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Restaurant review: Lucinda O'Sullivan at Isabel's, Dublin 2

Lighting is all important in any biz -- so the experts keep telling us -- so why, I wonder, am I finding myself more frequently having to hold a candle, or use the iPhone torch to read the menu and wine list in restaurants?

Many are possessed with lighting more suited to a grope in a dark corner of a nightclub than to showing off the colours and confections of their food. OK, turn the lighting down as the evening progresses, the punters have had their fill from the trough and thoughts turn to the other joys of life, but, recently, I have been in places when I wanted to throw myself on a banquette and await the masseuse-cum-waiter to anoint me with the olive oil rather than toss it over my salad.

I headed in at 6.30 to the new Isabel's, a restaurant and wine bar, situated in a basement in Baggot Street. The lighting here, too, required the iTorch and the assistance of the waitress who tried helpfully to ignite some tea lights on a shelf above us but knocked the tea lights down on top of us instead.

Perhaps the low lighting was to enhance the mood of a couple of men, including a well-known writer, who appeared to be finishing up a long lunch as they sat back, comfortably discussing a female friend not apparently possessed of their rapier wit.

Oh, the indiscretions of love in a mist.

Isabel's is, in fact, a bijou in a world practically devoid of bijoux these days. Tiny and classy, it is located in the basement that first housed Derry Clarke's L'Ecrivain many years ago and also saw off the start of Conrad Gallagher's Peacock Alley. Since then it has had a few not-so-prominent lives.

The brainchild of Ian Keegan, who is in the wine business as owner of internet company www.booze.ie, he has called Isabel's after his five-year-old daughter.

I guess I kind of associate city wine bars with the high times and, certainly, there was a copious amount of Champagne on display, which had a rather reassuring and nostalgic feel.

The room basically consists of a lavish bar counter, bottle-lined walls, two smart, hide-covered banquettes facing one another, and a couple of little tables in between them. The entrance hall has also been utilised with bar stools and shelf counters if you are just there for the booze or a nibble.

One thing that makes this spot stand out from the crowd: the food is excellent and not of the level one associates with wine bars.

Niall O'Sullivan is the head chef, and the dinner menu offered four items "to graze or to start" (€4/€7.50), a trio of salads (€7/€13), charcuterie and cheese (€10/€18), two meaty mains, and a daily fish special (€18/€22).

Not being quite sure how far we were going foodwise, we ordered three 'small salads' to kick off, charged at €7 each. Pickled pear was artfully presented with blue cheese, chicory and scattered, crushed candied walnuts; while a heavenly light confection of crab meat with daubs of pea mousse had lines of wasabi flying-fish roe, and green tea and basil salt. Organic carrots, quinoa, harissa and carrot yoghurt was stunning also, and we could only think how vegetarians would love this, as we did.

We proceeded on, eschewing oxtail and marrow gnocchi with Parmesan in favour of confit of duck leg (€18) which also had a duck croquette ball, a daub of carrot mousse and braised red cabbage, and an excellent tranche of grilled hake (€22) on an artichoke puree topped with salsa verde.

We kept going! A rectangle of mango parfait (€7) was topped and tailed with whirls of chocolate and sprinkled with crushed honeycomb while long pastry churro 'cigars' came with a cup of chocolate sauce (€7).

With a bottle of Trimbach Riesling 2007 (€28) and optional service our bill came to €113.

Isabel's food is their shining light . . .



112 Baggot Street Lower,

Dublin 2.

Tel: (01) 661-9000


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