Eating out: Chapter One
18/19 Parnell Square, Dublin 1, (01) 873 2266
At a time when chefs are so busy doing other things - writing books, appearing on television, keeping up an active social media presence - it can be rare to go to a restaurant and find the chef whose name is, either literally or metaphorically over the door, in the kitchen.
Not that I'd begrudge a chef the odd night off, perish the thought, but in a number of the restaurants that I've visited over the past few months, the chef has been absent. In fact, the chef has been more often absent than present.
Of course, the theory is that the chef trains his or her staff so well that the kitchen is a well-oiled machine that runs efficiently whether or not the boss is in situ, but I wonder if this is always the case.
I've been lucky enough to eat at Chapter One a few times a year for the past number of years and I don't think there has ever been an occasion when Ross Lewis has not appeared at the end of the meal and done a little tour of the dining room, introducing himself to his customers, making sure that they are happy, sharing a few anecdotes, making them feel welcome and appreciated. (Ross's whites are always immaculate, and I certainly don't think that he is in the kitchen grafting like one of his young team, but I very much have the sense that he is present far more often than not and is still - more than 20 years after he opened his restaurant - hands on in a real sense.)
It is, I think, the very essence of hospitality, and surely one of the factors that has contributed to Chapter One's longevity, given that it has survived tough times in a fickle business. It helps that Lewis has the gift of the gab and appears genuinely to enjoy this interaction with the public. Not all chefs are as socially adept as the Corkman, who will go down in history as the man who cooked for the Queen.
Chapter One is the restaurant that I would choose over any other in the city in which to mark an occasion.
No matter how much I give out about 'fayn dayning' on this page, how I loathe having to get dressed up to go out and eat, and love casual places where the food rather than the chef is the star, there are some circumstances that demand a different kind of restaurant experience. It's as much, perhaps, about the person or people whom the meal is designed to honour as it is about the gravitas that's commensurate with the occasion.
A few weeks ago, we had a family graduation, with a godparent visiting from abroad. I booked the table back in January, as soon as I knew the date, in my own name, as I didn't intend to be writing about it. On a Friday lunchtime, the room is full, buzzing with other graduation parties, a few corporates, some tourists and - would you believe it? - another national restaurant critic.
Later, sommelier Ed Jolliffe tells me that they are full every day and night of the week now. "Everyone is back," he says. "They're spending money, ordering nice wine, having a good time." It's good to hear.
What do we eat? There's an amuse of a smoked haddock soup with fermented horseradish, cauliflower and dill - the herb a vibrant green oil on the surface - that's absolutely bursting with substance. For me, a starter of slow-cooked lamb belly that is breaded (although that is too prosaic a term for the magic that has been worked on this humble piece of meat), served with pickled mustard and anchovy and exploding with flavour.
For others, a tartare of mackerel alongside an intensely sea-salty gel of sea purslane (that tasty shrub with the pink star-shaped flowers that's a forager's delight) and a summery, Instagram-beautiful plate of violet artichoke with peach, goat's curd and pistachio.
My main course is stuffed leg of rabbit wrapped in a pancetta-like bacon with a mushroom tart, braised barley and a deep green purée of - I think - spinach. The flavours are rich and intense. Others choose cod with broccoli and mussels, or salt marsh duck with bonito sesame seeds, blood orange and smoked sweet potato (a dish I've had before, the duck and bonito an exquisite combination) or rump of lamb with caper flowers, scapes and tomato.
For pudding, there was a hot 70pc chocolate mousse with barley and hazelnut milk coffee ice-cream and lemon jelly; a confection of raspberry with malted vanilla and lavender; and - my selection - textures of Irish milk and honey, which sounds biblical and tastes celestial.
I don't know what our bill comes to, because the too-generous godfather sneaks off and pays before we can ask for it, but the three-course lunch is a bargain €39.50. The bottles that Ed suggested to go with the meal - we'd asked for recommendations that were low in alcohol - an Austrian red, Wagner-Stempel Grauburgunder Rheinhessen 2014 (€47) and a Spanish white, Botijo Blanco Garnacha Blanca Valdejalón 2015 (€38) were spot-on in terms of lunchtime- drinking-pocket-friendliness.
Whatever about waiting for a special occasion, I'm thinking that getting away from the desk at lunchtime on a Friday is reason enough to celebrate - and I'll be hoping to make it back in to Chapter One again before the summer is out.
9/10 Value for money
ON A BUDGET Lunch costs €32.50 for two courses, and €39.50 for three.
ON A BLOW-OUT While lunch is a bargain, dinner puts more of a strain on the pocket. At the Chef's Table - located smack bang in the heart of the action - a group of six can enjoy a seven-course tasting menu with matching wines from the reserve cellar for €1,050.
THE HIGH POINT The fact that fine dining - that hateful expression - can be done in a way that feels modern yet still has a sense of occasion.
THE LOW POINT There are no lows at Chapter One.