L'Gueuleton opened its doors back in 2004, and I can still remember the excitement it generated, with queues down the street for tables. In those early days there was a 'no booking' policy and the quality of the French bistro food on offer warranted the standing in line.
Unlike almost all of the other good places to eat in Dublin back then, L'Gueuleton was inexpensive. Lunch there was like nipping to Paris without the hassle of the flight; it captured the mood of those heady days when we were so busy congratulating ourselves on our good fortune to live in a - finally - cosmopolitan European city that we paid no heed to the way so much of what was going on made no sense, no sense at all.
And then, as is the way, new restaurants opened, we had more choice, and L'Gueuleton didn't feel quite as novel as it once had. We moved on. I last ate there four years ago - the food was heavy, the restaurant felt as if it was going through the motions, trading on past glories.
But, like many others, I prefer to eat outside these days, so L'Gueuleton was back on my radar when I had my guest book us in for Saturday lunch, which turned out to be brunch. (A more interesting menu of small plates is on offer for dinner, and it seems to me a pity that menu is not available for weekend lunch.)
There is no record of our booking when we arrive, but if the welcome is a little slow to get off the ground amends are soon made. Our table is directly opposite the entrance to the Market Bar and, between watching the comings and goings there, and the parade of familiar faces (including a chap that my husband remembers as 'Angel' from the Belfield Bar; we speculate as to how he might have got that name) the entertainment quotient is high. Our waitress manages to be charming behind a full face mask - no mean feat. I have nothing but respect for the people working in restaurants these days. It can't be much fun.
The wine list - infuriatingly it doesn't state the ABV of the wines, something that is becoming a bugbear of mine and I'm going to bang on about it until it becomes the norm - offers a choice of just five reds (two are Malbec) and five whites. There's a note on the menu to say that a full bar is available. Does that mean there's also a full wine list? Seemingly not. We drink the Felsina Chianti Classico Berardenga, 2017 (€49), which turns out to be a good call - intense, spicy and elegant.
Our food is the least of the experience. The menu is divided into two sections - Eggs On and Eggs Off. It's three in the afternoon and we had thought we were coming for lunch, so we are in the Eggs Off camp. The best dish is moules frites - Roaring Water Bay mussels in an excellent broth of white wine, shallots and parsley, accompanied by great fries. It's a throwback to L'Gueuleton of old and a good one.
A short-rib bourguignon ragù with pappardelle lacks depth of flavour, while a poor steak frites, which arrives pre-sliced, the cork-like meat appearing to have spent too long in the sous-vide and no recent time getting acquainted with a hot frying pan, is a travesty. It looks plain weird, a ring of dark meat encircling the bright red of the centre, the texture is unpleasant and it tastes of nothing much.
For pudding we share a chocolate pot with kirsch-macerated cherries, sweet and pleasant. With three extra glasses of wine, the bill for lunch for three comes to €146.90 before service.
There's nothing wrong, particularly at the moment, with restaurants paring back their offering and keeping things simple, but if you are only going to offer customers the choice of a few dishes, they have to be done well. There are restaurants in Paris that have been serving an unchanged menu for decades, and still people flock to them, for good reason. I'd like to see L'Gueuleton roll back the clock and execute simple French bistro dishes with the aplomb that it once did. And it should start with the steak frites.
ON A BUDGET
At brunch, the cheapest option is corned beef hash with Ballymakenny potatoes, cavolo nero and fried eggs at €13.50.
ON A BLOW OUT
A dinner of crab and rib-eye steak for two, with a shared cheese platter, will cost about €100.
THE HIGH POINT
The people-watching on a Saturday afternoon must be the best in the city.
THE LOW POINT
The steak element of the steak frites just doesn't pass muster.