Friday 20 April 2018

Eating out: Lucinda O'Sullivan at Saison

Saison is its latest incarnation and the food is faultless, but the atmosphere could lighten up a bit...

The Saison Restaurant and Bar
The Saison Restaurant and Bar

Lucinda O'Sullivan

Pennies From Heaven, and other such jangly jazz numbers, seemed obtrusive in the otherwise hushed atmosphere of the new Saison Restaurant & Bar on Kildare Street.

Tucked away in a totally secluded alcove, one could be forgiven for thinking that it was gone midnight, rather than a little after midday.

The basement of 21 Kildare Street has had more column inches written about it over the past number of years than any other restaurant in the country. As I looked at this long space, I thought of when, as Mitchell's Cellars, it was the hottest lunchtime place in town. To the rear was a buzzing drinks bar, where people from the property, political and media world clustered and chattered round wine barrels.

After a long run, it changed hands and became Town Bar & Grill, set up by Ronan Ryan and Temple Garner, who created an equally interesting atmosphere and, again, a haunt for the movers and shakers. After a fairly dramatic collapse, it was taken over by Gillian Ronan as Town Kildare, and now its latest incarnation is as Saison with Alison Barker at the helm, who is also involved with La Bodega tapas restaurant in Ranelagh.

The bar seemed barren – that area needs a shake up – and the only change we could note with any certainty was that some walls were painted a vibrant, deep-sea turquoise. I hesitate to say it, but, contrasting with the white and brick walls, it felt like being in an Aegean aquarium, while a table in the middle of the room, with a large glass vase of white flowers, looked like a hotel foyer.

It didn't seem as if they had the vibe or atmosphere right yet; service was efficient, if muted – there were only two other people in the room – but one thing was right, the food! Head chef, Graeme Dodrill, formerly of One Pico, delivered faultless fine food at every level. A two-course lunch menu, at €21, offered a quartet of starters and mains, with desserts being €7 extra.

The Saison Restaurant and Bar

Roast Irish scallops (€4 supplement) and a goat's cheese salad were ace. The former sported four well-seared scallops on white asparagus and dried bacon crumbs, flashed with a foam and topped with beetroot leaves.

The goat's cheese salad was wistfully light, delicious and pretty, in straight-line format. Four petite spools of whipped goat's cheese stood en garde on either side of a line-up of batons of celeriac and apple, sprinkled with crushed, candied walnuts, and rye bread and horseradish.

For mains, my friend, Paul, had charred rib of beef topped with roasted onion, which was succulent, juicy and tender, and which, as a dedicated carnivore, he thoroughly enjoyed, along with a stack of fries. I had fillet of John Dory, which was also really delicious, chunky and plentiful, with confit artichoke, peas and bacon, fennel sprigs and various drizzles. We were also brought a little melange of asparagus tips, broccoli, peas and toasted almonds.

Desserts were really cool. A mango and passion fruit panna cotta (€7), set in a wide-based bowl, had vibrant panna cotta, topped with crumbled white milk solids, a paler mousse, and purple and yellow nasturtiums. Champagne rhubarb (€7) portrayed a beautiful woodland picture of poached champagne rhubarb stalks, natural yoghurt, milk solids and sorrel.

While lunch offered good value for what we had, we did feel we must be back in the good times, as mains at dinner hover around the €30 mark and the cheapest bottle of wine we could find was €28. After that, it was a few bottles in the 30s bracket, moving rapidly up over the 40s, up to €180. So, with a bottle of the cheapest wine – Falerio 2012 Saladini Pilastri at €28 – and two coffees (€6.90) – our bill, with service, came to €104.90.

This time around, the basement at "21" needs to loosen up – it just all felt a bit too precious. It is possible to have "fine dining" and fun combined.

Saison Restaurant & Bar,
21 Kildare Street,
Dublin 2.
Tel: (01) 662-4800


Three to try: cool basements

Pearl Brasserie, 20 Merrion Street Upper, Dublin 2. Tel: (01) 661-3572.

Style: Since opening in 2000, the Pearl Brasserie has always moved forward with elan, serving contemporary French food. "Gourmet theatre meets edible art" is on Wednesday and Thursday evenings; a dessert is created at your table.

Price: Mains, €22-€32; lunch/early bird 2-course, €25; plat du jour, €14

Try: Halibut with asparagus, potato gnocchi, pata negra, olive and cep jus, €28

Wine: From €28

Oyster grill, Hotel Meyrick, Eyre Square, Galway. Tel: (091) 564-041.

Style: The Meyrick's famous Oyster Grill, with its relaxed ambiance, has been all "shuck up" and relocated to the lower-ground level. Menu choices range from oysters and crab claws to fish and steaks

Price: Mains, €18.95-€29.50

Try: Pan-seared local scallops with Tournafulla black pudding wontons, potato chive mousseline, noisette butter, and Donegal rapeseed oil, €26.50

Wine: From €26

Faat Baat, 35 Dawson Street, Dublin 2. Tel: (01) 677-4444.

Style: Eat and share pan-Asian food "family style" in a New York-type basement, with small and sharing plates, a cocktail bar and resident DJ

Price: €7.95-€22

Try: Peanut beef – Irish fillet with mustard greens, baby pak choi, kecap manis and sambal oelek, €18.50

Wine: From €23

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