Alexis: Something to shout about
Alexis, 17-18 Patrick St, Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin. Telephone: 01-280 8872.
When I used to run my restaurant, there were nights when I'd wake up in extreme agitation. You see, I used to get these anxiety dreams. They were surprisingly real; I'd be working the front of house, taking orders for food and wine. Then I'd go to the wine cellar and find hardly any wine, and never any of the wine that had just been ordered. No matter where I looked, I could never find it.
Then I'd get into a panic, try desperately to explain to the customers why there was no wine. Then I'd wake up, sweating and flustered.
By all accounts, anxiety dreams about work are common enough. I have no doubt that people who work in nuclear power plants wake up dreaming of meltdowns; structural engineers wake up just as their new bridge has collapsed; surgeons wake up as a patient dies after an appendectomy; finance ministers wake up just as the country goes broke.
No, wait, that last one isn't an anxiety dream.
So what are the anxieties involved in restaurant reviewing? Nightmares about bad meals and spilled wine? No, I'll tell you: it's finding a great restaurant, writing about it, and then, soon after the review gets published, you hear the chef has gone, the manager has moved on and the whole place has gone pear-shaped. Suddenly your review is worthless. That's what I worry about.
There are restaurants that I praise, always adding the caveat, 'Well, it was very good when I reviewed it.'
There is always the possibility that the night I reviewed it, it produced the best food it ever did. It is the nature of the beast that I rarely get to return to a restaurant, since there are always new ones waiting to be checked out. But this week, I thought I'd try a return visit to a restaurant that I thought was innovative, good value and had very good food -- Alexis in Dun Laoghaire. It opened a few years ago and got rave reviews, including one from me. But keeping standards high and consistency are the hardest things a restaurant needs to do.
This week, four of us went to dinner in Alexis: Guy and Grace French, Marian Kenny and me. What strikes you at once about Alexis are two things -- it's busy and it's noisy. On my last review visit I thought the noise levels were very high, but I heard that there was a plan to fix that by using sound-deadening baffles. There may have been a plan, but the noise levels are still very high.
My decibel meter app on my iPhone registered an average of 85 decibels, with a peak of 104. That's not far off the pain threshold. You're going to have to shout unless you hit an unusually empty moment, and if you have any kind of hearing impairment you'd better learn to lip read. But you can balance that against the fact that the food here is excellent and it's also terrific value for money.
There are new menus since I was last here and they've been designed with the new austerity in mind. There's an early bird, which offers two courses for €18 or three for €22. You choose from five starters, five main courses and five desserts. The main courses are slow-roasted pork, fillet of cod, seared lamb's liver, steak and mushroom pie, and a corn-fed chicken casserole -- all good dishes.
If the whole table chooses it, you can go for the tasting menu, which offers four courses plus coffee for €25. There are no choices on this menu: you start with a pithivier of wild game, foie gras terrine, roast pears and a veal sauce; then there's a seafood plate; a slow-cooked topside of beef with truffle potatoes; and, finally, a chocolate and caramel tart. For an extra €12 you can have four small glasses of wine, chosen to match each course.
Despite all of these choices we went à la carte, where the starters cluster around €8, the mains run from €16.50 to €24.50 and desserts cost €6.50. We began with a plain salad for Marian, a chicken liver parfait for Grace, and both Guy and I had the smoked haddock risotto. The salad was fine, the parfait tasted good and came with toasted brioche, and the risotto was excellent. The rice was cooked perfectly, something that's rarer than you'd expect, and the haddock was undyed, exactly as it ought to be. The softness of the risotto was nicely balanced with garden peas, cooked with a bit of a bite left in them.
There was good bread on the table and we settled into a good meal as we shouted at one another across the table.
We had only three glasses of wine between us, but somehow we managed to drink five large bottles of mineral water, charged very reasonably at €3.90 each. The wine list isn't long, but any list that starts with a Lustau Manzanilla for €6 a glass gets my vote. There are some good wines on this list and it's well priced -- the majority of the wine is in the €20-€30 range.
For the main courses Grace ordered a daily special of scallops, Marian the mushroom risotto, and Guy and I had the slow-roasted pork. The scallops were cooked well and served on a pea risotto base, and Marian's risotto was creamy and filled with some button mushrooms and morels, which I thought was a good seasonal touch. The pork dish was really good; the slow cooking had ensured that the pork was so tender you could cut it with a fork.
Despite being well fed, the desserts looked so tempting that we ordered three between us: a chocolate truffle and two bread and butter puddings made with brioche. It becomes a much more luscious dish when done with brioche, which gives what's essentially nursery food a refined twist.
Two teas and two espressos brought us a bill of €172.10.
Alexis is a fine restaurant, the food is very good and the prices are reasonable. I was delighted to find that it has kept its standards high and I have no doubt that it will survive the hard times ahead.
VALUE FOR MONEY 8/10
25-30 = EXCELLENT
20-25 = GOOD
15-20 = FAIR
0-15 = POOR
ON A BUDGET
There are a few options here. The lunch menu is a good one as all main courses cost €9. When you take the Government’s VAT out of that, it’s less than €8. I liked the look of the tasting menu, where four courses cost €25, and four small glasses of wine to go with that for €12 is a real bargain.
IT’S A BLOWOUT
The à la carte is your only option here, and even then it’s not easy to push the boat out. The most expensive dishes are loin of veal and dry-aged sirloin, priced at €24.50 and €23.50 respectively. The wine list has some scope if you’re feeling flush: there’s a Sancerre for €38 and a Châteauneuf for €48.