Eating out: Paolo Tullio at The Unicorn, Merrion Court
All through the nineties and into the noughties, there was only one place to see and be seen in Dublin on a Saturday and that was The Unicorn.
Somehow, despite some ordinary food and an expensive wine list, it became the haunt of Dublin's great and good. Here it was that some of our best known property developers, bankers and moneymen held court, their lunches frequently extending right through to the evening.
Like our boom days, those days are gone. The Unicorn became a symbol of what happens when you overstretch, in this case adding another restaurant just around the corner called Il Segreto. It became the enterprise that brought the house of cards tumbling down.
But like any good phoenix, the Unicorn has risen again under new management, with new chefs and a new menu. Only time will tell if it regains its position as a meeting house for the glitterati.
Read More: Eating Out: Paolo Tullio at Sanjay's Kitchen
I was curious enough about the new incarnation that I felt it was time to check it out, and for company I had Concetto Lamalfa, a multi-hyphenate of a man - writer, videographer, poet and magazine publisher. If you need to know what's going on among Ireland's Italian community, his 'Italia Stampa' is the place to start.
We arrived on a midweek night quite early, to find a pretty well filled restaurant. After an hour or so it had filled to capacity, so they must be doing something right, I thought. The menus arrived with two totally delicious breads, a still warm sourdough bread and a crisp flat bread flavoured with fennel seed. This last bread was really good, so much so we had to ask for more. It's apparently a Sardinian speciality called either 'music paper bread' or in Sardo, carasau.
Read More: Eating out: Paolo Tullio at The House, Howth
Looking down the menu my first thought was 'pricey'. When starters are well over €10 - for example scallops at €15.95, calamari €14.95 or langoustines at €17.50, you know you're not going to get away cheaply.
The main courses were similarly priced, with pasta dishes going up to €26.95 and fillet of beef selling for €31.95. I said to Concetto that I thought the menu looked pricey and he said "we should look at the set menu." We didn't have one on the table, so we asked for it.
It had a more restricted choice, of course, but it offered two courses for €21.50 or three for €26.50, much more in line with the average across the city. We decided that Concetto would choose from the à la carte, while I'd choose from the set menu, giving us a good spread across the two.
I turned to the wine list and discovered that the venerable tradition of an expensive list still obtains in The Unicorn. Very few of the listings are under €30, mostly the wines are priced between €30 and €60, with a few running up to three figures.
We decided on just a glass of white each, taking our sommelier's advice and having the Gavi di Gavi at €9.50 a glass. It was a pleasant enough wine, but in my opinion overpriced.
The soup of the day was lobster bisque, so Concetto ordered that and I had the Caprese salad. The bisque was very good, the taste of lobster shone through brightly, while the Caprese salad was perfectly acceptable.
I say 'acceptable' because the taste of ripe tomatoes still lingers in my memory from my holidays. If you've ever tasted tomatoes that have ripened in hot sun, rather than in glass houses, you'll know they're a very different fruit from our tomatoes.
I had the standard Irish tomato as part of my Caprese: you know the ones, they look like tomatoes but neither smell of them nor taste of them. Good mozzarella, however, gave me plenty to eat. I think we might have been living in Ireland for too long, because we both did what no Italian would ever do, we ordered pasta as our main course.
Seafood linguine for Concetto and Amatriciana for me. As soon as Concetto lifted a forkful of his pasta to his mouth, I could tell by its 'droop' that it was cooked the way I like it, al dente, but not hard. Mine was cooked rather less, leaving the middle of the penne still white and hard. I know lots of people who'll happily eat pasta like this, but I prefer it cooked right through.
So I got to watch Concetto eat his sea food linguine while we waited for my second attempt at the Amatriciana. It was worth waiting for: the second dish was more cooked and with a very well made sauce. It's named after the little town of Amatrice just outside Rome and it's a classic dish from Lazio.
The most common variant is a tomato sauce enriched with either guanciale or pancetta, which is what I got here. A well reduced tomato base and slivers, rather than lardons, of pancetta finished the sauce. I thought it well executed. Meanwhile, Concetto had worked his way through a bowl of sea food pasta, a tomato base with scallops, mussels, prawns and calamari.
This sauce was based on cherry tomatoes, so it had a lightness to it. It wasn't heavily reduced so it retained a pleasing freshness and delicacy, allowing the taste of the seafood to come to the forefront.
Concetto and I were enjoying our chat over dinner so much we decided on desserts to keep the conversation going. He chose the classic crème brûlée and I chose the ginger and lemon sorbet.
The crème brûlée was good and well made, but the sorbet was superb. The tang of the ginger and lemon made it a real palate cleanser. A super dish. A couple of espressos brought our bill to €93.40.
The Unicorn, 12b Merrion Court, Dublin 2. (01) 697 2575
On a budget
The set menus, both at lunch time and at dinner, is the budget way to eat here. A two-course lunch is €20 and three courses is €25.
On a blowout
The lunch and the dinner à la carte allow you to spend. You could spend €17 for a starter and €31 for a main course, even before you look at the wine list.
I really enjoyed the sorbet. I'd go back just to taste it again.
Having to wait for my second pasta dish while Concetto ate.
7/10 value for money