Paolo Tullio review... A special lunch at Balfes
Balfe Street, Dublin 2. (01) 646 3353
Whenever Tom Doorley and I get together on The Restaurant, it inevitably brings up the same question: "Do you two ever review restaurants together?" The answer is that, on occasion, we do. This time it was Tom, his wife Johann and me. We met up just off Dublin's Grafton Street outside the Westbury Hotel, which has revamped its ground-floor restaurant into a restaurant called Balfes.
The idea here was that The Westbury wanted Balfes to be a stand-alone restaurant, not the sort of restaurant that tries to accomplish that impossible task of being the restaurant that serves breakfast to the hotel guests as well as dinner to non-guests.
In my experience, it's almost impossible to design a room that works well for breakfast, yet at the same time makes an attractive venue for dinner. In the worst case, you can find yourself finishing your dinner as the waiting staff go about setting up for breakfast around you, which has the effect of killing off that post-dinner happy glow.
My first impression on entering Balfes was that if this room was completely apart from the hotel, I wouldn't have been surprised. I got the feeling that the Westbury had rented out the space, which they haven't, and that this was a restaurant that just happened to be trading under the hotel. I'd guess that is exactly the first impression Balfes would hope to make.
We took a table at the back of the room, where you get a view of Clarendon Street. The wall there is almost entirely glass, and in more clement weather, I'm sure that the full-height glass doors would be opened, letting in more light and fresh air. The tables are large enough to hold whatever impedimenta you may have brought with you and the bentwood chairs are comfortably padded and have arm rests, making for the possibility of a lingering meal.
The menu comes on a A3 card, so it's big enough to list all of Balfes offerings, starting with breakfast. It's very competitively priced - you can order morning pastries for €3, free-range eggs Benedict, Florentine or royale for €7.50, an omelette for €9.50 or organic porridge for €5. Other than that there are juices and selection of tea and coffees.
For lunch we had a choice of sharing plates of charcuterie, or burrata with vine tomatoes, four dishes from the fish bar all under €15, seven starters ranging from €4 to €12 for a chicken salad, four main courses - all fish - from €16 to €20 and, for the carnivores, five choices from the Josper grill.
If you haven't come across the Josper grill before, it's an expensive device that allows chefs to use charcoal indoors. It also permits cooking meats at very high temperatures, which means chefs have to pay attention or a steak can be cremated in moments. When properly used, it can produce extraordinary fish and steaks. In Balfes, the choices are sea bream, veal, steaks, chicken breasts and burgers.
But what Balfes have that nowhere else I know does, is their lunch specials - they have one for each day of the week - which also include a serving of rice pudding as dessert in the €15 price tag. I found that irresistible, so I ordered the braised short rib of beef in a Bourguignon sauce, which was the Thursday special. Must have been a good choice, because Mr Doorley seconded it and Johann decided on sesame greens with crisp nori as starter and followed that with gambas from the Josper grill. We also ordered a plate of bread and dips to share.
Tom was under a bit of time pressure, so we explained we had but an hour for lunch. We were assured this was no problem, and, sure enough, the food arrived pretty promptly.
I have to say that beef from the rib is rapidly becoming one of my favourite cuts and this roast of the short rib was particularly tasty. A city-centre main course for €15 is already good value, but when it also includes a rice pudding as a dessert, then it's a real bargain. Both Tom and I made short work of the beef and the very excellent mash that came with it, while Johann was well pleased with her prawns, which came with an aioli flavoured with harissa and lime juice.
By the time we'd finished our main courses it was time for Tom and Johann to go, so I was left to enjoy the rice pudding by myself. It's true, foods that pleased you as a child have a particular place in our hearts. I can't remember the last time I had a rice pudding, but it was a very long time ago. The one I was presented with brought back all the memories, that Proustian revival of tastes and smells long forgotten, leaving me with a profound sense of nostalgia.
A decent espresso finished off this meal, which brought me a bill for €59.50, very reasonable for lunch for three. What Balfes has is a clever menu, well designed for an all-day offering. You can pick from it just about any kind of meal, from a full three-course traditional lunch to a simple plate of something light. If you were spending a little while shopping in Grafton Street, a visit to Balfes for lunch would make a perfect break.
8/10 value for money
On a budget
The lunch specials are great value. I liked the look of Friday's - poached smoked haddock with a poached egg, and the weekend special of half a chicken with stuffing and chips.
On a blowout
I'd certainly check out the Josper grill, and I'd choose either the 10oz rib-eye (€24) or the 12oz T-bone (€29).
The hight point
I loved the sheer value of the lunch specials.
The low point
As the room filled, so the ambient noise made hearing difficult.