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Temptation in old haunt, but hopes Cave in

La Cave

28 South Anne Street, Dublin 2.

Tel: 01 6794409

HHIII

Temptation in old haunt, but hopes Cave in

La Cave is one of those places that has been around for so long, it's easy to forget it's there at all. Yet, mention "Dublin's oldest and original wine bar" to anyone above the age of 30 and you'll be met with everything from blushes, to faraway eyes, to sheepish grins.

In its hey day, La Cave was a place in which you did things you knew you probably shouldn't do, but wine makes people drop their guard -- and plenty more besides. If La Cave put a motto above the door, it might read: I won't tell if you don't.

There was a time when my weekend mornings didn't begin with a poke in the eye and an ultimatum for Cheerios.

Back then, I was easily coaxed into La Cave's subterranean lair, where time stood still at 2am, and you were guaranteed to find a congress of philanderers, good-time girls and Bohemian wannabes in full libacious swing.

I don't miss those days. Really. It was time to move on. Time to mature. Time to watch Alvin and The Chipmunks at 8 o'clock on a Sunday morning.

It doesn't mean I can't still enjoy La Cave. It is, after all, more than an after-hours watering hole. It's a fully fledged restaurant. This was my pitch to Ui Rathaile as I tried to talk him into having dinner there last Sunday night.

Ever reasonable, he agreed to go -- but not before midnight. "Come on," I said. "It'll be fun. We can pretend we're having an affair."

"We are having an affair," he said. "I have a wife and three children above in Donegal." Now he tells me.

I could sense he was disappointed to find no shenanigans afoot when we arrived at La Cave -- just a few couples enjoying a bit of legitimate romance and some women bemoaning the want of it over a bottle of wine in the bar.

Nothing to see here folks -- nothing except a waitress whose youthful prettiness I struggled not to resent. Especially since Ui Rathaile thinks it a crime to let beauty pass by without acknowledgment.

The only way of taking the sting out of this is to get in first with the compliment. "Now, there's a good-looking girl," I said, as she walked towards our table. He took a menu from her and as she walked away, he said: "She's alright." And after that he didn't pay her another glance.

The menu is a cushioned, leather-look tome. The table d'hote menu is a toned-down version of the à la carte -- no oysters, foie gras, or snails. There is, however, plenty of choice, as set menus go, and the price -- €28.50 for three courses -- is good.

We ordered a bottle of easy-drinking Minervois, and Ui Rathaile had paté d'Ardennes to start. It came with a basket of bread that was fresh -- not from the oven, but from the shop.

The texture of the paté was properly smooth and silky, but it had a sour tang -- too many livers and not enough pork belly and brandy -- was my take on it. The cornichons were floppy, and more watery than acidic. The small salad of mesclun, tomatoes and pine nuts in a sticky balsamic dressing was good.

My baked goat's cheese had a nice golden crown, it was warm and creamy and I liked it. Good, too, were the strips of sweet marinated apple and crisp fronds of mizuna. The walnut promised on the menu did not materialise, which was disappointing.

My appetite had been stirred, however, and I wa looking forward to my duck main course. I did falter when ordering it, unsure about the addition of Amarena cherries, but figuring that they would serve as a sweet crackly glaze for the duck, I went ahead.

Big mistake. It manifested as a dark pool of unbearably sweet sauce. It reminded me of dark chocolates filled with kirsch liqueur -- the kind you can only manage one of. Yet, here it was smothering my duck breast, suppressing all the bird's natural flavour. Although, given the toughness of the meat, I was dubious as to whether the duck had any flavour at all.

I gave up on it and ate the mashed potato, which had escaped cherry contamination. The green beans, mercifully, were good: bright, firm and covered in garlic butter.

Ui Rathaile fared better with his rack of Wicklow lamb, although again the honey and whiskey jus was too syrupy and ran the risk of killing the flavour of the meat. The lamb was a tad chewy, and musky -- but this was offset by a good, fragrant whack of rosemary. Again it came with green beans and mash.

By now we'd reached the bottom of the wine bottle, and Ui Rathaile was making "told you so" noises. I knew his intention: to get out before last orders, so we might finish the night with a consolatory pint of Guinness.

But I insisted we follow through on the table d'hote and used my casting vote to order dessert: crème brûlée for him, old-fashioned tarte tatin for me.

The brûlée was the worst I've had in a long time. It was an arson attack in a bowl -- the most notable flavour was of gas, while the crème was curdled, probably out of fear.

My tarte tatin looked homemade, thick slices of sugared apple that should have caramelised in the oven, but didn't, which made me suspect it had been microwaved -- a thesis backed up by the leathery quality of the pastry.

Thus our meal ended as it had begun -- with a sense that La Cave is good for many things -- dining not chief among them.

TYPICAL DISH: Confit of duck a l'orange

RECOMMENDED: Du vin

THE DAMAGE: €84 for two starters, two mains, two desserts, one bottle of wine

ON THE STEREO: Ed Motta

AT THE TABLE: Dinner dates

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