Pichet, 15 Trinity Street, Dublin 2 (01) 677 1060
It's Tuesday evening and Pichet is unexpectedly hopping, with a cheerful buzz in the room. Every table is occupied. Who are all these people?
Corporates in the main, it turns out, with one large group from KPMG and others from pharma, tech and media companies, plus a few well-heeled tourists and some locals. Corporates don't look the same way they did back in the last boom; the suits and ties are gone - and good riddance to them. Restaurants, particularly in Dublin, went through tough times when it wasn't deemed echt for businesses to be seen to be spending their money on entertaining; clearly those days are over.
The first good thing that happens to us when we arrive is that the maître d' asks us where he can get one of the Repeal badges that we're wearing. We have a handy stash in our pockets and we're able to oblige.
The second good thing that happens is that actor Mark Huberman - he played Tom Buchanan in The Gate's production of The Great Gatsby and has been working at Pichet since it opened - is looking after us. His dry delivery and laconic humour is a change from the relentless and sometimes wearying enthusiasm that's become prevalent around town, which of course is preferable to the alternative, as practised by graduates of the 'frankly I couldn't give a toss' school of hospitality.
Founded by Stephen Gibson, Nick Munier and Denise McBrien back in the day, Pichet is now part of the Mercantile Group and, of the original founders, only head chef Gibson remains involved, although he doesn't appear to be working on the night of our visit.
We're seated at a table by the window opposite the kitchen. From memory there used to be some outdoor space here which has since been incorporated into the main body of the restaurant and, for the person who's sitting facing out to the street, even though the glass is ridged and opaque, there's a disconcerting sense that the cars exiting the Andrew Street car park are about to come crashing through into the room.
It takes a while to get used to, and I'm not sure the frisson of danger that causes us to startle every time headlights come round the corner adds anything to the ambience.
Asparagus season is one of the delights of the summer, and at Pichet a dish that pairs it with 'brown butter egg yolk, crispy boneless chicken wings, truffle pecorino' is exemplary in terms of flavour, with the minor gripe that we'd have preferred a runny yolk to the solid (water-bath?) confit that we get. (And am I alone in thinking that three spears of asparagus is stingy in a dish that's priced at €13?)
John Stone beef tartare is topped with tiny quail egg yolks, delicate slivers of radish and micro-herbs, with a tarragon emulsion on the side. Tarragon is having a moment - expect to see a lot more of it about over the summer; it's got a natural affinity with beef.
The beef dripping toast that accompanies the tartare is a more subtle version of the fried bread that my father used to make for breakfast on Saturday mornings and it triggers one of those intense childhood food memories that can take one by surprise. It's not as decadent as it sounds, just full of taste and texture.
Of our main courses, the short rib with salt-baked celeriac (shades of Mark Moriarty's winning dish in the San Pellegrino Young Chef competition 2015), ox tongue and a walnut mushroom duxelles is the clear winner, rich and deeply satisfying.
Lamb rump with heritage carrots, sweetbreads, ricotta, aubergine and salsa verde is fine, the meat nicely cooked, but the dish is too decorous, underpowered; there's not enough of the salsa verde, which might have livened it up.
And while the organic salmon itself is good, the 'confit squid, chorizo, basil, tomato, chickpeas' that accompanies it disappoints. That combination of ingredients should produce something with rich depth and flavour, but what we get is woefully insipid, like the careless and uninspired throwing-together of the contents of the kitchen cupboard that can happen at the end of a long day.
We finish with a muscovado crème brûlée with hazelnut biscotti that comes in a wide, flat dish that ensures plenty of surface crunch; there's a saltiness to the custard that's unexpected and delicious. Banoffee is like the one your aunt/brother-in-law/friend makes for the buffet at celebrations, and none the worse for that.
The bill for three, with a bottle of Albarinho and another of Pinot Noir from New Zealand, and sides of fries (good) and charred broccoli with smoked almonds (very good) comes to €227.50 before service.
It turns out that Pichet is one of those restaurants that can be all things to all people, somewhere as suited to business entertaining as it is to celebrating graduations and birthdays and everything in between. If that means that the food pleases rather than thrills, then so be it; it's good to see a successful restaurant giving people what they want and doing it with charm and aplomb.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
The lunch and pre-theatre menus both cost €16 for one course, €22 for two and €28 for three. For that you might get country-style terrine, followed by roast potato gnocchi, and Pedro Ximénez crème brûlée to finish.
ON A BLOW-OUT
Start with John Stone steak tartare, follow with halibut and green pea risotto and finish with cheese, and you'll be looking at a bill for two of €100 before sides or drinks.
THE HIGH POINT
Tuesday night at Pichet feels like a Friday anywhere else.
THE LOW POINT
The food plays it safe.