Decisions, decisions, decisions. Foodmad and I trawled the length of St Stephen's Green and Merrion Row last Thursday, trying to make up our minds what and where we wanted to eat. Of course a year or so ago you'd have had to book well in advance, but in the new banana republic most restaurants have at least one spare table.
Il Posto, Peploe's, La Mère Zou, Bentley's -- we dithered over the menus, then walked on. We even made it to the entrance of The Saddle Room in the Shelbourne but couldn't get past a menu that would bore for Ireland.
I ought to say that, Saddle Room excepted, there's not much wrong with any of the aforementioned establishments. I was suffering from restaurant critic's fatigue; eating out twice a week for umpteen years had blunted, however temporarily, my normal rapacious appetite for food and drink. There is a cure, and that's to happen across a shebeen serving slow-cooked dragon's thighs or crispy praying mantis, but we were in the wrong end of town for that kind of caper.
We'd almost reached the end of the dining strip when we encountered Hugo's. We were drawn by two things: the buzz (the upper floor was packed and people seemed to be enjoying themselves hugely) and the presence on the menu of "queen scallops sautéed with chorizo, fennel and scallions, in saffron butter sauce".
Foodmad was intrigued by the "semi-dried tomato and Parmesan cake, black olives, basil and garlic dressing, sauce vierge, rocket leaves, c, n, v". It took us a few minutes to realise that "c, n, v" meant "this dish is unsuitable for coeliacs, may contain traces of nuts and will piss off carnivores". Served in a shell, my scallop dish was an absolute joy, a bang-on-the-beat quintet of ingredients, juicy queens and sparky chorizo doing their Davis-and-Coltrane thing and the wonderfully rich sauce tying everything together like Jimmy Cobb. Four bars of this and my tastebuds were back on track. Foodmad's cake was muted by comparison, but very satisfying nonetheless.
The second my dining buddy selected the wild venison steak, alarm bells rang in my head. I've eaten this dish so many times, suckered in by the 'wild and real' vibe, only to find myself lumbered with a piece of meat as enduring as the sole of a hiking boot. My fears were in vain; this was both tender and tasty. I ordered steak, too: a sirloin, accompanied by sauce Lyonnaise, simple to fettle at home but inevitably a disappointment in restaurants as there doesn't seem to be a staging post between insipid and gloopy. Hugo's version was startlingly good -- chock full of onions with just the right amount of caramelisation. It turned out that the chef was from Lyon. My sirloin was cooked a tad imprecisely, medium-rare rather than rare, but it was a very fine piece of meat. Both dishes came with potatoes, but we couldn't resist (who can?) the "hand-cut chips". Whenever I see this I have visions of a chef telling his commis: "You're cutting these too precisely. Chuck in a few big ones or they'll think we use a machine." They were very fine chips indeed; Foodmad and I both detected the presence of duck fat.
A better-than-average dessert selection yielded a vanilla bourbon crème brûlée, in which the presence of bourbon was clearly detectable, and a lemon tart with cream and toffee sauce.
The staff were exemplary throughout the meal. For example, the Lyonnaise sauce was supposed to come with fillet steak. I expressed a preference for sirloin and my request was willingly granted; I know many a restaurant where the waiter would have invoked the 'more than my job's worth' clause. Hugo's is also a wine bar and the list is manifestly better than average. We took a glass each of the lovely Domaine Mittnacht Frères Biodynamic Riesling 2006 with the starters and a Valpolicella Ripasso from Bolla, an 'old reliable' with enough richness and complexity to stand up to the steak and the saucing. Fine glassware, crockery and accoutrements underpinned a good evening.
I should maybe mention that the background music is audible almost to singalong levels, and amid the delightful Astrid and Ricky Lee, there's a smidge of hairdresser stuff. Hugo's has regular jazz nights that I wouldn't mind going back for. And if I get revisited by the old ennui, I'll be in like Flynn for that scallop starter.
Verdict: Smart, lively restaurant, sound cooking, lovely staff. Prices a tad high for bistro cuisine.
Hugo's, 6 Merrion Row, Dublin 2 Tel: 01 676 5955