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A Joyless Meal

The good, the bad and the ugly can all be found in a meal at Louie's, which had Ernie Whalley recalling colourful days in London's twilight zone

After leaving university I hot-footed it, like many a young man before me, to seek fame and fortune in London. If I had dreamed of dwelling in a bijou mews off the King's Road I was soon to be disappointed, for I found myself in a boarding house in the twilight zone that calls itself Greenwich but isn't.

The landlady seemed a kindly soul but turned out to be vituperative and, ultimately, grasping. The other inmates were a singular bunch. The landlady's adolescent, nubile-but-sulky daughter. Two middle-aged spinster sisters, one nice one not, who squabbled relentlessly. A bottle blonde of uncertain years who scraped a living as a singer/contortionist. A Punch and Judy man with a drink problem. A recluse who spent his evenings playing chess on a pocket set with three pieces missing -- when misfortune overtook me he turned out to be a really good guy. Then there was the genial man in the room at the top of the house who we later discovered was a hitman for a south London gang.

Darting it home after a mixed-bag dining experience at Louie's Bistro on Mountjoy Square, it struck me that a meal frequently bears comparison with a scintilla of real life in which you experience the good, the bad, the indifferent and, if unlucky, the downright evil.

Mountjoy Square is not exactly 'Restaurant Central'. So we arrived at Louie's Bistro, located in a restored Georgian house, wishing the place well. The room was richly tricked out, with a tiled floor, marble-topped tables and Tiffany lamps. My companion was the agreeable Lady M, great cook and champion of the Slow Food movement. She expressed immediate disappointment at the wealth of well-travelled foodstuffs on the bill of fare.

Still, Lady M enjoyed her fig tart "tatan" with the caveat that figs are out of season. "Well they must be in season somewhere," I suggested, but this did not appease her and she's right. I took the confit duck leg, which arrived perched atop a segment of blood orange that had been caramelised, nice novel twist on the traddy theme. Unfortunately, a swoosh of ultra-sweet jammy berries reduced the impact of the original concept.

We both chose fish for our main course. Lady M's succulent halibut played the good guy, my 'catch of the day' John Dory, the bad. I pushed my knife into the fish and twisted it, looking for that appealing glistening glint. It wasn't there. The flesh looked dull, bereft of any life and bounce. It tasted unpleasant; was it fried in butter or fat allowed to become too hot? Queasy after two or three forkfuls, I pushed the plate away. Accompaniments were, in the main, as non-indigenous as the aforesaid figs; cherry tomatoes, mangetout, pea shoots. The wine list didn't inspire. I picked an Albarino that was to remind me that this fat, round jolly grape had its emaciated cousins. At €36, well overpriced too.

As he cleared the plates the waiter's previously affable manner was replaced by a forced jollity that segued, after I left half my dessert too, into complete indifference. I sensed that he knew things were going awry but didn't have the initiative or desire to get to the root of the bother. A simple "Was it all right for you, sir?" could have saved the day.

The best Italian panna cotta dissolves before your eyes if you give it a hard stare. The local take was unyielding, the coconut gave it an unpleasant grainy texture and the sugar content had my teeth hopping. Still, I'm glad I didn't have Lady M's cheese plate -- three uninspiring segments, including that "very 70s" marbled porter-infused cheddar and an overpowering smoked cheese. Am I alone in thinking smoke and milk products make uneasy bedfellows?

Louie's harked me back to those lodging house days. I was looking for a home, what I got was a lesson in life. So here -- I was looking for a pleasurable dining experience. What I got was a random assortment of good and bad -- enough glimpses to see the chef could cook but overlaid with an excess of imagination, woolly thinking and sloppy execution. Before you reinvent a classic (panna cotta) shouldn't you familiarise yourself as to why it's a classic and not lose those elements? Or, if you brag on your website about local suppliers, should you be serving food with more air miles than a flock of racing pigeons? Finally, there was the over-sensitive and ultimately, quite uncivil waiter. Lady M, sweet old-fashioned girl, would have liked her coat held for her. There was no way this was going to happen.

Verdict: Needed on the northside but heaps to sort.

Rating: HHIII

Louie's Bistro, 20 Mountjoy Square, Dublin 1, Tel: 01 836 4588