Whenever i appear on one of those panels that purport to interface Food Freaks with The Dining Public, the most common question I get asked is: "When you go to review a restaurant, how do you ensure your anonymity?" The answer, of course, is: "I don't. I can't." Okay, I take elementary steps to make sure I'm not rumbled ahead of the visit. I book either in the name of my guest or in a pseudonym. In the restaurant, I keep a low profile. Unlike some I could mention, I don't throw my toys out of my pram if I don't get a corner table. But, Ireland village being what it is, there are times when I'm recognised and there's no point in saying "Ernie who?", or "No, no, I'm his slightly more intelligent, better-looking brother".
I calculate I was recognised in 12% of my last 100 restaurant reviews (this, as you can imagine, pisses me off greatly). I've heard the folktale about the New York Times critic adopting various disguises. I simply cannot imagine this buffoonery working. I envisage a mâitre d' sniggering behind his hand, saying to the waiter: "You see that bloke at the window table with the pilot shades and ginger beard? That's Ruth Reichl."
Some months ago I gave my telephone number to a guy called Kevin Arundel. Kevin, who I've known for some years, is the Duracell Bunny of restaurateurs, by his own admission a chef-turned-hustler. Every time I meet him there's a new scheme, a new business plan, a new marketing device in the offing. Some come to fruition, some don't. Since the day I gave him my number I've been bombarded with texted progress reports on his latest venture, to the extent that I feel I've done the plumbing, carpentry, wiring and decoration myself.
The Chop House, a gastropub which opened just before Christmas, is located at the junction of Shelbourne Road and Bath Avenue, and I should here and now admit that, given the weather, it was the proximity to my house rather than any reports citing the excellence of the cuisine that caused me to make it the focus of this review. When we got there, the Duracell Bunny was out front, bouncing up and down, extolling the quality of the new cask of Guinness. He homed in on us, greeting me like a relative returned from foreign parts, though I'd seen him in the village only the day before.
Kevin smooth-talked us into taking three starters. The first was a shared charcuterie plate -- bit of a misnomer, as it was more from the traiteur than the charcutier, consisting as it did of a variety of excellent chef-made terrines and a bowl of very fine duck rillettes.
To follow, Big Marc, the brother-in-law, had the "ballontine" of Old Spot pig on toast -- rich, lavish flavours from this rare breed. I had the "sushimi" tuna, served slightly too cold but good texture and freshness were evident. The accompanying quail egg, radish and spicy pickled cucumber strips fell into the 'really smart idea' category.
Marc, brought up in South Africa where they think nothing of chucking a whole beast on a barbecue, is no stranger to a good piece of meat. He described the ten-ounce aged rib-eye as "one of the best steaks he'd ever had". I cadged a slice and agreed. Enquiring of its provenance I nearly fell off my chair. How could my local butcher conceal from me the existence of beef as flavoursome as this? I was more than happy with my John Dory, billed as "Market Fish of The Day". What a great fish this is if you can get it ocean-fresh and not cooked to mush. Special commendation for the hand-cut chips too.
We shared a crème brûlée and the cheeseboard. The latter consisted of a generous selection.
From the short but interesting wine list we chose a South African Sauvignon Blanc which was new to me. Firefinch 2008 from those endearing eccentrics Jeanette and Abrie Bruwer had much of the quality of their world-class Springfield estate, Life from Stone, without the latter's 'this ain't for wimps' sneer. We closed, alas, with an evil espresso. When it comes to coffee in Dublin restaurants "always leave 'em wanting less" seems to be the mantra.
Kevin was still bouncing on his heels as he waved us away. I felt a churlish impulse to take his batteries out. "Nice try, mate. Just get yourself a decent coffee supplier," I quipped as we vanished, stuffed and well content, into the grim night.
Verdict: Well-sorted, substantial and quite elegant food, reasonably priced.
The Chop House, 2 Shelbourne Road, Dublin 4. Tel: (01) 660 2390