Pearl Brasserie: 'Fine dining as a concept feels positvely antiquated'
Pearl Brasserie, 20 Merrion Street Upper, Dublin 2. (01) 6613572
In all the years that I have lived in Dublin, I had never eaten at Pearl Brasserie before.
The restaurant's website tells me that it has been going strong since the millennium, and its city-centre location right beside The Merrion Hotel could hardly be more convenient. But the basement premises means that it's impossible to get any sense of the restaurant until one actually arrives, which perhaps explains something. Not that a subterranean location is always a bad thing for a restaurant, just look at Chapter One over on Parnell Square.
One thing that Pearl's website makes a big deal about is that it is a 'fine dining' restaurant. I'm guessing that online presence is optimised to encourage business folk to choose Pearl as somewhere to bring clients and make deals, but fine dining as a concept for those of us looking for somewhere convivial to eat with friends and family feels positively antiquated now. That doesn't mean that we don't want considered, ambitious food - to the contrary - but we would prefer to eat it in a casual, unpretentious setting.
I'm having lunch with my friend Margo, and there's plenty to catch up on, so we're happy to be seated at a table for two that's tucked away in a little nook where we can gossip away without fear of being overheard.
The staff appear to be mainly French. The woman running front of house is charming, and the others are courteously professional, although during the meal there is so much overenthusiastic interrupting to see if everything is okay that we wonder if perhaps our mission has been rumbled.
At lunch there's a set menu priced at €25 for two courses and €32 for three, as well as an à la carte.
I stick to the set menu, and give Margo the freedom of the à la carte. It's one of those set menus that makes me feel like a second-class citizen - all the enticing dishes are on the à la carte - and there's nothing that jumps off the page, other than, perhaps, the Irish beef rib-eye, which attracts a whopping €12 supplement, which really defeats the purpose of the set menu. When I buy rib-eyes from the butcher, they come in at around €8/10 a pop, so it's hard to fathom a supplement of that magnitude.
One of the starters on the set menu is a spicy slow-cooked lamb shoulder with warm taboulet (tabbouleh), compressed pine- apple and spicy vegetable stock. Our waiter brings us a taster of this by way of pre-starter. The dish is well-flavoured but, without the fancy presentation, it's the kind of plate you'd find in a decent café.
My crispy Dublin Bay prawns are wrapped in spring-roll pastry and served with a marinated beansprout salad, mango purée and black pepper. I've opted for this because the most appealing of the four starters on the set menu - avocado ponzu, navet, radish, coriander, apple and wasabi - is almost identical to the one Margo has chosen from the à la carte, except that hers comes with a small quantity of marinated tuna and a price tag of €16.
The only other option, aside from the lamb, is a goat's cheese parfait with kalamata olives, tomato, asparagus, pickled onion, apple and balsamic dressing, which reads as a dish for high summer rather than spring. (Pearl Brasserie does not appear to be too hung up on the faddy notion of seasonal eating.)
The prawn dish is disappointing: too much pastry, generic Asian flavouring and a sweet purée that takes me right back to... er... 1990? Margo's starter is far more successful: light, vibrant and a visual delight.
For mains, I have a choice between the rib-eye with the €12 supplement; sea bream, which I assumed is farmed because it doesn't say otherwise; pork fillet with no provenance information; and cod, served with a curried prawn sauce, coconut, black rice and pak choi. The cod turns out to be a desperate-looking dish smothered in a thick brown sauce; I eat less than half of it.
Thankfully, Margo's main course of king scallops with crayfish and asparagus risotto with lime is much better. The scallops are perfectly cooked, and the risotto has good depth of flavour. The portion is modest, though, and we reckon that three scallops have been halved to provide the six discs on the plate. The dish is priced at €28.
We share a praline and chocolate tartelette (tartlet) with yuzu and white chocolate ice-cream that is unremarkable but fine. Tea and coffee with pedestrian petits fours is €5.
Where Pearl Brasserie does come into its own is with its wine list, which is by far the best that I've seen anywhere in Dublin. It's eloquent, non-intimidating and clearly arranged.
Our bill for two, with two bottles of water and two glasses of wine, tea and coffee, comes to €117 before service.
6/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
The two-course lunch menu is €25.
ON A BLOW-OUT
Eating from the à la carte dinner menu, Iberico ham, followed by fillet steak with salad and a side of truffle mash, and a selection of cheese would cost €125 for two before water, wine or service.
THE HIGH POINT
A wine list that beats others in the city hands down in terms of clarity, range, description and accessibility.
THE LOW POINT
The emphasis on fine dining.