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A bird in the hand

I have always believed that in life, across the board, you get what you pay for, so when it comes to the old early-bird and value menus, is it that you pay peanuts and get monkeys? Pre-recession, there was a sneaking feeling that early birds attracted those who were a bit scroogy, or empty nesters not bothered with cooking -- nay, even corporate and banking people who did not like spending their own money! Now many of the super smart, who once wouldn't have been caught dead dining before 8pm are, like elderly Americans, dashing to dinner at 6pm.

The early bird is tres chic. With the rise and rise of the early bird comes also the demand for an increased variety and standard of offerings. Egg mayonnaise, bruschetta, and watery basil and tomato soup will not cut the mustard: people want their pound of flesh. But we have to be fair to the restaurant too: we cannot expect fillet steak at early-bird prices. I tested five to see what we can expect.

The hip dylan Restaurant in Eastmoreland Place, Dublin 4, has a new chef, Nathan Diamond, ex-Gordon Ramsay at Powerscourt, and with him a new value menu that's available all evening, every night, at €38.50. Previously, it was €30, Sunday to Thursday only, which was what we availed of. To start, organic chicken terrine topped with fig chutney portrayed the finer details of elegant cooking. Likewise, St Maure goat's cheese in ash was prettily presented, nestled under a clump of frissee with a smudge of Kalamata olive puree.

Pan-fried sea bream fillet was topped with shrimps on truffled potato puree with julienned black trompettes; while a superb pheasant breast was served on potato gratin with braised spring onions -- cracking stuff. We shared a superb white-chocolate dessert to finish, plus a great value cheese board with a fresh fig. With a bottle of house wine (€26.50) our bill with service was €96.50 -- excellent value for top-level food.

The Chameleon restaurant, at the Liffey end of Fownes Street in Temple Bar, is a warm, colourful restaurant that has been doing Indonesian food for some 15 years.

In a three-storey building, its rooms are exotic and ethnic, with some low seating areas where you dine from opium tables. I have been a fan of the Indonesian rijst-taffel since I visited Amsterdam many years ago where, as a result of Dutch colonisation, there is a proliferation of Indonesian restaurants. Rijst-taffel means rice table, where you get a number of smaller portions of different dishes. There were two early-bird options -- four dishes at €18 or eight dishes at €25, both with condiments -- spicy sauces and rice -- and both available 5-7.30pm, Tuesday to Thursday, and 5-6.30pm, Friday and Saturday. We opted for the €25 rijst-taffel, which was great. Among the dishes were: sate ayam -- chicken with a peanut sauce; babi confit -- two delicious chunks of Tipperary slow-cooked belly of pork in a ketjap manis star anise sauce; cumi cumi goreng -- hot and crispy squid rings served with a sweet chilli dip; kari java -- succulent balls of Irish lamb in a spicy Javanese curry sauce; asinan -- salad with cucumber, mano, Chinese leaves and a peanut and black-sesame dressing; sesame-fried vegetables with sauteed onion and toasted sesame seeds; and bami goreng -- noodles. All were absolutely delicious. We finished with psiang goreng (€7) -- a banana fritter with pineapple compote, chocolate, and ice cream. With a bottle of Italian Alpha Zeta Garganega 2008 (€20) our bill, with optional service, came to €85. Really good.

Seapoint Restaurant in Monkstown has an early-bird two/three-course menu at €25/€29, available Monday to Thursday, 6-7.30pm, with a choice of three dishes on each course. Toulouse sausage was actually the full monty, cut in half on top of a delicious wild mushroom risotto with wilted spinach and rosemary jus; while sweet potato and chilli soup was a large amount in a big soup plate, drizzled with chive cream and chilli oil. Very filling, and lovely breads too.

A chunky grilled fillet of salmon was served on a bed of roasted peppers and aubergine with a beautifully dressed basil and grapefruit sauce; while a marinated oyster steak lay sliced on micro rocket, topped with some flaked Parmesan. Both came with crisp, salted fries presented in a cone. I had the orange and vanilla creme brulee with chocolate ice cream, which was delicious. Wines by the bottle start at €22, and we had a Chilean Merlot 2008 Las Condes (€22). There are also 500ml carafes from €16 -- lots of variety. Our bill, with a bottle of Evian water (€4.50), coffee (€3.25), and optional service came to €92.75.

Solas Bar &Restaurant, on Wexford Street, Dublin 2, does casual food at very reasonable prices. Some of its chefs are Thai or Chinese and it produces lovely, spicy grub with plenty of kick. It does a two-course early-bird menu at €12.50, which can't be bad. It starts at 3pm and runs through until 9pm. We had chicken satay and hot and spicy buffalo wings followed by a fantastic green Thai curry, and a special of the day which was prawns with rice noodles. With two glasses of Elvaro Sauvignon at €5 each and optional service, our bill was a modest €40.

Finally, at Rasam Indian Restaurant, in Glasthule, Co Dublin, the two-course early-bird menu with coffee, at €19.95, runs 5.30--7 pm every day except Saturday, with tables to be vacated by 8pm. To start, we had two big crispy samosas filled with peas and crushed potato spiced with cumin, coriander and pomegranate powder, and pork ke sooley, which is tasty strips of pan-fried pork marinated in chilli, garlic, ginger and cinnamon. We followed with lovely tandoori butter chicken in a creamy sauce with fenugreek leaves, ginger, tomatoes and green chillies, and eight-hour slow cooked lamb in a rich spicy sauce. These came with malabari aloo -- spiced potatoes, pilau rice and naan bread. With a bottle of Cono Sur Sauvignon Blanc (€19.95) our bill, with optional service, was €65.95.

It used to be said that lunch was the best way to try a top restaurant, now it is the early bird! Do let me know of your experiences.


Sunday Independent