Tuesday 20 March 2018

Food: Magic Munier?

Avenue by Nick Munier

Avenue: The main restaurant is stylish with chairs upholstered in teal blue leather
Avenue: The main restaurant is stylish with chairs upholstered in teal blue leather

At a time when the rise of the celebrity chef appears unassailable, along comes Nick Munier with a restaurant designed to subvert that notion and return the power to the restaurateur. You'll know Munier, of course, from his television career - initially as Mister Front of House to the original of the celebrity chef species, Marco Pierre White, in Hell's Kitchen, and more recently as co-presenter with Dylan McGrath of MasterChef Ireland.

Until last year, he was one of the owners of Pichet, on Dublin's Trinity Street, but he parted company with chef Stephen Gibson last year in an acrimonious split. Pichet continues - it's one of the city centre's most reliable and well-priced restaurants, the kind of place that manages to please everyone from cautious eaters to the more adventurous. Gibson is still heading up the kitchen.

Restaurants are not just about food. And successful restaurants work when there is an alchemy that happens between the space and the people and the ambience and, yes, the food too, but it is only one of many elements in the mix. You may return to a restaurant where you have been treated well and had a good time, even if the food is unexceptional, but you will never go back to somewhere that the service has been bad, no matter how good the food.

Munier, who could never be described as a shrinking violet, nor backward in coming forward, is now a brand, as evidenced by the name of his new establishment. For a restaurateur, it makes sense to keep the chef in the background and they'll never know whether that person is in the kitchen or not, or whether he or she has gathered up their knives and headed off into the sunset. Since my visit, it has emerged that Tom Walsh, who was in the kitchen at the outset, has resigned.

In order for this to work, the food needs to be reasonably generic, and not so specific in style that it can only be associated with one individual. There's nothing wrong with that, if the food is good, if the classic and staple dishes on the menu are really well executed. Avenue is located on Crow Street in Temple Bar in what was the building occupied by Tante Zoë's, and, more recently, by Smyth & Gray (no, me neither.) It's almost opposite Il Vicoletto, which is a good little Italian restaurant in a part of the city (Temple Bar) not, it's fair to say, usually associated with great food.

Spread over three floors, there's a lot of space to fill. In the basement there's a dark and moody cocktail bar, that Munier describes as 'a place to hide', which could be a suitable place to go with a spouse not one's own. Here you can order snacks and desserts to consume while you stare into each other's eyes. The main dining room is on the ground floor, where there's also a glamorous private dining room that would be a good spot for a celebration.

Upstairs, the builders are working on an all-day casual diner with a bistro-style menu. There's also an art gallery - Munier is a painter, and his work adorns the walls of Avenue - which will host regular exhibitions. The main restaurant is stylish, with chairs upholstered in teal blue leather (they are similar to the ones in Pichet) and booths and plenty of space between tables. There are parquet floors and table cloths, and definitely no drinks in jam jars, and it feels a little like eating on a luxury yacht in the centre of town. This is not a bad thing. We start with a couple of Blonde MILF cocktails (other choices are Nympho, Orgasmo, Mistress - can you detect a common thread?) that involve Ketel One vodka, limoncello, fresh lemon juice, peppercorns, basil and pineapple juice. We think that they are very good, but have a second just to be sure.

There's a set menu priced at €20/€25 for two/three courses that's available at lunchtime and early evening, but we throw caution to the winds (something to do with those MILFs?) and order from the à la carte menu. Restaurant servings of scallops can be stingy, so the five that comprise a starter of roast scallops with sauce vierge (€15) look positively generous. They are beautifully cooked too. Tuna tataki (€12.50) from the ceviche section of the menu is much too large a portion - we'd prefer more finesse on the plate although the fish is good. Half a grilled lobster (€25) disappoints, it's woolly and insipid. Lovin Dublin recently pronounced that the recession was over because a €25 burger had appeared on a Dublin menu, so I have to order it. Described as '60-day dry-aged smoked rib of beef by fourth generation Higgins butchers served with brioche bun, lamb pancetta, beef tomato, pickle, mustard aoili and fries', the meat is tasty, though not hot enough, while the lamb pancetta strikes a dud note.

We share an order of apple and cinnamon doughnuts with a selection of sweet dips, and a cheese plate that (bizarrely) features Cambozola, which l haven't encountered on a menu since around 1995. The other cheeses, a mix of Irish and French, are in good condition.

The room looks good, and the staff are charming and solicitous. My sense that there were teething problems in the kitchen is borne out by Walsh's departure. Munier is too smart an operator not to get this sorted out. When he does, the magic will happen and the people who like to put on heels and sashay out will come. With a couple of sides, a bottle of a Ein Zwei Dry 2013 from Josef Leitz, Rüdesheim (€42), and two glasses of red, our bill came to €196.65 before service.

On a budget

The two-course early bird is €20. I'd opt for the poached egg salad with croutons, lardons, tomato concasse and garlic crisps in a sherry vinaigrette, followed by onglet steak with pepper relish and fries.

On a blowout

Scallop ceviche, followed by côte de boeuf with béarnaise, watercress salad and fries, and sherry trifle, would be €62 per head before you even look at the wine list. Or have a cocktail. And that would be a shame.

The high point

We loved the roast scallops with sauce vierge.

The low point

The lobster lacked flavour.

Whispers from the Gastronomicon

The queues outside 9 Upper Baggot Street are for the healthy fast-food breakfast and lunch options being served up by chef Emilia Rowan at Cocu. The menu items have all been nutritionally assessed by dietician Orla Walsh and include organic egg pots topped with smoked salmon and Gubbeen chorizo, plus Green Beards juices and coffee from Roasted Brown. Carb-avoiders, sandwich-phobes and gym-bunnies are loving the box lunches, with bases including brown rice and roasted sweet potatoes topped with Middle Eastern chicken or charred beef flank and pickled vegetables. 

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