I made my mind up a few weeks ago that I wanted to start the New Year with a good meal. I mean, you'd really want the year to start the way you'd like it to proceed, wouldn't you?
The trouble is that I always go to restaurants that I haven't been to before, so I never know what's in store for me. But a few weeks ago, my friend Patrick Walsh had his birthday party in the newly opened Salt, which is the newest addition to the Avoca chain, and it's in Monkstown Crescent in Dublin.
I wasn't feeling too good that night, a touch of the flu had me off-colour, but I was well enough to see that the food was good. So I decided then and there to go back in good health and review the meal.
I'd arranged to go with Marian Kenny and I was on my way to Dalkey to meet her when I got a message from Harry Crosbie. "I'm in Dalkey with Rita," it said, "come and meet us for a drink in The Magpie."
So that's what we did, and while we were there I asked Harry and Rita if they had any plans for the evening. They didn't, so the four of us turned up in Salt without a reservation looking for a table on a busy night. Luckily we got one, but before we sat down we had a good look around.
I'm not sure if there's anything like Salt anywhere else in Ireland. Maybe Fallon & Byrne, but Salt has everything on one floor.
As you walk in, the first thing you see are the fresh vegetables to your left. In a small room, also on your left, is a temperature and humidity-controlled cheese room, stuffed with beautiful cheeses.
Rita pounced on the Montgomery Cheddar, while Harry and I explored the small area on the other side of the entrance which houses the rotisserie chicken room.
Deeper into the building as you walk in you find a deli counter and, further on, the butchery section, where there's an extraordinary array of meat cuts, cured meats and hams. It was the butchers' chopping blocks that Harry really liked -- round, the size of oil barrels and beautifully made.
On the other side of the building, you go through a display area of fancy foods before you find the restaurant.
It's worth taking your time to look around, as the interior decoration is very well thought out. Wherever your eye rests, there are clever touches and lots of pretty things. The tables and chairs are of plain wood, which speaks loudly of bistro, but there are starched linen napkins which hint at better things.
The menu is short, but interesting. Between the four of us, we were able to order a good spread of what was on offer.
Neither Rita nor Harry wanted a starter, so we ordered the Casteltownbere crab in bric pastry for me and the duck-liver parfait with sourdough toast for the other three to pick on.
The crab came in a roll of crisp pastry, which was halved and served with a red-pepper relish and small tian of lightly pickled courgette strips. It was a good-looking plate and the taste of crab was strongly evident.
The duck-liver parfait was served in a small Mason jar, and there was more than enough for three people to pick on.
The wine list is also quite short, but Rita chose us a premier cru Santenay, a good Burgundy listed at €47, on the basis that a Pinot Noir would be light enough to go well with all our main courses.
It was a good choice, as we'd ordered the roast hake with cauliflower tempura for Marian, a starter-sized prawn risotto for Rita, the 28-day dry-aged sirloin for Harry and the pig's cheek salad for me.
I don't need to describe Harry's steak, except to say that he ate every scrap of it and that it was extremely tender.
It came with large, hand-cut chips cooked the way I like them -- crispy on the outside and soft in the middle -- and there was a small pot of Béarnaise sauce alongside. The chips were served in a tiny galvanised bucket, which looked kinda cute.
Rita had a well- made risotto, cooked perfectly and nicely flavoured with a touch of chervil.
Marian's hake came with a cauliflower tempura and a caper and raisin dressing. The hake was cooked just right, with a crisp skin, and was, said Marian, "the nicest hake I've ever eaten".
I'd been looking forward to the pig's cheek since my last visit; it's one of those cuts that may be cheap, but it's very tasty.
I was presented with three tournedos of pig's cheek sitting on a bed of lentils. They'd been slow cooked and were very tender; so tender that I didn't need a knife. The lentils were covered in a rich jus, which was dark brown and full of flavour.
All our main courses demonstrated a lot of skill in the preparation, not surprising since the chef, Mark McGillycuddy, worked alongside Dylan McGrath in the Michelin-starred Mint restaurant.
At this point, we didn't feel up to desserts and went straight to tea and coffee. What was so pleasing about this meal was that everything we'd eaten was exactly what it was supposed to be.
The ingredients were honest and genuine, the cooking was skilful, the service attentive and professional.
The whole ethos of the place, from the moment you walk in and see the displays of food, is one of promoting the best of Irish food, something that's very dear to me.
It was a lady called Eilis sitting at the next table to us who called my attention to a story on the back of the menu. If you should visit Salt, make sure you read it.
Harry insisted on paying for the wine, so I got a bill for €118.55 for the food we'd eaten, which was excellent value for money.
The only thing that puzzled me about the pricing is that a bottle of mineral water at €6.95 costs more than the crab starter at €6.50. Surely something wrong here?
As we left, we were given some scones as a parting gift. They do that here. When the bakery part has shut down, instead of throwing away what's left, they hand it out to the restaurant customers, which is a nice touch.
I suspect that the arrival of Salt in Monkstown is going to improve food in the area enormously.
11a The Crescent,
Tel. 01 202 0230
VALUE FOR MONEY 9/10