Review: The Garden Room - 'A relaxed and unpretentious venue that works for everyone'
The Garden Room, The Merrion Hotel, Upper Merrion Street, Dublin 2. (01) 603 0600
It didn't seem fair to review the new Garden Room restaurant at The Merrion when it opened last autumn, so the reservation stayed on the long finger until a couple of weeks back, when the weather gods (or the contemporary version of same, being a combination of Met Éireann, AccuWeather and the addictive YR app from the Norwegian Meteorological Institute) concurred that sunshine was imminent. I took that as a blessing of a reckless notion to plan for a late lunch one Friday.
Anyone who ever visited The Cellar restaurant in The Merrion (which The Garden Room replaces) will remember a gloomy windowless space that one could put up with for dinner but was the last place one would ever thinking of booking into for lunch on a sunny day. Good as the food was, the room slapped it down.
The Garden Room lies along one side of the hotel's formal courtyard garden, designed by Jim Reynolds and casually populated with pieces of sculpture from the hotel's own collection. There isn't another hotel in the city centre that has outdoor space to compare and, while it has always been a pleasure to admire, it has seemed underutilised. Certainly, it's a handy backdrop for wedding photos, as it was on the day of our visit, and a new Ruinart Champagne bar has just opened. But if you have ever visited the Hôtel Costes in Paris, where the courtyard is covered by a huge canopy and heated so that the restaurant buzzes late into the night, all year round, you'll know just how seriously some hotel proprietors take the monetisation of every inch of their asset. Perhaps that's the epitome of luxury, though, just to have the garden and not try to squeeze revenue out of it; in any event, The Garden Room somehow makes sense of the garden and brings about that connection between the inside and the outside that arcitect Dermot Bannon is always on about.
The Garden Room offers all-day dining, something that makes absolute sense for a hotel with guests coming and going at all hours, and also tempting for those of us (read: me) for whom the notion of working through lunch, finishing early and heading for something to eat and a few glasses of wine mid-afternoon is quite alluring.
We book ahead to guarantee a table beside the towering floor-to-ceiling doors that run along the garden side of the restaurant. Despite the sunshine (I told you that YR app is brilliant), the outdoor temperature can't justify the doors being open, but that might all change in another few weeks. At four in the afternoon there's a pleasant rather than raucous buzz in the room, with a few family groups celebrating birthdays and Confirmations lingering at their tables. The menu is designed to be a crowd-pleaser, with some nods to trends but nothing to scare the horses; a hotel restaurant has to work for everyone.
Generous 'snacks' of boneless chicken wings with pistachio lardo and fontina, and truffle arancini would be starters in any other restaurant; the crust of the arancini is unyielding and the interior on the bland side but the chicken is on the money. Hand-cut beef tartare is pretty as a picture, with a dainty quail's egg as its centrepiece (the seasoning is spot on), while the smoky octopus, squid and whitebait are the stars of the fritto misto (we'd have preferred the red pepper be omitted), which comes with a smoked oyster mayonnaise.
We choose - accidentally - the two cheapest main courses on the menu. Omelette Arnold Bennett (said to have been created for the novelist in 1929 by Jean Baptiste Virlogeux, a chef at the Savoy, during his stay while researching the second of two books set in the hotel) is not a dish that crops up often here, more's the pity. Chef Ed Cooney's version teeters on the edge of being too much, but somehow the deeply savoury combination of eggs, smoky cod, spinach and who knows what other lusciousness doesn't topple over into excess.
The vegetarian main course is half a smoked cauliflower sitting on a puddle of truffle-flavoured crème fraîche and topped with dulse. There are two types of seaweed on the version of the dish that we get, and the one that isn't dulse (which itself is reminiscent of truffle) is terribly salty; otherwise the dish works well.
A salted caramel tart with popcorn ice-cream and dark chocolate crumb is just as perfect and perfectly delicious as it sounds; one between two is plenty.
The Merrion has long been my favourite hotel in Dublin, and the new Garden Room squares the circle in that the hotel now has a restaurant that does what all the best hotel restaurants do: provide a relaxed and unpretentious venue that works for everyone.
Our bill for lunch for two, with a €59 bottle of Domaine Trosset Fabien Mondeuse Avalanche 2015 from Savoie (from the 'Bright & Juicy' section of the wine list and with all the flavour of a serious red but happily only 12pc ABV) and a couple of sides (be sure to have the salisfy) comes to €154 before service. I understand that a new summer menu is imminent.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
A simple one-course lunch of omelette Arnold Bennett will set you back €18.
ON A BLOW-OUT
Snacks of Liscannor crab sliders and smoked carrot cigars with avocado, followed by starters of scallops with tuna and salmon ceviche and culatello, côte de boeuf to share with a couple of sides, and raspberry soufflé for dessert will bring the bill for dinner for two to €146 before drinks and service.
THE HIGH POINT
Location, location, location.
THE LOW POINT
That it wasn't warm enough for the doors to be open.