Paolo Tullio: On the comeback trail
Restaurant Review: The Unicorn, 128 Merrion Court, Dublin 2. Tel: 01 662 4757
Restaurants, like most things, have a life span. What determines their end varies, but the truth is that they either have to reinvent themselves every few years or they close. Fashions change as much in food and dining as they do in the world of clothing. What brings in customers one year will have them running away the next. So, for example, where once foams and towers were considered clever, today they're considered old hat.
Despite the fact that nearly all restaurants rarely reach the age of 10, there are restaurants that are seemingly immortal. These often occupy niche markets, which allows them to do what they've always done with no need for change. There's a few of these that I can think of: Guinea Pig in Dalkey, Lobster Pot in Ballsbridge and Beaufield Mews in Stillorgan. These have all been in business for ages and continue to do what they do well.
There are restaurants that become institutions. They become so well established that you assume they'll be there forever; but you never know what happens behind the scenes.
You may have followed the story of The Unicorn. It's an example of a long-lived restaurant, and during the late 1990s and early Noughties it became an institution. The Saturday lunch was legendary, and the great and the good made a point of being there, turning it into a kind of salon.
Perhaps it was the addition of Il Segreto to the portfolio that changed things, but change things did and the partners had a very public falling out. Giorgio Casari, for so long the face of The Unicorn, is there no more. After a brief closure it has reopened with the Stokes family as sole owners.
That's a big change for a restaurant that I've liked for many years, so I felt I really had to go again and see how much things had changed. I arranged to meet Gerard Carthy and his daughter Abigail there for lunch.
Certainly there are no big changes in the interior, apart from a smell of fresh paint. The room looked to me as it has always done and we were greeted by Jenny, who has been waiting on tables in The Unicorn since the days of Miss Dom, so that was a flash of continuity.
What I did notice was that the buffet was no longer in evidence. For all I know it's been gone for a few years, since it's that long since I was in The Unicorn, but it was one of the better offerings of the old Unicorn.
We had two menus to choose from: a set lunch menu which offered two courses for €20 or three for €24.95, and an a la carte lunch menu. I scanned the wine list carefully, remembering that the wine in the Unicorn used to have some of the more eye-watering prices in Dublin. This list looked a deal more reasonable, but be warned: it's one of those lists with the bulk of its wines listed at more than €30. Since none of us were drinking alcohol, we ordered sparkling water for the three of us.
Both Gerard and Abigail decided that they would order from the set lunch menu – Abigail picked the goat's cheese to start and followed with the pan-fried cod fillet. Gerard started with the organic salmon gravadlax and followed that with the spaghetti and prawns dish. I decided to eat a la carte, and ordered one of the day's specials – spaghetti arrabbiata – as a starter, followed by pan-fried scallops.
The presentation of the starters was good. Abigail had a salad of rocket leaves surrounded by piped whipped goat's cheese in little cone shapes, with the inevitable beetroot. It looked and tasted good, but Abigail had been hoping for a round of goat's cheese, rather than the whipped, creamy cheese she had on her plate. Gerard got a very successful dish, presented well, with the gravadlax laid out with creme fraiche, shaved fennel and the inevitable beetroot.
I had a problem with my spaghetti arrabbiata. The sauce was very good, but to my palate the spaghetti was undercooked. We all know it's a sin to overcook pasta, but it is possible to make it so al dente that it's no pleasure to eat. Jenny did offer to change it for me, but I kept it and mopped up the excellent sauce with bread.
The mains arrived and the first thing we did was taste Gerard's spaghetti. Like mine, it was undercooked, which led me to believe that it was no accident. I'd guess that's how the chef believes it should be done, although I'd disagree strongly. Otherwise the dish was okay, but there was a bit of 'hunt the prawn'.
Abigail, meanwhile, had no complaints about her cod. A good-sized fillet was on her plate, covered with caper butter and sitting on a bed of long-stemmed broccoli. My dish was also a success, the scallops properly cooked and served on a bed of mousseline potatoes, with garlic butter and fried strips of pancetta.
With that finished we thought we'd share a dessert, so we ordered the natural yogurt panna cotta, which came with Irish strawberries. As is so often the case these days, it was served in a glass. No harm, you may say, but it's hard to test for the right degree of wobble when it's not on a plate.
Only Gerard and I wanted coffee – an Americano for him and an espresso for me. Jenny brought me a decent ristretto, which was a good end for the meal.
It may take a while for The Unicorn to regain its lost glory, but it's still running after more years than most restaurants manage, which is remarkable. We got a bill for €88, which carried no service charge.
On a budget
The set lunch is good value, especially if you have just two courses for €20. That's what we spent for both Abigail and Gerard, so you do get decent food for your budget spend.
On a blowout
The dinner a la carte is the one for a blowout. There are starters in and around €10 and there are a few main courses in the upper €20s, which is getting rare enough.
The perfectly cooked scallops.
The undercooked pasta.