Thursday, September 16, 2010

Chez Max, Palace Street, Dublin City Centre

A twenty minute wait for Dublin Bus on a dull and dreary, rainy Thursday evening was not what I had romanticised when making a dinner date at Chez Max in Dublin. I had envisioned myself arriving casually, but fashionably late to my rendez-vous with some chic friends. Instead I arrived flustered and hair-blown having run down the not-so-classy Dame Street in the rain. But the transformation to Parisian chic did occur the minute I stepped through the front door of this quaint, but buzzy restaurant. Authentically so, the waiters and kitchen staff here are French and this adds significantly to the whole experience. I immediately spotted and joined my three companions nestled together at a slightly elevated table and relaxed into what was to be a laid-back, but thoroughly pleasurable evening of chat and food.

We decided to go straight to the main course, leaving room for dessert and cheese. It was a difficult decision so I made the immediate resolution to come back and explore the menu further (maybe judging a book by its cover but when it comes to restaurants I have found that my gut is normally right). Feeling 'like chicken tonight' I went for the 'Suprême de poulet, sauce au Beaufort,' served with pilaf rice. We also had the Moules Frites and the Steak Frits with pepper sauce. The French Onion Soup and a side of potato gratin made a meal for our last diner. So really by our selections, this was to be a test of ingredients and knowledge, rather than skills and frills. So often this is the case with proper French cooking, but here we really went back to basics. What we sought was flavour and depth, in comforting and satisfying food and we were not left short changed.

Three perfectly portioned plates of food arrived at our table in good time(after a catch up of news and gossip), joined by a deep bowl of rich brown, glossy goodness and a little side plate generously endowed with thinly sliced, oven hot layered potatoes. And instant silence fell as we tucked in. My chicken supreme (breast with wing attached) was perfectly cooked, moist and flavoursome and was served with just the right amount of slightly thickened but silky sauce, which was creamy with a tangy edge. The pilaf rice was perfectly cooked and moulded on the plate so that it retained its piping heat. Crisply sautéed in onion and cooked out in a good stock, retaining its savoury flavours-delish! A few pan-fried French beans brought the dish together colourfully. The steak, cooked medium (catering to Irish tastes medium and not French bloody medium) and moules delivered and more. The chips were homemade, medium cut and dark golden brown. And and not a trace of a soggy chip was to be found amongst the two portions served up to us. The French onion soup came not with gruyere toasts, but with croutons and grated gruyere on the side. Maybe not what you might expect but just as good. A good French onion soup needs time. Long slow cooking is the key here. Hardly likely to break their own rules, the onions had been slowly caramelised and the beef broth slowly simmered and reduced. Combined, a marriage made in heaven. As for the potato gratin, we are familiar with several varieties. These were the buttery, oily kind as opposed to the creamy, cheesy kind. Cooked through but with a bit of bite, it definitely required some good skill and timing to get them just right.

Service was very good-pleasant and attentive, without coming over every five seconds. Only when all had finished their meal were our plates whisked away, etiquette that is so often overlooked in restaurants and really gets my goat!

To round off the meal, we had one tarte aux fraises (strawberry tart), one crème brulée and one cheese plate. The tart was pretty as a picture and nice but lacking something. The crème pâtissière was not quite rich enough, nor was the pate sucree (sweet pastry). The pastry also had a hint of ginger as far as I could detect, which would not be to my preference, but this is nit-picking! The crème brulée was professed faultless and looked the part in a rustic ramekin with a nicely burnt top. A choice of two cheeses from a selection is offered. Our cheese aficionado choose the Sainte Maure (goat’s cheese) and the camembert. Upon delivery we remarked that for E5.50 the portion size was a bit scabby. But the phrase 'quality over quantity' came to mind as it turned out that a little went a long way. In the end the two small wedges were just right served up with some crusty French baguette.

After a superb meal our bill was very reasonable, working out at about E20 a head. Of course we stuck to tap water but an extensive wine list caters for all tastes and budgets.  I would say go for the early bird, but a similar selection appears on the a la carte for much the same price. The menu sings value and you won't be disappointed. Unless you can get flights return to Paris with Ryanair for less, just go. It’s the real deal and a more authentic experience you will not find on the streets of Dublin. And if you're a lady go for the barman/tall dark and handsome waiter. The best dish of the night. Just a shame I didn't get a taste...

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Shanahan's on the Green, Dublin City Centre

I very excited to be treated to a meal in this iconic Dublin steakhouse earlier this Summer. So much so that I starved myself through an exam. As a high achiever I strongly recommend against this, how and ever an occasion as such had to be respected and fully embraced.

