The Pig's Ear, 4 Nassau Street, Dublin 2 (01) 6703865
Caroline says that it's been 20 years since she was in The Pig's Ear. I don't know if the restaurant has even been open for 20 years, but I remember eating at its predecessor in these premises, Jacob's Ladder, and marvelling at the fortitude of anyone who can make a go of an upstairs restaurant without a lift. The last time that I had dinner at The Pig's Ear itself I was with a gang after an event in Trinity. We were up on the second floor which is used mainly for groups (there are a retirement do and a birthday celebration in full and boisterous flow on the night of our visit), while on the top floor - diners might need to sign up for altitude training -there's a private dining room, The Library, that can accommodate up to 12 people.
Tonight, though, we are on the first floor for an early dinner, and we've been assigned a table in the corner by the window with views out over the cricket pitches in Trinity. It's a vista guaranteed to prompt a flood of nostalgic memories (How do you know that someone's been to Trinity, goes the old joke. Because they tell you. Not that I ever played cricket, perish the thought) particularly on a late spring evening, and it's surely one of the reasons behind The Pig's Ear's impressive longevity. I can't think of another restaurant in the city with an aspect to match, and it's particularly lovely at this time of year, even though there is no actual thwack of leather on willow in the air.
On the night of our visit, the restaurant is packed at six o'clock. There's a family group celebrating a birthday, a smattering of tourists, and several couples, including a pair at the next table who have had a good day at Punchestown and are blowing their winnings on dinner.
There's a great buzz in the room, which is not always the case this early in the evening, and no sense of the second-class citizenship that sometimes accompanies the early-bird sitting. (We've been told when booking that the table would have to be given back at 8pm, but when it comes to it there is no pressure to move on and we end up lingering until almost 9pm.)
It's a new menu, our waitress tells us, so our timing is good. The chef is Stephen McAllister (of The Restaurant fame), but we're told that he's not in the kitchen tonight; the floor staff are Italian and French and completely on top of their game in terms of striking the right balance between friendliness and professionalism.
We order partly from the set early-bird menu and partly from the à la carte, as there are dishes on both that we want to try. Having witnessed the quality of the food, though, I'd be happy to go back and eat solely from the set menu, priced at a keen €21.95 for two courses.
Between them, the two offerings are that rare breed: menus which, though short, propose more than half a dozen dishes that I really want to eat. They read modern, but there's little to scare the horses and I'd be confident that you could bring anyone, including the pickiest of eaters, here and that they would find something that appeals.
Roast scallop, cauliflower, lardo, buckwheat and truffle is a stunner of a dish, full of big assertive flavours that have me wiping the bowl with a piece of bread to ensure that nothing goes to waste. Caroline's Earl Grey tea cured salmon, cucumber, apple, Goatsbridge caviar and dill is as pretty as a picture. There's no provenance information for the salmon, though - in fact, there's almost zero provenance information on the menu at all, which is a pity - and its flavour is underwhelming, although the combination of other ingredients is good in terms of texture, colour and presentation.
A main course of new season lamb, cep, roast onion, broad beans, wild garlic and mint is exemplary, with slices of pink loin and a tranche of deeply flavoursome pressed shoulder a more than successful exercise in compare and contrast.
The vegetarian choice from the set menu is a meaty slice of pot roast cauliflower with parmesan, smoked grapes, almonds and basil. Again, more full-on flavours evidencing a kitchen that's not backward in coming forward when it comes to putting it all out there. A side of roasted cabbage with crisp shallots smothered in hollandaise is dirtily fabulous.
The only real disappointment of the evening is dessert. Our waiter recommends an apple pie that sounds wonderful, only to realise that it was on the old menu and is no longer available.
Instead, we opt for a lemon and poppyseed cake with barley ice-cream, burnt marzipan and salted almonds. The dry cake is cut into small squares and there are blobs of lemon curd too. The cubes of burnt marzipan are probably the best element, but the almonds - which turn out to be smoked, like the ones that you buy in a packet at the service station when you're trying to avoid carbs on a long drive - are wholly out of place. The dish is just plain wrong.
With a bottle of pleasant gruner veltliner and another of sparkling water, our bill comes to €123.55 before service.
I liked The Pig's Ear, I reckon it offers one of the best early-bird deals in the city.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
The two-course lunch/early bird costs €21.95. For that you could have flame-grilled mackerel with pickled beetroot, yoghurt and rhubarb, followed by cod with cauliflower, broccoli, brown shrimp and capers, or the pot-roast cauliflower.
ON A BLOW-OUT
The scallops followed by the lamb with a couple of sides and dessert to finish would cost around €110 for two before wine or service.
THE HIGH POINT
You could bring anyone to The Pig's Ear.
THE LOW POINT
That terrible dessert.