Restaurant review: Locks Brasserie.... Stylishly bland
This week I've been reading Setting the Table by New York restaurateur Danny Meyer, which should be a required text for anyone thinking about getting involved in the business of serving food to paying customers. Meyer is the man behind Shake Shack, but he started out with the Union Square Cafe, which sets the bar for a dining experience that he dubs 'casual elegance' and celebrates its 30th birthday this year, no mean feat in that most fickle of cities. He owns a range of restaurants, from a low-key barbecue joint to one that features on the San Pellegrino list of the best in the world, and has never had one that failed.
As John and Sally McKenna pointed out when they launched the 2015 edition of their 100 Best Restaurants in Ireland (which comes in app form and is a necessary download for anyone interested in eating well), as we have become more confident in our food culture, we have moved beyond the stiff formality of service that gets in the way of enjoying the food. As diners, we want to relax, secure in the knowledge that we will be made welcome, looked after, and not bothered too much. Meyer's message is the same - he calls it hospitality - and anyone who has experienced the pleasure of eating at his Eleven Madison Park in New York will know that a 3 Michelin star restaurant does not have to be stuffy.
Locks had a Michelin star for a moment a couple of years ago. It was awarded at a time when many people thought that if Dublin was to get another star that it would have gone to Mickael Viljanen at The Greenhouse, but that star is gone now, which is probably a relief. Stars put a lot of pressure on a restaurant, and not always in a good way.
Locks now has a new chef, Karl Breen, an alumnus of the kitchen at The Greenhouse (six degrees of separation is a constant of the Irish cheffing scene), who has also worked with Clodagh McKenna. He launched his new menu a couple of weeks ago, so it seemed like a good time to revisit a restaurant that occupies a special place in the hearts of many Dubliners.
Back in the 1980s, Locks was in the hands of Claire and the late Richard Douglas. The food was hearty with a Scandinavian twist, the decor involved red velvet and plush drapes, and it was a venue much favoured by creative types in search of somewhere to relax over a long and liquid lunch that could easily segue into dinner without anyone paying too much attention. Friday afternoons regularly bore witness to a photographer-about-town's party piece involving a tower of Marie Antoinette champagne glasses and a plentiful supply of Bollinger.
These days, Locks is owned by Sébastien Masi and Kirsten Batt, the couple behind the successful Pearl Brasserie. There are promotional materials for Pearl in the bathrooms at Locks, and inserted into its wine list, which strikes a tacky note. The red drapes are long gone, and the interiors are now smart and modern, vaguely Gustavian. The service is efficient but, with a couple of exceptions, chilly, bordering on abrupt. Locks did not exude a sense of welcome, nor of the hospitality that Meyer says is key to the success of all restaurants.
But what about the food? It looks beautiful, and the presentation is exquisite.
Bread - sourdough and potato - was good; we liked the truffled crème fraîche that accompanied it. An amuse of Parmesan churros, served with a corn purée, shimeji mushrooms and lettuce (described as 'compressed gem', for no good reason that I can think of), with more than a hint of peanut in the background, underwhelmed. Churros need to be eaten straight out of the fryer, but these took too long to get to the table.
Twelve-hour octopus came with black garlic, calamansi (a citrus fruit) mayo, tamarind and salted celeriac. For all the activity going on on the plate, it was surprisingly bland. Black powder artfully sprinkled was, according to the waiter I asked, burnt leek ash. Not that you'd have known from the taste. Swordfish tartare was a better option, the supporting elements of kohlrabi (this year's beetroot), avocado, buttermilk snow and grapefruit combining to produce a fresh, thoughtful and well-balanced starter.
A main course of glazed beef cheek with crisp brisket, morels and asparagus, the richness of the meat cut through with sharp horseradish, worked well in terms of flavour, although the cheek should have been better trimmed as it was still gristly. Poached hake with cauliflower miso, peas and lobster was heavily over-salted; a dish that could have been good was spoiled.
For pudding, we shared a confection of caramelised banana and peanut cream sandwiched between sheets of flaky pastry topped with crème fraîche sorbet - pleasant but not earth-shattering - and a selection of Irish and French cheeses in tip-top condition that included a stonkingly gorgeous Époisses.
We drank a 2012 German Spätburgunder from Matthias Runkel (€38) that was light, savoury and fine alternative to pricey pinot noir. Our bill, with a bottle of sparkling water, came to €157.50 before service.
I'm not hankering after a return to the rosy lighting and rib-sticking food that I associate with the Locks of old, but I do yearn for the warmth of the welcome back then, and the lack of arse (that's a technical term) when it came to the food. Karl Breen may be a talented chef, but the current Locks' offering is pretentious and a triumph of style over substance.
On a budget
The lunch menu is priced at €28 for two courses and €35 for three. It features many of the same dishes as the evening menu.
On a blowout
The Surprise five-course dinner tasting menu is €75 per head, and must be ordered by the entire table. Matching wines are €45, but you could push the boat out with a bottle of Château Léoville-Barton, Saint-Julien, 2005, at €280.
THE HIGH POINT
Great cheeses, with the most delicious house-made barley crisps.
THE LOW POINT
Service with a curled lip rather than a smile.
5/10 value for money
Whispers from the Gastronomicon
In an ideal world, all the fruit and vegetables that we eat would be organic and pesticide-free. But for most of us the range of organic food available is limited by what the supermarkets have on offer, as well as by our budget. Recently I came across a list of the Dirty Dozen - fruit and vegetables that contain the highest concentration of pesticides - and the Clean Fifteen, which contain the least.
By way of compromise, try buying organic for the items listed on the dirty list, and don't beat yourself up for buying conventional items from the clean list. See mindbodygreen.com