Paolo Tullio: Pearl Brasserie
20 Merrion Upper Street, Dublin 2. Tel: 01-661 3572
I get asked from time to time, 'What's your favourite restaurant?' You might imagine that I'd have a ready answer for that, but it's not an easy question to answer because I like restaurants for different reasons. If I'm looking for a quick snack, I won't go to the same restaurant that I'd pick for a gourmet dinner.
Sometimes I get an urge to eat something spicy, and then I'm looking for a good Indian or possibly Chinese restaurant. I love the elegance of Japanese food and good Italian food brings me back to happy nostalgic memories. Then again, sometimes nothing hits the spot as well as a cheeseburger, chips and a Coke.
The sheer variety of eating experiences that can be had is a big part of the fun of dining out. Restaurants aren't all chasing the same customers, because most people are like me -- they want different things at different times. The best meals are when your choice of restaurant best fits your mood.
Between the upper echelons of gastronomy and the simplest take-away lies a huge range of places catering for different markets. Last year, I spent a lot of time reviewing restaurants that offered great value for money and a couple of times I ate in restaurants with a Michelin star. What I didn't do was go to many restaurants in the middle range. This week, I thought I'd redress the balance and go to a restaurant at the upper end of the gastronomic table, but one without a star.
You can think of restaurants like these as first division, rather than Premier League. It's fine dining, but not quite at the level of the stars. Dublin has a few restaurants that fit this criterion and there are more around the country. I settled on Pearl Brasserie, which is next door to Ireland's only two-star restaurant, Patrick Guilbaud's.
It's been a very long time since I ate here and it seemed like a good choice, because my companion for dinner was Caitriona McBride, who is herself a restaurant reviewer. Pearl Brasserie is in the basement of a large Georgian house alongside the Merrion Hotel. I met Caitriona in the comfortable and welcoming bar near the entrance. There has been a great deal of re-modelling of the interior since I was last here -- it seems to have grown and got more spacious.
The layout is interesting; apart from the main dining room where we sat, there are many nooks with tables that can seat five in comfort, or six at a push. These provide a sense of privacy and intimacy, perfect for a tête-à-tête or a business meeting. We read the menus by the side of a real open fire, a rarity in the city centre.
Wine lists these days are becoming something of a theoretical exercise for me, since I can't have more than one glass of wine. However, I had fun reading the list here: it's long, full of some excellent wines and there was a page of half bottles to pick from too. As for its contents, it's probably one of the better lists in Dublin, but the mark-up is heavy.
We picked a half-bottle of Sancerre from Domaine Carrou, listed at €29. A full bottle of this is just over €20 retail, which makes the mark-up for a half bottle very high. In compensation, the sommelier is very knowledgeable, so at least there's good advice to be had. We also ordered mineral water, which at €4.95 a bottle added another €14.85 to the drinks bill.
Just as you'd expect from a top-end restaurant the menu is full of interesting dishes. A few caught my eye: pan-fried duck liver, Spanish Pata Negra ham and a warm terrine of chicken and ham hock were among the starters.
It took a while to make up our minds, but eventually we ordered the crab meat and tomato gazpacho for Caitriona and the salmon tartar for me. We followed with the scallops and pork belly for Caitriona and the smoked haddock papillote for me.
With our orders taken, we were shown to our table in the main dining room, where you find comfortable upholstered chairs, linen-covered tables large enough to contain what they need and plenty of space between them.
As is often the case in restaurants like this, we were presented with a tasty amuse bouche before the meal proper. Good, fresh bread was on the table and we settled into an evening of gastronomy and foodie talk.
The starters were very good. Caitriona particularly liked her gazpacho, complete with the theatrical addition of having it poured at the table.
My salmon tartar was equally good and we enjoyed the crispness of the Sancerre, which went very well with both starters.
The service throughout the evening was well above normal standards: it managed that neat trick of being friendly and informal, while at the same time being very professional and slick.
The main courses were also of a high standard. Here is Caitriona's description of her main course: "The three juicy jewel scallops were executed perfectly and accompanied by a deliciously succulent pork belly that was butter-like in texture with just the right bite of crispy skin. All this rich decadence was cut with the pomme purée, with a nice touch of cinnamon which worked unexpectedly well."
I really enjoyed my naturally smoked haddock, cooked just through and perfectly flavoured.
As in any French restaurant, I was also pleased to see that fresh bread was brought with the main courses, common practice elsewhere in Europe but a rare event in Ireland. We finished this excellent meal with a chocolate fondant which we shared. It was just as it should have been -- unctuous, gooey, delicious and with a buttery aftertaste.
The sommelier had suggested a dessert wine and we shared a glass of Maury, a southern French red dessert wine that went perfectly with the fondant.
This was a very fine meal in an elegant room. It was expertly served and it confirmed my belief that Sébastien Masi is a very fine chef. I did feel that the bill of €183.96 including service charge of 12pc was expensive, partly explained by the high cost of the drinks. Perhaps I've spent too long dining in places that charge much less.
VALUE FOR MONEY 6/10
25-30 = EXCELLENT
20-25 = GOOD
15-20 = FA IR
0-15 = POOR
The best way to experience Pearl Brasserie on a budget is to go there for lunch, where you can have a two-course lunch for €22. This menu also doubles as an early bird menu, and it’s available Monday to Friday at lunchtime and from 6pm-7pm.
The à la carte menu serves this purpose well. Starters run up to €19, main courses up to €30 and desserts are €9.50, so you can easily spend €60 a head on food alone. Big spenders will find it easy to push the boat out on the wine list, where the majority of the wines are in the €30- €70 bracket.