Restaurant review: Paolo Tullio at Locks Brasserie, Dublin 8
In my review two weeks ago, I made the rather sweeping statement that at the upper end of Irish restaurants, the quality of cooking had improved hugely.
It was based on my personal experience, not on scientifically conducted research, but this week's review has further confirmed my contention with another example of excellent food.
This improvement in Irish cuisine hasn't happened by accident; it's the result of a long process.
Good chefs don't appear from nowhere -- they have to learn their skills over the years, they need restaurants to train in and good chefs to learn from.
There may not be a lot to show for the years of the Tiger other than debt, but there is one very positive benefit.
During those heady years, we learned the habit of eating out regularly -- and that habit hasn't gone away with the new austerity. We still eat out in large numbers -- we're just more careful about the final spend.
Busy restaurants mean that there's work for chefs and the good ones don't have to emigrate.
Foodies like me tend to enjoy following the career paths of chefs. It's a pleasure to see young chefs finish their years of training and become a head chef.
This week's chef is called Rory Carville and he learnt his skills working with Sebastian Masi in Pearl Brasserie, one of Dublin's best restaurants.
About a year ago, Sebastian took over Locks Brasserie in Portobello and Rory moved from Pearl to become head chef in Locks.
I was there with Marian Kenny with fairly high expectations. I've been getting good reports of Locks for a few months now. I thought it was time to see if I agreed with the plaudits.
Locks is pleasantly situated on the Grand Canal, and when we parked outside -- beware, it's pay-parking until midnight -- a bevy of juvenile swans was taking the evening air on the banks.
Inside, it's comfortably furnished with padded chairs and banquettes. It's not a big dining room, but there's a couple of rooms upstairs as well for groups and parties.
At one end, there's a bar and counter; beyond that you can see the chefs at work in the kitchen.
We got the menu and, as she read it, Marian said: "I really like the look of this menu." She had a point -- it was quite short, with six starters and six main courses, but it did read well.
We were torn between three starters -- beetroot carpaccio with goat's cheese, pickled shallot, apple and truffle honey; wet-cured Atlantic salmon with a fennel, caper and sprout puree, a quail's egg and oyster leaf; or a smoked haddock brandade with saffron aioli and a Scotch quail egg.
The problem was solved by having all three. The other starters were a Jerusalem artichoke soup, Burgundy snails and quail.
We had the same difficulty choosing our main courses. Wild sea bass, halibut, rare-breed pork, rabbit and dry-aged rib-eye all looked very tempting.
Marian was torn between both fish dishes, but solved her problem by choosing the rib-eye instead. I had no hesitation in choosing the rabbit; one of my favourite meats and one that's rarely on menus.
With those choices made, I turned to the wine list. These days, I'm down to just a glass of wine when I'm driving, so I asked Thomas, the front of house manager, to choose.
He chose me a Cotes du Rhone, a Syrah varietal with a peppery nose, for my rabbit. He also created a non-alcoholic cocktail for Marian in a martini glass that looked as good as it tasted. A bottle of sparkling water was just €4.
The three starters were really excellent. Perhaps my favourite was the salmon dish, which was cured as a gravadlax and was served on a slate with the puree alongside, a perfectly poached quail's egg and two extraordinary elements.
One was the oyster leaf, a small micro-herb that, on the first bite, delivered little taste, but moments later filled the mouth with the taste of oysters and the sea.
Then, there was a tasting spoon with what appeared to be a pea on it. This small, green taste bomb exploded in the mouth, delivering a powerful taste of garden peas.
When a meal starts like this, you know you're on to a winner.
I liked the presentation of the beetroot and goat's cheese salad. Each thin slice of beetroot was topped with piped creamed cheese, and the addition of the truffle butter worked really well.
The brandade, a mix of smoked haddock and potato puree, was tasty, but I was even more impressed by the skill involved in turning a tiny quail's egg into a Scotch egg.
Marian's main course of rib-eye was served on a wooden board and came with a well-made Bearnaise and the sort of chips that I like -- golden and crisp.
Alongside the steak was roasted bone marrow served in a round of bone. Marian eyed it suspiciously, but I ate it with enthusiasm. The steak was the Donald Russell brand that I've enthused over before.
I have to single out the rabbit dish. Getting a loin of rabbit to remain moist and tender isn't an easy task, but that's how I got it.
The leg had been confit and was served in a square called a 'pastilla', and the loin was topped with a black-pepper foam. This worked very well as a flavouring and was why Thomas had chosen the peppery Syrah for me.
We finished with a mango and passionfruit panna cotta to share, which had the right degree of wobble. It came with a piece of ginger shortbread and a mint salad. An excellent end to an excellent meal.
The bill came to just over €100 which, given the quality of what we'd had, was great value for money. This was Michelin-star-quality food at mid-range prices.
Tel: 01 420 0555
On a budget
If you can arrange to go between Sunday and Wednesday, or before 7pm Thursday to Saturday, you can eat from the two-course Treat menu, which offers two courses for €22. Given how well we ate, you should be queueing up for this.
On a blowout
A few of the starters break the €10 mark — the brandade is €13.50 and the quail starter is €14. On the mains, two dishes are priced over €25 — the halibut at €26 and the Donald Russell rib-eye at €28.50. A big selection of cheeses is €15, so you could spend €57 a head for three courses.