'I remember visiting this place a million years ago," says one of my dinner companions. Everyone seems to have a 'back in the day' story about the space that is now home to the Berreen brothers' newish Charlotte Quay restaurant. Once it was the base of Conrad Gallagher and Ocean Bar & Grill, and as tigerish as tigerish could be. Latterly the tenant was Mourne Seafood, a restaurant with successful branches in Belfast and Dundrum in Northern Ireland that didn't work when it came south of the border.
And now Conor and Marc Berreen, who are behind Coppinger Row and Coppa in the RHA Gallery on Ely Place, are here. They've torn the place apart at great expense and put it back together again so that it looks nothing like the way it did when Mourne Seafood was here. They have a bar - Lottie's - in one half of the space, and on the night of our visit it is jam-packed with an after-work crowd from the demographic that doesn't have to rush home to supervise homework or cook the dinner.
We're here to eat, though, and so we pass by the bar and into the restaurant proper, where we're shown to a horseshoe-shaped booth at the far end of the room. It looks as if it's the best table in the room and we wonder if perhaps our mission has been rumbled, but it turns out to be a bit of a curate's egg. Where I'm sitting, with my back to the dock, I have a view directly into a prep station for the kitchen that's in a little cubicle adjacent to us, separated from us by a glass screen. Beyond it, there's a door to the outside that brings in huge gusts of cold air each time it's opened and closed. From the other side of the table, there's a view out to the dock, which is infinitely more scenic.
I've heard that the cocktails are not to be missed so we buckle down to do our duty. The Cucu's Nest is my choice: a concoction of gin, sake, green apple-infused white vermouth, cucumber water and lemon juice that is probably more of a summer drink than the weather outside might indicate, but excellent - balanced, subtle nonetheless. The others enthuse over Negronis and a Gunpowder G&T.
And then the food. There are a great number of (obvious) advantages to writing about restaurants for a living, but one of the downsides is that the etiquette of reviewing dictates that the person who is 'working' lets everyone else choose what they are going to eat first, after which the reviewer is obliged to fill in the gaps. Sometimes this works out well, but at Charlotte Quay I am left with my fourth choice of both starter and main course.
The starter dishes that I don't get to order are: the Coppinger crab and crayfish salad with basil and lemon (nice, if a tad bland), the spatchcock quail with fig compote and apple and raisin couscous (the bird is well cooked, still juicy, but the couscous is a bit lunchtime deli) and the gambas pil pil (tasty enough, but the portion is stingy). I do order the seared venison salad, with pickled carrots, radish and ras el hanout, a dish that lacks flavour despite all that's going on on the plate.
Our mains are a mixed bag. There's roast pheasant with pomegranate, a beetroot and red cabbage slaw, dates and za'atar, confit octopus with black olive gnocchi, cherry tomatoes and shaved fennel, and duck breast with maple roast quince, filo cigar and hazelnut dukka. While the cooking is more than competent - the pheasant, octopus and duck are well executed in a technical sense - each dish lacks flavour, seasoning and excitement on the palate.
The only poor dish (as luck would have it, it's mine) is the market fish of the day: ray wing served with autumn greens and a Persian carrot marmalade. The fish is over-cooked, dried out and utterly without flavour. I'm not keen on the over-sweet 'marmalade' either. Sides are better; the roast fennel with licorice and green chermoula is excellent, and we enjoy the panisse (chickpea fries) served with a punchy salsa verde, and the regular fries with harissa mayonnaise (what's not to like?). Parsnips with a spiced honey butter are over-sweet.
Lemon posset with a mixed berry compote and delectable orange beignets is a lovely, simple dessert with contrasting elements that work beautifully together, but the white chocolate panna cotta with brownie and milk chocolate mousse is a one-dimensional sugary disappointment.
We drank the elegant Claus Presinger 'Yes' 2015 from Austria, a blend of Zweigelt, Blaufrankisch and Merlot that has inexplicably changed its bottle style so radically as to be unrecognisable.
Why on earth would a winemaker do that? I sent it back because I thought that our poor beleaguered waitress had brought the wrong wine.
The bill came to fractionally under €80 a head including a pre-dinner cocktail and half a bottle of wine each.
I'd go back to Charlotte Quay for the great service, but I'd ask not to sit at the 'special' table again, and I'd rather eat simpler food that wasn't trying quite as hard to be fashionable, but rather concentrated more on flavour.
6/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
Two courses from the pre-theatre menu costs from €21.50.
ON A BLOW OUT
Kicking off with Flo and Basy cocktails (gin, elderflower cordial, lime juice, agave syrup, basil leaves), Coppinger crab & crayfish to start, followed by baked whole market fish with sides, and white chocolate panna cotta to finish, washed down with a bottle of Oliver Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet 2013, would result in a bill of €231 before service.
THE HIGH POINT
Great staff, and excellent service.
THE LOW POINT
That over-cooked ray.