It is so rare to encounter a menu on which I would happily order any one of the dishes on offer that I am giddy with excitement within a couple of minutes of sitting down at our table at Mr Fox, Anthony Smith's new restaurant on the west side of Dublin's Parnell Square.
In the modern way, the menu is short, with a choice of just four or five options under each heading. Usually, there'll be one item in each section jumping off the page at me - menu kryptonite if you will, words such as lardo, bone marrow, chanterelles - and I'll be hoping against hope that my guest is not going to choose those dishes, because reviewing etiquette demands that the dining companion always gets first dibs. But at Mr Fox the menu is wholly appealing, all those words and more are there, and the choices are tough ones. We take our time selecting as we inhale the whipped cep butter and Parmesan cream that accompanies exemplary Tartine sourdough.
From the 'snacks' - am I the only person to suspect that this is a sneaky way to turn the standard dinner out from a three- to a four-course exercise? - we opt for lardo (see, told you) on toast with fried rosemary, and a pair of brandy bay oysters with yuzu and apple.
The lardo on toast is just gorgeous, the wafer thin sliver of fat melting into the char-grilled bread, and the needles of fried rosemary contributing texture and flavour that is assertive to the right extent but no more, reinforced by little dots of a vibrant green rosemary oil around the plate.
The oysters come from Kelly's on the west coast and they are brinily perfect and plump, with the citrus tang of the yuzu and the crunch of the apple a foil for their minerality. Unfortunately the presentation - they are served on top of a bowl filled with rock salt, which adheres to the shells as we lift them - means that we get a mouthful of salt as we tip the oysters into our mouths. It's a real pity.
We are tempted by a starter of fried leeks with smoked eel and sauce gribiche, but in the end it is the bone marrow with snails and parsley on toast that wins out. A simple combination, but lush in its execution: the hollow of the bone filled with the marrow and the snails, anointed with delicate blobs of a parsley purée. Crab ravioli with cockles and mussels in a richly intense broth is just as good, elegantly presented in a large soup plate.
Partridge is the stand-out dish from the 'larger plates' section. The flesh of the bird is tender and full of flavour, and comes with roast barley, chanterelles, parsnip and pear in a jus that's good enough to have us wiping the last traces from the plate with our fingers because - foolishly - we've sent back the bread so that we don't eat it all. A venison dish is making all the right noises in terms of flavour - salsify, hispi cabbage, trompettes de la mort and blackberries - but the meat is tougher than it should be. We are taken with a side dish of under-sized carrots flavoured with nduja and coriander and resolve to attempt to replicate it at home.
From the 'sweet' section, we share a chocolate bouchon with malt custard, feuilletine crisp and milk ice-cream that is as fine a chocolate dish as you'll find anywhere, with plenty in the way of contrast in terms of flavour and texture between the warm, brownie-like small chocolate cake - I'm guessing it's inspired by Thomas Keller of Bouchon in Yountville, California - and the other elements on the plate. A 'little treat' of Mr Fox Walnut Whip is a tad disappointing - it's sweet and correct in appearance but the flavour profile is one-dimensional. Perhaps our expectations of a riff on one of our favourite childhood indulgences were too high and never going to live up to the version of our memories.
I gather that the premises now occupied by Mr Fox was formerly home to The Hot Stove, of which I heard good food reports but never visited, and that the décor has not changed much since. There are too many hard surfaces, including lots of ugly faux-Victorian tiling, and some naff geegaws. The room feels more akin to a daytime café in a cultural institution than it does to the kind of restaurant in which you would choose to hunker down in for a long evening. On the evening of our visit, about half the tables in the main room were occupied, and double doors leading to a second, entirely empty room, remained open. Outside, the box plants are plastic, a poor aesthetic choice.
On the northern side of Parnell Square, Chapter One has shown that a Dublin 1 location and a basement room are no impediment when it comes to instilling a sense of relaxed luxury in a restaurant or, indeed, to impressing the Michelin inspectors. The food at Mr Fox is, for the most part, very good indeed, and the service is exemplary, but the ambience is tested by a room that is not as hospitable as it should be. It would be a mistake for Mr Fox not to address this as a matter of urgency. Our bill for two, including two glasses of the appealing organic Ciu Ciu Oris Falerio 2015 and an excellent bottle of Zweigelt 2015 from Austrian wine-maker, Joseph Ehmoser (€41.25), from a list on which there is a good choice of wines priced at €40 or less, came to €161.25 before service.
ON A BUDGET
The lunch and pre-theatre menus are priced at €26 for two courses and €33 for three. Pre-theatre tables have to be vacated by 7.30pm.
ON A BLOW OUT
Two people snacking on Iberico ham, enjoying the crab ravioli to start and sharing a 28-day aged cote de boeuf, with barbecue short rib, garlic potato, mushroom ketchup, baby gem and Parmesan, and sides of fries and carrots, finishing with cheese, would run up a bill of €129 before wine or service.
THE HIGH POINT
Accomplished cooking from Anthony Smith.
THE LOW POINT
7/10 value for money