre-theatre menu is €30. There are four choices for each course, and the roast cauliflower dish we had is currently included.
ON A BLOW OUT
A dozen oysters, followed by shared spaghetti al tartufo, osso bucco, a couple of sides and dessert would set you back €193 for two before wine. Several dishes (including lobster) are 'market price', so be careful.
THE HIGH POINT
Great buzz, great food, great restaurant.
THE LOW POINT
Waiting for the loos. There's no signage to indicate whether they are occupied or not.
Whispers from the gastronomicon
Real Bread Ireland is a grouping of like-minded bakers who make their bread the old-fashioned way, using basic ingredients such as flour, water and yeast, eschewing the additives and preservatives that you'll find in most mass-produced bread. You'll find a list of their members at realbreadireland.org, and if you have the opportunity to visit one of their shops and try out some of their breads, you will probably notice a big difference in flavour between bread made according to time-honoured traditional methods and the supermarket products that you're used to.