Sunday 25 February 2018

Try this one for starters

Paolo Tullio

Paolo Tullio

Have you noticed that it's much easier to find a hotel that's been in business for decades than it is to find a restaurant that's survived for that length of time? Great age confers a kind of kudos to old hotels, whereas old restaurants are seen as simply old-fashioned.

It's a puzzle -- it's hard to find a restaurant that's been in business for 20 years or more, but easy to find a hotel that has. Maybe it's because we want where we stay the night to be traditional, and where we eat to be cutting-edge new.

This dichotomy has led, over the years, to the belief that restaurants in hotels are somehow different from restaurants that are stand-alone. It's true that hotel restaurants have a look of their own, partly I suspect because they have to be multi-functional -- they're not just for dining but for breakfast and functions too. And because we like our hotels to be traditional, they tend to have traditional dining rooms with traditional menus.

So what is a hotel to do if it wants its restaurant to be different? The answer can be found in The Exchequer Restaurant, which is in the long-established Central Hotel. It's a hotel I remember well from my youth, when my father had Dublin's first pizzeria in Wicklow Street called The Honey Bee, and The Central was just up the road in Exchequer Street.

It's changed hands a few times since then, but somehow it never really penetrated into a wider consciousness, despite several attempts at remodelling. This time I suspect it may have hit the right note.

For a start, it's near South Great Georges Street, and that's now fairly well filled with restaurants, so the location means there's a heavy footfall. Add to that an interesting menu and modest prices and it may be a winning formula. I went there this week with two avowed foodies -- actor David Herlihy, who you will know from The Clinic, and Regina Looby, the producer of what I will unashamedly call the hit show The Restaurant.

The Exchequer calls itself a gastropub, so there's a big menu of cocktails and a bottled beer list that's almost twice as long as the wine list. The dining room runs along the side of the building and it's quite plain architecturally, with lots of right angles. We were shown to a good-sized table with comfortable seating and settled in to read the menu.

Generally we're used to starters being about half the price of main courses, but that rule doesn't hold here. The starters were mostly between €9 and €10, but nearly all the main courses were less than €15; only the guineafowl and braised lamb broke this barrier. With three of us choosing dishes, we got a good spread across the menu.

There were nine starters and 10 main courses to choose from, and from all of these there was only one that didn't appeal to me, the barley risotto.

You'll see it from time to time on menus and sometimes its called orzotto, since risotto is made from riso (rice) and orzotto from orzo (barley). It was a dish enjoyed hugely by Spartan warriors, but not by me. Still, there was plenty else to choose from.

The wine list is not a long one, with a dozen or so reds and whites, and it's pitched firmly at the middle ground -- most of the wines are priced between €20 and €30. Beer drinkers will enjoy the very long list of bottled beers, priced between €4.50 and €6 a bottle.

We chose a white wine, an Austrian Riesling at €32, which had a pleasing blend of fruit and acidity, perfect for food.

Reg started with the duck-liver terrine, David with the slow-cooked duck salad and I had the potted crab. All three dishes were well presented and well done.

The terrine would be better described as a pâté, since a terrine is made of more coarsely chopped ingredients. It was creamy, smooth and very good and came with a large slice of toasted brioche, giving Reg plenty to share with us. The spiced apple chutney that came with it was a good contrast to the creamy pâté.

Dave's duck salad came with a poached duck egg and slices of the excellent Desmond cheese, Ireland's answer to Parmesan. This too was a good dish, as was my potted crab, which unusually came with melted rather than set butter. It went very nicely with the fresh soda bread that accompanied it.

Main courses didn't quite hit the heights of the starters, although they were good. Reg had chosen the chargrilled rack of pork, a thick pork chop which came with spinach, a perfectly cooked fondant potato and brown celeriac purée, but we weren't able to work out what made the celeriac brown.

David was pleased with his guineafowl, but the apricot and walnut stuffing had somehow managed to combine on the plate with all the other accompaniments, giving everything the taste of walnuts.

I probably did the best of the three of us with my choice from the daily specials board of a seafood platter, which gave me oysters, scallops, crab and prawns.

Despite two very generous courses each, we decided to go for dess- erts. Sadly, the warm sugar doughnuts were off the menu, as was the new season rhubarb compote.

In the end we shared two desserts: the set vanilla cream from the specials board and the pistachio and olive oil cake.

The cake was good, but on the whole the desserts were the least successful part of the meal. The set cream, often described as panna cotta, was well and truly set. So set, it resisted the cutlery. On the plus side, it did taste of real vanilla.

Three espressos finished the meal for us and we left happy enough. The Exchequer is buzzy and busy, the menu has some interesting twists and the portions are generous. Quick and pleasant service made this meal enjoyable. The bill for the three of us came to €142.75, without service charge.

The verdict

Food - 7/10
Ambience - 7/10
Value for money - 8/10
Total - 22/30

Irish Independent

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