Eating out: Lucinda O'Sullivan at Balfes at the Westbury Hotel
Capturing the best of old Dublin, with a touch of Paris, not to mention memorable seafood and excellent service, Balfes at the Westbury Hotel left Lucinda O'Sullivan very impressed
From the moment we crossed the threshold, we loved what Balfes had to offer. It had a natural, uncontrived air, and while it's reminiscent of Paris or Madrid, its retro, urban, white-tiled decor- brown leather banquettes and marble-top tables - captured the best of old Dublin.
It's part of the five-star Westbury Hotel, and has its own entrance facing out to Grafton Street. Walking in, there is a beautiful, big, zinc-topped bar facing a raised banquette with high tables. A smart, smiling young woman moved into action quickly, welcoming us and bringing us through to the rear, where she said we could sit anywhere we liked. I liked that attitude, rather than, as so often happens, people trying to herd you to a tiny table in the middle of the room, or beside the kitchen or the toilet door.
Balfes opens from 8am for breakfast (10am on Saturdays and Sundays for brunch) and offers a menu with food that is right on the nose. It's the sort of place you could slip into and have a choice of morning pastries such as pain au chocolat, croissants, scones or muffins, all at €3.
From Monday to Friday, there's an all-day menu which includes carpaccio of Irish Angus beef at €10; a seafood skillet of salmon, cod, cockles and mussels in a white wine cream sauce for €18; chargrilled fish; or, indeed, a 10oz aged rib-eye steak or a 12oz T-bone steak with the works, for €24/€29 respectively.
Daily lunch specials are also available from noon right up to 6pm - which is a great service if, like me, you fancy a late lunch. Monday, it's rack of rare-breed pork with smoked-bacon colcannon; Thursday, it's braised short-rib of beef, with potato puree, bourguignon sauce and so on.
Cathal Dunne is the executive chef here and his food was clean-cut, clear and well-nigh perfect. We'd been shopping and were there for Sunday brunch, which again runs conveniently until 5pm. The menu included a charcuterie plate at €18; salads in two sizes; fish 'n' chips at €16; and the weekend lunch special of a half roast chicken with stuffing, roast carrot and parsnip and home-cut chips at €15, which also included rice pudding to follow.
Brendan kicked off with a half-dozen Carlingford oysters, classically presented on a bed of ice in a cool, black pottery dish, centred around a bowl of shallot mignonette (€14), which put a pep in his step.
I had Clare Island seaweed-cured salmon gravlax (€9). I am a big fan of smoked salmon, but very often I have to ask for the accompaniments that really make it for me. Here, it was pure perfection. Presented in a contemporary way, strips of the salmon were curled and folded on the plate, while tiny pickled florets of cauliflower intermingled with snow- white blobs of horseradish cream and fantastic capers, which add a tartness that cuts through the oiliness of salmon.
We also had a side order of breads (€4), which came with dips of roast garlic and tomato, and fennel and chilli.
Brendan followed up with a three-egg omelette (€12.50) filled with ham and cheese. It just had a really fresh, home-made taste and was served with fries and salad. I had charcoal-grilled gambas (€15) which were the best I've had in many a long day. In their shells, in a black gratin dish, they were heavily laced with chilli salt and served with harissa aioli, lime and toasted ciabatta. Finger-licking divine.
We passed on desserts at €7.50, such as chocolate fondant with almond ice-cream; or mixed berries with Champagne sabayon, while noting also that their Irish farmhouse cheese selection with fig and almond compote was an affordable €9, instead of the €12 and €14 I am seeing in lesser places.
There are cocktails, aperitifs, hot toddies, liqueurs and digestifs to beat the band and, with two glasses of Bodegas Cimbron Verdejo (€8 each) and a double espresso (€4), our bill with optional service came to €79.50.
Balfes is a class act.
Tel: (01) 646-3353