Last December, in a move as shocking in food circles as Michael O'Leary's recent decision to wind down Gigginstown was to the racing world, Andrew Heron - the co-owner and manager of the Michelin-starred Heron & Grey - stepped away from the restaurant. Chef Damien Grey took a couple of months off, hit up his bank for a loan, and has now opened as Liath (the word means 'grey' in Irish). Our breath is taken away by the transformation that has been achieved in this lucky little space in Blackrock Market. It is now, says one of my guests, an architect, the most sophisticated restaurant interior in the country.
"Ross Lewis [Grey's former boss at Chapter One] says that if the cooking thing doesn't work out for me that I'll always have a career in restaurant design," says Grey, when I speak to him a few days later. "I'm not sure how to take that."
Grey obsessed over the design for months and it shows. There's a custom-built open kitchen, the rough brick wall looks beautiful, and the art by Grey's nephew, Conor Merriman, is pure and perfect. The number of seats remains at 22; there are more tables for four than there are for two, and one for six - something to bear in mind if you are trying to book when reservations are released online each month.
In the same way that the interior design has been refined, so too has the food, with some of the very best dishes from the H&G days re-imagined, stripped back, made even better. My guests say that they find Liath less challenging, less try-hard, more confident. They prefer it.
The progression of flavours through the tasting menu is deliberate, explains Damien, from bitter to sour, through salt to savoury/umami to sweet. We start with a vivid green plate of peas and asparagus, and a cigar of pancetta and lardo-like cured fat from a mangalitsa pig from charcuterie-meister, Fingal Ferguson of Gubbeen. There's a cured duck egg buried within. Disarmingly, this is simply called Spring Salad. It's precise, luxurious and very, very good. There's more asparagus, this time wild, in a dish of girolles with tarragon and what Grey calls 'wild garlic fairy liquid' around its perimeter. Next, a small dish of lemon, mint and gariguette strawberries from France and then a mouthful of wild trout with horseradish and kefir in a little pastry tart topped with pickled and fresh chive flowers. Then the pure luxury of langoustine with morels, alium-scented, followed by a cone of dosa-like pastry filled with smoked eel and aged Parmesan, topped with fennel pollen, that has the makings of a signature dish. It's intensely flavoursome.
Tender Comeragh Mountain lamb comes with a house-made cultured butter flavoured with wild herbs - three-cornered leek, sheep sorrel, wood sorrel, wild pea and primrose - and a sauce of alexanders. It's a plate of early summer loveliness. And then L'Etivaz (a hard, raw milk cheese from Switzerland) with clementine and preserved walnut, and a segue into sweetness with an Instagram-friendly hedgehog baked Alaska of rhubarb, lime and meringue. Finally a confection of dark chocolate with preserved raspberries, their flavour deep and intense, that would not look out of place in an atelier devoted to the making of expensive fascinators.
It's good to see some familiar faces in the kitchen, and some new ones on a floor that runs like clockwork. As is au courant, the chefs bring the dishes to the tables. There is a fine buzz in the room, proving that it's possible both to deliver a tasting menu of sophisticated food and for your customers to have fun.
With five bottles of water and three of wine - the always lovely Maria Casanovas cava (€50), an elegant Krasna Hora pinot noir (€66) from the Czech Republic and the beautifully saline Alma de Mar albariño (€72) - our bill for four comes to €522.50 before service. Liath is the second restaurant in a few weeks to get full marks from me. Prices will inevitably go up when Grey gets his star back; as it stands, Liath is probably the best eating bargain in the country.
ON A BUDGET
The five-course tasting menu served on Saturday for lunch is priced at €58.
ON A BLOW OUT
The eight-course dinner menu is €78.
THE HIGH POINT
Damien Grey's food keeps getting more refined - and because Liath doesn't (yet) have a Michelin star, it's something of a bargain.
THE LOW POINT
It's as hard to get a booking at Liath as it ever was at Heron & Grey.