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Does Conrad have too many fish to fry?

Could you make it by 7.45? We have a big group coming at eight." Duly noted. After a swift pre-prandial at 'Cafe Insane' we slid through the portal of La Stampa at 7.42 precisely, and were shown to a corner table in The Dining Room, aka 'Conrad's Last Stand'. We enquired for the big lad and were told he was elsewhere.

Further enquiry revealed that Malcolm Starmer, clearly a glutton for punishment, had returned from London for another cooking stint (his third?) on Dawson Street.

The room has been tricked up as a sort of mini Versailles Hall of Mirrors. It wouldn't be to my taste. I think the flitter-glitter detracts from the dignity of this otherwise imposing room. The big stone angel has been left in situ, but was she always headless? Neither of us could remember.

We took a glass of a decent Sauvignon from France's Cote de Duras while debating what to eat. Petite Chef, my guest, is a culinary professional with trenchant opinions. She nabbed the duck rillettes and, after securing the daube de boeuf for my main, I opted to kick off with pea soup. It had a posh title, and was offered with a skate wing.



passion

Now I love skate/ray with a passion only exceeded by my lust for black sole. However, my ardour cooled when the dish arrived. Alongside the soup bowl sat a brace of floured or crumbed curlicues, like distorted fish fingers and no more flavoursome. An opportunity missed as the soup itself was only gorgeous.

The chef clawed some brownie points back with his duck rillettes, accessorised with beetroot puree, mango, a slice of brioche and set off with some micro cress, as pretty a presentation as I've ever seen. Flavour-wise, too, it racked up a big score, a tower of the juicy rillettes enfolding whisper-light foie gras, nearer creme than pate. At this point we switched to red, the soft, bouncy, organic Bodegas Langa Grenache/Syrah from the Spanish region of Catalyud.

In the daube de boeuf hierarchy I marked Conrad's as Europa but certainly not Champions League. I reminded Petite Chef that she was there the night I had the Barca of daubes, the venue 1014 at Clontarf, the chef Gareth Smith.



pampering

PC took the Wagyu mini beef burgers, liked them a lot and gave me one to try. Personally, I'm not fond of Wagyu beef. The flavour's fine, I can see the point of all that pampering, but I have problems with the texture. I don't like my beef to have the consistency of liver. The burgers were slightly pink within; is that permitted these days?

We took two side dishes, a piquantly dressed, electrifyingly crisp green salad and a bowl of big chips cooked in duck fat, mega trendy at the minute. The size of roasties, they clearly hadn't got the fat hot enough. They arrived flabby and greasy and left unlamented, a big 'thumbs down'.

My panna cotta (with raspberries) was excellent, slip-sliding away on the place, as it should. Petite Chef surveyed her cheese plate and enquired as to the selection. "Err, that one's blue, that one's Cheddar and I'll have to ask what the others are." The 'Cheddar' was, in fact Durrus. This cameo spotlighted a glaring weakness in The Dining Room's shtick.

There were staff aplenty but clearly under-trained and under-managed. Our red was not brought to table and allowed to breathe. Glances, even extravagant waves were ignored. We watched, grimly fascinated, as a waiter wrestled with wine corks as though trying to pull an octopus through a plughole.

The 'big group' arrived at 8.40. Disgraceful and disrespectful, but hey, this is Dublin, it's what we do, it seems. A young bunch, the girls glammed up to the nines, the guys sporting T-shirts and acne and all with a big gra for prawn cocktails, which waiters glided up in relays to deliver. One paused by our table.

"Hmm, the prawns seemed to have shrunk since Lucinda's review," observed PC, archly.

Verdict? The good, the bad and the ugly. As a bistro it's maybe a tad dear -- compounded by the 12.5pc service slapped on -- but you are getting righteous ingredients and a unique ambience. Alas, on the night, The Dining Room revealed the flaws inherent in a restaurant where the chef/patron is absent. The best are not run by wannabe entrepreneurs but by perfectionist control freaks.


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