L'Ecrivain: 'Chocolate mille feuille looks like a Salvador Dali painting'
L'Ecrivain, 109a Lower Baggot Street, Dublin 2. (01) 661 1919
Derry Clarke should be giving cookery lessons to the parents of Ireland, because if he could teach them all to prepare broccoli the way that he does at L'Ecrivain, there would be no problem getting children to eat their vegetables.
In among all the delights of a recent meal at the Michelin-starred restaurant, it was the broccoli that we were still talking about days later. I'm guessing that it was just blanched, and then tossed in brown butter and served with toasted almonds; I don't think that there was anything more complicated to it than that, but boy was it good. And the luscious butter did a fine job of escorting all those fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K from Leaving Cert biology memory) to where they were needed. Eat your greens? Yes please.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The broccoli was just one of many high points in an exemplary meal.
Derry and Sallyanne Clarke opened L'Ecrivain in 1989, and the fact that it is still going from strength to strength 27 years later is testament to the innate skill, charm and hard work of one of Ireland's great restaurant couples.
Clarke may have trained in the classical French tradition, but his food continues to demonstrate a willingness to learn and adapt, to move with the times without forsaking his roots. And whereas in the past I might have quibbled with over-formal service at L'Ecrivain, that too has softened, in keeping with contemporary preference. It's still impeccable, still polished, but more friendly, and the ambience of the room is more relaxed than I remember it.
On the Friday night of our visit, L'Ecrivain is busy with family tables and couples on date nights. It is - particularly at weekends - a restaurant in which to celebrate a special occasion. There's a happy buzz in the room that feels convivial without being shouty and, despite having booked 10 days or so in advance and this being the middle of January, the bleakest of months for restaurants, our table is up a flight of stairs to a mezzanine that overlooks the main room, opposite the enormous Knuttel artwork. It turns out to be a good spot from which to watch the comings and goings in the main dining room below, but I think that I'll request a table in the thick of things on my next visit.
At dinner, there's a choice between the €90 eight-course tasting menu, and a three-course dinner menu priced at €75. Difficult customers that we are, we choose the three-course option and then ask if it's possible to swap dishes between the two. It's not a problem. In the end, this being a Michelin-starred establishment and one that likes to treat its customers well, there are a few extra bits and bobs as well.
First up is an amuse bouche of salmon, offered as a dark-hued ballotine (beetroot-dyed perhaps?) alongside a tartare, flavoured with radish, citrus and dill. It's more than a throwaway mouthful, and a very good beginning.
A starter of roast scallops with Jerusalem artichoke in the form of purée and crisps, surrounded by a smoked butter dashi is lush in its umami-ness, while Flaggy Shore Oyster (the oysters come from where the hills of the Burren slope down to meet Galway Bay) combines a plump bivalve with smoked eel, celeriac, walnut and caviar in a dish that's light, sophisticated and full of flavour.
A delicate quenelle of foie gras parfait is accompanied by fermented plum and pain d'epices; a mouthful of chilled Recioto della Valpolicella, Classico, 2010, from Zenato by way of pairing is inspired and innovative compared to the usual white dessert wine. Generally, palate cleansers don't do much for me, but the combination of juniper, camomile, lime and tonic in a little glass of sorbet is like a G&T without the G, and it's rather lovely.
Main courses of Sika deer with juniper ash, gnocchi, chanterelles and navet (baby turnip), and wild Wicklow wood pigeon with beetroot purée and blackberry are gamey, earthy, and perfectly executed.
A pre-dessert of whipped goat's cheese with pear, candied walnuts and thyme is simple and simply lovely, while a chocolate mille feuille with blood orange purée and sorbet looks like a Salvador Dali painting and bears no resemblance to a Terry's Chocolate Orange. Cheeses in prime condition - Fourme d'Ambert, Pont L'Eveque, Cáis na Tíre and Durrus - are served with gooseberry chutney and a sharp piccalilli.
Our bill, with two bottles of water, two glasses of white wine to accompany the starters (the Assyrtiko Gaia 2015 from Santorini was smokily perfect with the Flaggy Shore oyster dish) and a bottle of Pinot Noir Eradus (€60) (one of L'Ecrivain's 'house' wines available also by the glass), came to €244.50 to which a discretionary service charge of 12.5pc was added.
I wish more restaurants would do this (so long as it does go to the staff) as many Irish diners are still either clueless or mean when it comes to proper tipping. Building a service charge into the cost of the meal is a way to ensure decent wages for restaurant staff and do away with the daily lottery that goes hand in hand with working front of house in so many Irish restaurants.
9/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
As with many Michelin-starred restaurants, lunch at L'Ecrivain is something of a bargain, coming in at €35 for two courses and €45 for three. Expect some crossover between dishes on the lunch and dinner menus.
ON A BLOW OUT
The dinner tasting menu with matching wines is €150 per head. Add service and you're looking at a bill for two of just under €340 including service. Of course, there is also a very grown-up wine list to explore.
THE HIGH POINT
The broccoli in brown butter.
THE LOW POINT
I'm not sure about the Knuttel.