Ironically, the evening of our celebration coincided with the day of Gerry Ryan's (RTE broadcaster) untimely death. This was ironic because Shanahan's oozes with that exorbitant, excessiveness that he was more than well known for indulging in. There was an air about the city that night and everyone was talking about the news that still hadn't sunk in. Eating in Shanahan's that night seemed slightly in bad taste. Nevertheless, it didn't hold us back but it did set a backdrop to the mood and early conversation of the night.

As delicious as the starters sounded, we were all very wise and exercised enough self-restraint to hold back for the main course. But hell did we let loose when it came to the piece de la resistance! Of eight diners, all but one went straight to the steak menu. Now to the uninitiated, the selection process requires more than a little attention. The steaks range from the 215g filet mignon, to the 681g rib eye/T-bone. However the discrepancy in prices is much smaller, at E46 for the cheapest option to E52 for the whole hog. So you may as well go for the one that tickles your fancy the most. Unlike a similar experience in a real American steakhouse, Monty’s of LA though, the raw cuts were not presented to the table so it does take a bit of advice/knowledge to get what you’re looking for. Waste not want not six of us sensibly went for the filet mignon. The Gerry Ryan of the table (he won't thank me for that) went for the T-bone. Next you have to decide how you would like your steak cooked and as most know how they like theirs done this is the easy part. In so many restaurants this is not the case as medium can range from bloody to well done, depending on the chef. Granted, this is more likely to occur in mediocre restaurants, however I have experienced it in places you would expect better of. Not so in Shanahan's. As stated in the menu, their steaks are cooked to perfection and the specifications are bang on target.

The next minefield to conquer was which sides to choose? Everything sounded so appealing I think we went for a bit of everything: whipped potatoes with butter and chives; French fries, crispy fried onion strings, creamed spinach, roast butternut squash with rosemary oil and creamed sweet corn.

And so we waited in anticipation for our feast, accompanied by some fresh homemade breads. The bread was the best I have had in a restaurant. In fact as far as my memory allows me it was the best I have had, anywhere, ever (and I have a photographic memory of my food journeys). I would go back for the bread alone. I have more than a strong suspicion that this was achieved by copious amounts of butter baked into the hot, fresh bread. There were other flavours in the bread, but no more about the bread as I could write all day about it.

All at once the banquet appeared and in a matter of moments our white table-clothed and silver laid table was adorned with baskets, copper pots and big rounded plates. After much greedy reaching and passing around the meal commenced in earnest, and boy was it a marathon. The steak, medium/rare for me, was well sealed and caramelized on the outside, pink and slightly bloody on the inside but warm through. It was tender and flavoursome, certainly reaching expectations. The mash was smooth and creamy, not that awful gloopy purée that we are served up all too often. The French fries were cookbook perfect and the onion strings were excellent, having been soaked in buttermilk before receiving a light coating of flour and paying visit to the deep fat fryer. The vegetables were equally impressive, though not for all (some were intent on it being a meat fest). I was particularly taken on the creamed corn which had strong hints of nutmeg and a creamy, but textured consistency. Everything was really top notch, with nothing to disappoint. Even the sacrilegious black sole had by the black sheep of the party was declared exquisite. Reaching such heights of perfection is truly an achievement for places like Shanahan's where notoriety pushes the benchmark much higher. Red wine was had which complimented the steaks just beautifully-but that's not my forte.

Room for dessert? Always! As I recall there was a peanut butter chocolate torte with Toblerone sauce and peanut brittle shared between two, a rhubarb and ginger crumble for one and two cookies and cream cheesecake with vanilla and chocolate sauce for two gluttonous souls, including one belonging to myself. At E12.50 a pop, like nothing in Shanahan's they don't come cheap but they do deliver. Presented like gift wrapped creations, they have all the trimmings, white and dark chocolate swirls as well as a whole Oreo cookie for me and my accomplice. I can proudly declare that I finished and enjoyed every unnecessary bite of mine and similarly plates were licked clean all round. Coffees and whiskey’s (ordered by you know who) rounded of a wonderful night.

And so sums up the Shanahan's experience. An overindulgent gorge-fest, not for the faint hearted. And prices considered, not for every day either. Apparently Shanahan's is and has always been a loss maker. You pay for your steak, but sides are reasonable. At around the E9 mark each, they were portioned to feed a table of eight of us more than comfortably. Mr. R couldn’t even finish his steak. It in fact fed the family as we lived off reminiscent steak sandwiches for days (this is no word of a lie). If your pockets aren’t quite long enough, go to Shanahan’s for a reasonably priced E45 all inclusive lunch. You must be able to afford to take the rest of the day off to recover on the couch mind. Shanahan’s on the Green? Shanahan's on the money I say.