Our excursion to l'Gueuleton didn't get off to a great start. I rang to book a week or so ahead of time. A friend had been telling me how much he liked the place these days and I realised that it had been years since I ate there. The phone appeared to be answered and immediately hung up. Odd, but calls are dropping all around me these days so I tried again. And again. And again. Someone was definitely answering the phone and hanging up, repeatedly. Then I gave up.
asked one of my guests to try the following day. He had better luck and secured a table for four at 7.30pm. Fast forward a week and the restaurant rang to confirm the booking. By way of an aside, the person on the other end of the phone said that the table would be needed back at 9. "Now hang on," said my guest, "we have a birthday to celebrate, and we're not going to be finished in an hour and a half." "No problem," said the person from the restaurant, before going on to enquire whose birthday it was and would that person like a cake, or a candle in their dessert at the end of the meal to mark the occasion. My guest reckoned that a cake might be overdoing it, but thought that a candle would be appreciated.
When l'Gueuleton opened back in October 2004, it caused quite the stir. It was a pioneer in a part of the city that is now restaurant central, and its policy of not taking bookings was revolutionary. The great and the good queued up on the street for hours to get a table, and the offering of authentic French bistro food was an instant hit. The prices were low and the mood was high. Dublin was on the up back then, no doubt about it.
Plenty has changed since then, not least in this part of town. Fade Street is home to Dylan McGrath's popular Fade Street Social, and around the corner on Drury Street, Luna and Super Miss Sue are packing them in. South William Street, once home to the rag trade, has more places that sell food than clothes.
L'Gueuleton has changed too, in that the space that it occupies is now several times larger than the original. The look is still the same - it's all exposed brick and dark wood floors with more than a touch of industrial chic about it - but the no-booking policy has gone, as have the modest prices. And whereas once it felt like an undiscovered gem, it's now full of groups of people from international conferences eating together and it's firmly in the mainstream.
A roast cauliflower salad with smoked Gubbeen, rocket and roast hazelnuts was a good assembly of fine, robust flavours that would be simple to re-create at home, while lamb sweetbreads with a slice of cured foie gras and toasted brioche, with a Madeira jus and small confit onions, packed plenty of flavour.
A dish of slivered ox tongue with croquettes of deep-fried white pudding wasn't as tasty as it should have been despite the crisp shallot rings and sauce gribiche. And a chicken liver and foie gras parfait was dull, though enhanced by nicely charred sourdough.
Of the mains, the roast rare-breed pork loin with chorizo, Savoy cabbage and dauphinois, with more of that Madeira jus, and the roast rump of lamb with charred broccoli, roast shallots, garlic purée and rosemary potatoes suggested by our waitress, were the winners - well-executed dishes both. The eye-appeal of a rib-eye steak was limited, its texture flabby and its flavour underwhelming, while maple-glazed half chicken with leeks, black pudding and herb mash had an ungainly appearance and offered scant excitement.
To finish - a generous plate of cheeses that would have benefited from longer out of the fridge, and a lemon tart and chocolate éclair with salted caramel ice cream that did what they said on the tin but nothing more.
Restaurant menus have changed so much in the past couple of years that l'Gueuelton feels stuck in a time-warp, its portions too large and its food too heavy. I can't remember the last time that I came across a dish in one of the new wave of restaurants that involved any form of potato and, yet, at l'Gueuleton it's hard to find one that doesn't. Of course there is still a place for nostalgia, for traditional dishes executed well, and for rib-sticking food, but it feels as if l'Gueuleton is out of step with the way that we want to eat now, and that the menu would benefit from a lighter touch. That doesn't mean that the kitchen needs to introduce pickles and ferments to every plate, or to start foraging, but it does need to stand back and re-assess. The bill for four, with two bottles of wine, came to €253.10 before service. And they forgot the candle.
ON A BUDGET
At lunchtime, you could have French onion soup for €8.50, or there’s a Plat du Jour with a glass of wine for €14.50.
ON A BLOW OUT
Pan-fried scallops followed by the rib-eye and dessert would cost a fraction under €50 per head before wine.
THE HIGH POINT
Friendly staff, and the people-watching possibilities if you get a seat facing out onto Fade Street. On a warm summer evening, sitting outside would be fun.
THE LOW POINT
A menu that feels dated rather than traditional — it’s a fine line, but we’d like to have had a better choice of lighter dishes.
5/10 value for money
Whispers from the gastronomicon
The wonderful Fish Shop on Queen Street (reviewed here some months back) has had a quick re-vamp and will re-open as a seafood restaurant. In the meantime, owners Jumoke and Peter have gone back to their roots (Fish Shop began as a chipper in Blackrock Market) and opened a fish and chip shop around the corner at 76 Benburb Street, Dublin 7. Beer-battered catch of the day with hand-cut chips, salad and tartar sauce is €12.50 at lunch and €16.50 at dinner, with wine available.