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Frères To Middlin'

Last week el bulli, "the best restaurant in the world", closed its doors. Owner Ferran Adrià, high priest of avant garde cuisine, said that activities would be suspended for the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Up 'til last week, El Bulli was only open six months a year and even then only for one sitting a night.

The odds against getting a booking were longer than 125-1. Now, by the very act of closing the restaurant, Adrià has taken this exclusivity to undreamed-of heights.

It seemed surreal that on the day the closure was announced I had booked to dine in a restaurant that's the diametric opposite of everything El Bulli represents. One where you would not be surprised if the menu were carved into inch-thick slabs of Liscannor with sole meunière as the house speciality. Les Frères Jacques, a Dame Street fixture when I came to Ireland 24 years ago, proclaims itself a "French restaurant".

Accordingly, it sets out its stall, using good table linen, conventional cutlery and subdued lighting to achieve a quasi-Parisian feel, an aura reinforced by the waiting staff whose patter veered between French courtesies and Allo, Allo! phraseology.

The restaurant, I'd venture, aims to attract wealthy but conservative diners; those who could afford to eat in L'Ecrivain but would find Derry Clarke's ketaifi-clad prawns a gastro-bridge too far. I suspected that there's also a pitch at the American market, judging by the ambient temperature: more Sanibel sauna than Les Halles. Sure enough, when I got home, there it was, lauded in Frommer's.

A legend has grown up among food hacks that some of us have our mug shots pasted up behind the till of Les Frères Jacques.

I managed to escape detection, booking in the name of the late (as usual) Knocklyon Princess.

One of the best things about Les Frères Jacques is the entrance door. It has one of those little grills through which you announce your credentials before being admitted. I'd seen the 60s movies. "Joe sent us," I said. So far as I could tell no one who came after us got turned away. This seemed like a missed opportunity. By telling every fifth diner to sling their hook you'd gain a reputation for exclusivity which would create more business, à la El Bulli.

I took the table d'hôte, the Princess the à la carte. Jean-Claude, as I'll call him, brought an amuse-bouche: two tiny puff-pastry hearts enclosing fragments of smoked salmon bathed in what tasted like Marie Rose dressing, devoid of any garnish.

My four-courser included a soup. This was a Dublin-French version of one of those things Thais and Vietnamese do so well: an aromatic broth with Asian greens and pork dumplings. The concept was spoiled by the muddy broth, oxtail soupish in texture and flavour.

Seared lamb kidneys with a grain-mustard sauce pleased me, though the kidneys were slightly overdone. They were accompanied by baby potatoes. Herself seemed happy with confit of de-boned duck leg wrapped in crispy skin with turnip purée and cassis sauce.

There's not much listing of suppliers on the menu. These days if restaurants serve decent ingredients they like to boast about it. But then maybe that's not the French way. Anyhow, the Knocklyon Princess said her fillet of beef, a whopper, was good and tasty. This was more than can be said for the accompanying overcooked "Irish flag" veggies and nigh-raw roast tatties. I had the slow-cooked lamb shank which was huge, tender and succulent.

Alas, it came with one of the most shocking misconceptions I've encountered in years of dining. I'm quite fond of 'Yorkshire caviar' -- mushy peas to you, mate.

These were 'minted' to the extent that I now knew what Rowntree's do with the middles of Polos. The chef then drenched the peas in vinegar. This menthol bomb cleared my sinuses a treat but utterly ruined the bottle of Domaine de L'Hortus we'd chosen. Why, why, why? This carry-on isn't French, it's British, circa 1954. I've never met a French chef who could suppress a sneer at perfidious Albion's penchant for coupling lamb to mint sauce. And after this heresy, the sheer ordinariness of my pear and almond tart hardly registered.

Les Frères Jacques is rooted in the 'big feed and nothing that will alarm' school of gastronomy which will suit those who would despise Ferran Adrià and his molecular fireworks.

Verdict: French, mon cul. Except maybe for elderly in-laws and Midwestern Americans.


Les Frères Jacques, 4 Dame Street, Dublin 2 Tel: 01 679 4555