Dax, 23 Pembroke Street Upper, Dublin 2. (01) 676 1494
There's been a chef shuffle going on in Dublin this year, with familiar faces popping up in unexpected places. At Restaurant 41 on St. Stephen's Green, Peter Byrne - formerly of Sika in the Powerscourt Hotel and Chapter One - is now manning the stoves, while Richard Stearn, who used to be at Dax, has taken the helm at Suesey Street. And Graham Neville, whom many regard as the best chef in Ireland not (yet) to have been awarded a Michelin star, and who was until the start of the year the chef at Restaurant 41, is now ensconced in Olivier Meissonave's Dax.
On a miserable early autumn evening, there's the happy buzz of a full restaurant. If we were in France - and at Dax, we really are - we'd call it La Rentrée: everyone is back in town after their summer adventures.
Olivier runs front of house himself and we are rumbled immediately. We are on the receiving end of excellent and attentive service for the night, but there is no fawning. Everyone is afforded the same level of hospitality at Dax, and everyone gets the upfront umami hit of an amuse of a warm button mushroom mousse topped with hazelnut crumb. It's an excellent beginning.
If you ever ate Graham Neville's food at Restaurant 41, you may recognise a couple of his signature dishes from his menu at Dax. The the first is a starter of Anagassan smoked salmon and Clogherhead crab with Granny Smith apple. (When I was a child, my post-mass treat was one of these apples. I'm still not sure whether this indicates that I had a deprived childhood or an enlightened mother.)
Neville presents his dish as a disc of salmon topped with crab and matchsticks of apple arranged Jenga-fashion. The circumference of the plate is dotted with capers and finely diced white and yolk of egg, minced red onion and dollops of Goatsbridge trout caviar. The presentation is so distinctive that it couldn't be anyone else's.
The other Neville signature is a courgette flower from Iona farm, stuffed with prawns, and half-submerged in a prawn bisque of such rich deliciousness and intense flavour that it is almost -but not quite - too much.
Cloonconra is a rich and creamy Irish raw milk cheese made by James Gannon from the milk of this herd of Irish Moiled Cows on his family farm in Roscommon. It has a slight citrus tang, and a salad with green beans, peach and fresh almond in a vanilla dressing is gorgeous to behold, topped with a lacy tuille. There's a little beetroot in there too, and nasturtium leaves for bitterness, and the elements come together beautifully. I've snagged my first choice of starter - seared foie gras with preserved violet artichoke, Roscoff onion purée and celeriac crumble. It's just right for the start of autumn. (Please don't email me about foie gras. I KNOW.)
The loin and shoulder of Ballycullane lamb from Hugh Fitzpatrick in Co. Carlow is presented with the loin in two robust pink tranches, and the shoulder confit-style, slow-cooked, bread-crumbed and deep-fried, and a thyme-scented sauce. There's surprise in the contrast of flavour and texture, the dish comes with gnocchi and finely-chopped celery in a vivid green jus of chervil and tarragon.
On the menu, the hake is offered with a red pepper and shellfish coulis, but my guest requests a substitution and the fish - a tranche cooked à point, topped with a deep-fried sphere of brandade, and a tangle of fennel - is accompanied by a classic vermouth sauce and discs of skin-on cucumber.
Roasted Anjou pigeon with veal sweetbreads, and braised white beans and root vegetables in a tarragon and sherry vinegar - the choice of two of the four of us - is autumnally brilliant, full of rustic flavour. By way of side dishes, there are potato purée in the classic French manner (butter, butter and more butter), and green beans with shallots.
Coconut and lime ice-cream cuts through the sweetness of a mango soufflé, and a layer cake of apricot, pistachio and rosewater is pretty as a picture, speaking of sunnier climes. A selection of Irish and French cheeses from Sheridans is, as one would expect, in perfect condition.
For wine we put ourselves in the hands of Monsieur Meissonave, who suggests a Tursan 2015 Carpe Diem, a blend of Baroque and Gros Manseng from Domaine Cazalet in SW France (€37) and an entry-level red burgundy, Bourgogne Roncevie 2011, from Domaine Arlaud in Morey St Denis (€55), which are good matches for the food and reasonably priced. (The list does feature some serious, and seriously expensive, wines.) With a bottle of each, and several of mineral water, the bill for four comes to €328.50 before service.
The changes that the arrival of Graham Neville has brought to Dax are subtle, sophisticated and without pretension, and there is a new freshness at one of Dublin's favourite restaurants that will please customers old and new, without anyone ever being in doubt that this little corner of Dublin is actually in France.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
Dax serves a set lunch (€27.50 for two courses and €32.50 for three) from Tuesday to Friday, and on Saturdays when Ireland is playing an international rugby match at home.
ON A BLOW OUT
Dinner for two will be €153 before wine if you have Dinish Island scallops, fillet of beef, a couple of sides and desserts, and a plate of cheese to share.
THE HIGH POINT
A Dublin favourite that's been given a new lease of life with the arrival of chef Graham Neville.
THE LOW POINT
Don't come to Dax if you have a problem with seeing foie gras on a menu.