Wednesday 20 November 2019

Gallic charm brings slice of Paris to Dublin

Edel Coffey

Les Freres Jacques

74 Dame Street, Dublin 2.

Tel: 01 6794555

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Gallic charm brings slice of Paris to Dublin

Whenever life is beautiful, I like to add a soupcon of French 1960s pop to the equation. It's my way of heightening the experience, like adding a Technicolour dropper to your black-and-white life.

It can transform the dullest experience. A touch of Yves Montand's La Bicyclette is enough to morph your daily commute into a carefree jaunt on a merry double-decker bus where everyone suppresses indulgent smiles. When life is a little flat, Brigitte Bardot's Bubblegum is the perfectly wonky soundtrack to raise a wry smile. And Edith Piaf's Sous Le Ciel De Paris, well, that is for when life needs to be just a little bit more bearable. It's just one of those things, like Madeleines, perhaps.

There is simply never a situation, I feel, that cannot be vastly improved by the addition of French accordion and French cake. Okay, I realise I'm veering dangerously close to another French lady who liked her cake a bit too much, and things didn't end well for her, so, moving swiftly on ...

What I'm trying to say is I am a Francophile. I love France -- the art, the food, the way of life, the weather, the beautiful cities.

My idea of a perfect day is running around Paris until I fall down from exhaustion (or from too much Kir pêche), but that happens way less often than I would like.

Surprisingly, good authentic French restaurants are thinner on the ground in Ireland than you might expect and the best ones don't tend to shout about themselves.

Take Les Freres Jacques on Dublin's Dame Street. This restaurant has been quietly here since 1986 (no mean feat in itself) and most people pass by its unassuming window without even noticing it (its doorway is off-street, around the side of the Olympia).

So, feeling like I need to add a little bit of French to my life, I take the boy to Les Freres Jacques on a Wednesday night, which unfortunately means that we miss out on their incredible wine deal available on Monday and Tuesday nights -- all full bottles of wine are half-price.

The place is about half full with a mix of friends, couples and -- my favourite -- a man reading his paper and dining alone (an accordion starts up a romantic racket in my head).

The owner, Jacques, is in the house tonight, recognisable by his lack of waiter's uniform and the fact that I overhear him say the telltale phrase, 'it's Jacques' when I'm earwigging on his telephone conversation (amazing the things you can discover through eavesdropping).

The restaurant does confirm its 1980s beginnings with a dark wooden bar and some muzak (Abba and The Carpenters were both in there), but these are somehow endearing staples of Les Freres Jacques, things that you would miss terribly if they attempted to change them.

The menu is large, but not overwhelming. Jacques brings tonight's selection of freshly caught fish on a platter for us to have a decko. There are scallops, hake, plaice and monkfish, while a few unlucky lobsters tread water in their death-row fish tank by the door.

For starters, the boy has the seared scallops with mild curry mash and light creamed fish fumet (€17), perfectly cooked and presented, gone in a flash. I had vodka and beetroot cured salmon with blinis and sour chives crème fraiche (€11). Very tender and delicate with all of the flavours present and correct.

One of the things I like about French dining is the servings tend to be a little smaller, although this is only true of the starters in Les Freres Jacques, whom I suspect have increased the sizes of their mains to appease Irish appetites.

I have the fillet of beef en croûte, potato and celeriac gratin with meat juices (€28) aka beef wellington, mainly because I saw how difficult it was to cook on The Great British Bake-Off and felt sufficiently informed to make a judgement. The meat is perfectly done and the pastry thin and crisp, although Paul Hollywood would have wanted a few more layers, I fear.

The plat-du-jour is land and sea (€29) and the boy cannot resist the temptation of this smorgasbord of every kind of meat and fish on one giant (fish-shaped) platter. In fairness it is a meal for a king (think Henry VIII) and he's clearly delighted with his choice as he sets about putting it away with purpose.

The wine list is extensive (16 pages). We order the Cahors "La Fage" 2005 (€35) because it reminds me of a summer I spent in the Languedoc and you hardly ever see wines from that region on wine lists.

The boy is unusually effusive about Les Freres Jacques. The service is a huge part of what he likes about it. They don't make him feel like he feels in some other restaurants, like he's intruding or in the way (the boy doesn't go in for formal attire much, or shaving).

They always seem reasonably pleased that you're there, he says. You don't feel pandered to but you do feel well looked after.

He makes a good point. I think that might be down to the difference in attitude that the French and Irish bring to the art of service.

In France, you can have a career as a waiter; in Ireland it tends to be looked upon as a job. But it's obvious that the waiters here are impeccably trained in a consistent manner. There is no difference in service between waiters. They are formal but friendly, attentive but at ease.

We finish with an espresso -- very good -- and desserts. For me, a chocolate and salted-butter caramel fondant with vanilla ice cream (€10), which arrives looking like a challenge to maintaining any sort of slim physique.

It is phenomenally good. Jacques floats by and throws a snakey look at my dessert. "Sinful," he says and floats on. In fairness, this dessert needed a confessional box all of its own. The boy ordered the pear millefeuille (€8.50), which is as light as air.

The food, the service, the old-school attention to detail all make Les Freres Jacques one of the best authentic French restaurants under the skies of Dublin.

And, I think, in that very French way, they may not even have been trying.

Recommended: Any fish

The damage: €116.93 for three courses, a bottle of wine, and one espresso

At the table: Couples, friends and solo diners

On the stereo: Muzak so bad you think it might be a joke. It's on a loop which went round three times in the time we were there.

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