Mr Michelin – take note, this is star quality
Restaurant Review: TOWN 21 KILDARE STREET, DUBLIN 2. TEL: 01 662 4724 5 STARS
They've started security tagging the steak in Aldi. Does that make it glib – distasteful even – for me to bring up the subject of Michelin stars? Possibly. But eaten steak is soon forgotten, so I'm going to bring it up anyway. There are eight Michelin-starred restaurants in the Republic. Oliver Dunne, the owner of Bon Appetit in Malahide, admitted earlier this year that he'd considered surrendering his star. He says it can intimidate people, if they think the restaurant is too posh or stuffy for them.
Mr Dunne wouldn't be the first to say non merci to Michelin. Marco Pierre White famously gave back his stars in a fit of righteousness. He said he was being judged by people who knew less than he did. Simply put, Marco refused to lie prostrate before a faceless autocracy, whose criteria are so esoteric and vague that nobody knows for sure what they are.
You know not the day, nor the hour, the Michelin man will appear. One thing you can be sure of is that he won't be as jolly and pneumatic as his picture suggests. He might be a she. He might be alone, he might arrive in a cabal. He might not come at all. The point is, you must be more prepared than Baden Powell himself. Never let your guard down, scrape and bow at every opportunity because the guide, like God, sees everything.
Who would want to be under the cosh of such a regime? To be ever deferent without appearing desperate.
To win approval, knowing that if you miss a beat that approval can be withdrawn. Underpinning the unwritten, unknowable rules of Michelin, is the understanding that the only thing worse than not having a star, is having one. And the only thing worse than having one is losing it.
It's a nasty business that demands a level of complicity from food writers and from diners who hold the Michelin Guide up as the standard bearer for excellence, without any demand for transparency or accountability in terms of how and why stars are awarded to some restaurants while others are overlooked. I bring this up because it won't be long before the Michelin man casts his cold beady eye over Town.
The Kildare Street haunt has dropped the words 'Bar and Grill' from its name, and has relaunched, with a pared-down moniker and a spruced-up menu.
The talent in the kitchen is Cathal Leonard, who's arrived straight from Chapter One, where he was head chef. It was only a matter of time before Mr Leonard unhitched his wagon from somebody else's star, and went looking for one of his own. And you know what? He's really in with a shot. Town's dining room is white and beautifully lit, but maintains the shadowy subterranean feel of a wine cellar. The tables are spaced far enough apart for you to comfortably make love or war without the neighbours knowing. And there's some great artwork on the walls, with effort made to hang a painting over each table.
The table settings, however, need attention. Immaculate starched linen and freshly cut orchids: good. Heavy glassware: not so good. Fat candles: inelegant. Plastic salt and pepper grinders: unforgiveable. And then there's my personal bête noire – misspellings on a menu. Carrott? Corriander? Avacado? The spellcheck on my laptop is burning as I type. Monsieur Michelin would not countenance such carelessness.
But he'd have little else to complain about.
First up – an amuse bouche of goat's cheese that was smooth and young – and probably St Tola. There was a bit of tool-laden cheffery going on, the cheese was perched on a smear of inky tapenade and topped with a black olive crumb. There was a jaunty tuile, a couple of gently curled salad leaves and a touch of roasted red pepper. I took this delicately arranged curtain raiser as a tasty portent of regime change in the kitchen. The descriptions on the menu did not do justice to the skill and imagination in the kitchen. The attention to detail was remarkable – to reinforce the individual character of the dishes, each arrived on a different coloured or textured plate.
Tiny flourishes yielded intense results: pea shoots and tendrils were the essence of sweetness itself – and where prithee tell is Chef getting his misspelled coriander? One humble sprig had the olfactory punch of sticking your head into a bag of the stuff.
Our first appetiser was breathtakingly good. Purple discs of ox tongue carpaccio – arranged in a Venn diagram, served with golden raisin jam, and lapristi. What is lapristi? Even Google doesn't know. Assuming it was the soft pungent leaves that resembled kale, it was to cured ox tongue, what cabbage is to corned beef: pure holy matrimony.
Elsewhere on the plate, tiny balls that reminded us of miniature Scotch eggs were crunchy on the bite, but yielded more ox tongue – this time tender and slowcooked. And oh the fragile shallot rings, so finely cut, pickled and crisply fried – in what? A fairy wok? I'm not one for wizardry and molecular nonsense, but there was magic at work on that plate.
The second starter: a gently poached duck egg was a burst of sticky sunshine, over a layer of crushed hazelnuts, with shavings of pale salty pecorino, whole roasted hazelnuts, and slivered asparagus stalks, separately the tips were fat and oozed green pungency. It looked divine and tasted devilish. A thrilling combination of textures and flavours.
Our main courses didn't falter. A dense, pearly fillet of cod, on a creamy bed of spiced chickpeas, with crunchy baby squid and tiny cubes of potato – was subtle and exotic.
Rabbit loin was tender, vaguely gamey and tightly wrapped in a coat of crisp smoked bacon.
It came with a fat, peachy langoustine and sweet prawn bisque, with more magic shallots and a dainty arrangement of vegetables, the most notable of which was a tiny carrot. Again the presentation was impressive, theatrical even – down to the speckled earthenware plate – hinting at the earthy, rustic provenance of the bunny.
For dessert, we shared a rhubarb and ginger syllabub, a girly concoction of sugar and froth with gleeful bursts of popping candy. With Space Dust exploding all over my tongue, I decided this unexpected throwback to childhood could well be the making of Town.
The Michelin man might disagree, but I considered it insurance against taking all this food business so seriously that you forget how to enjoy it.
TYPICAL DISH: Black sole with basil puree, gnocchi, violet artichoke and wild artichoke cream
recommended: Ox tongue carpaccio
The damage: €138.95 for two starters, two mains, one side, one dessert and six glasses of wine.
On the stereo: Inaudible.
At the table: Well-hooved gourmands.