The Emerald Isle is experiencing such an unprecedented economic boom that, in Europe at least, it has been dubbed the Celtic Tiger. One thing's for certain: this feline has an appetite to match his wide, prosperous grin. In Dublin, there are three places that make him lick his whiskers with particular relish.
New World Tastes
On the fringes of Dublin's hipper-than-hip Temple Bar area, near the city's theaters and concert halls, sits the Mermaid Café. In a storefront, with windows on two sides and a great view of Dublin Castle, the slightly austere premises accommodate about 40 diners at plain wooden tables. No fripperies here; the whole budget goes into the food, though the service is attentive and the room pretty in its way. Co-owner Benedict Gorman trained with Sonia Blech, whose celebrated London restaurant, Mijanou, was the gastronomic hangout of Thatcher-era politicians. Even if I hadn't spotted Gorman in the kitchen, I would have recognized some of Mijanou's signature touches: dark bread flavored with olives, salty ham, and Parmesan; a penchant for wild rice; an idiosyncratic use of nuts; and near-caramelized grilled fennel as a garnish. There were echoes of Blech in the desserts, too: hot, soufflé-like chocolate cake with vanilla and pistachio sauce; aromatic vanilla and coffee ice cream served with almond-studded tuile cookies.
But Gorman is his own man, and he gives Irish ingredients a distinctly New World treatment. The most celebrated dish?New England crab cakes with a piquant mayonnaise. Another trademark is char-grilled ribeye steak. The Old World is also given its due with chunky smoked-mackerel rillettes on crisp blini, rare roast pigeon breast on a heap of hazelnut-scented celeriac, and wild-mushroom and black-truffle risotto. The star entrée was roast rib of pork, glazed with spicy plum sauce and served with mustardy mashed potatoes.
The Mermaid has the best New World wine selection in all Ireland— and at fair prices. We started with a pungent Vallania Pinot Bianco 1995, whose acidic twist made it an appropriate choice both as an aperitif and as an accompaniment to the first course. Salishan Pinot Noir 1992, from Washington State, is delicate enough to drink with the most subtle fish.
Top of the Pops
The Tea Room, Dublin's temple to gustatory pleasure, is housed in the Clarence Hotel. Yes, the very one bought and renovated by the rock group U2. (No wonder hotel guests have to compete with Dubliners for dinner reservations.) This hot spot du jour is close enough to be counted as part of Temple Bar, and the décor doesn't miss a beat. High ceilings rise over a mosaic-and-marble bar, taupe banquettes, and blond-wood tables— a seamless chic threatened only by the electric blue light that projects onto the tall windows on the restaurant's Essex Street side. This halogen glow makes you feel you've stayed too long no matter what time it actually is, so sit with your back to it and study the other diners— Japanese designers, well-heeled rock stars, and smart Dubliners out for a glam evening.
At the Tea Room even the food, piled high on white plates, looks as if it's been arranged by an art director. And artistry carries over into Dublin-born chef Michael Martin's winsome variations on basic brown sauce: a swirl of chocolate-colored teriyaki infused with sesame, surrounding a kebab of salmon; "cannon" of lamb in an artful brown sauce that manages to retain the flavors of both lamb and walnut; crisp-skinned confit of duck in a velvety gravy redolent of Chinese five-spice powder.
Dessert is taken just as seriously. Order the chocolate fondant— a bitter, dark, gooey baked tart. That and the vibrant lemon-and-orange pastry, topped by orange-blossom ice cream and almond sauce, are alone worth the trip. The wine list is of the usual good-value Dublin sort: it includes a Diablo Chardonnay from Chile as well as a light red Spanish Guelbenzu.
The white, high-ceilinged room of Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud can be reached from the lobby of the new Merrion Hotel. Dublin is proud of Guilbaud for two reasons: because its two Michelin stars prove that this is a sophisticated food city; and because, nearly always full, it supports the claim that Dublin is rich enough for such a lavish enterprise.
Billed as "modern classic cuisine," the ornate French dishes are concocted by longtime head chef Guillaume Lebrun using such Irish bounty as Connemara lobster, Dublin Bay prawns, Wicklow venison, and wild duck. My table began with tartare of salmon, which tasted strongly of raw onion. A trio of king scallops from Bantry Bay were perfectly pan-fried— crisp on the outside and almost buttery within— but any good cook who gets hold of diver scallops can turn out this dish, and it needn't cost $22. As for the lobster ravioli, its sauce of coconut cream and olive oil infused with curry was too saccharine for such sweet flesh.
By contrast, a just-chewy, thin escalope of fresh, peppery monkfish, served with Lebrun's hazelnut mashed potatoes, was a hit, and my salad had a scrumptious dressing. Unfortunately, the rabbit cooked three ways— braised, pan-fried, and roasted— was more interesting to look at than to eat. Dessert, a sensational fresh fig tart on a triumphantly crisp pastry base, made up for a lot.
Given the expectations raised by the elegant room, it was hard not to feel let down by Guilbaud. Still, food lovers will no doubt continue to visit this Dublin institution. At times, it does live up to its two-star rating, thus helping to ensure that the Celtic Tiger need never go hungry.
These days mussels are a great deal more common in Dublin's fair city than cockles, and oysters are to be found mainly in bars and pubs. Dublin still lacks an upscale place where you can sample the rich variety of local seafood. When you do manage to find a source of oysters, however, the local custom is to down them with a pint of nearly black Guinness, Dublin's own dry-style stout, top-fermented, and made from highly roasted malts. In Dublin, Guinness tastes different (less bitter; smoother and creamier) than it does even in London, perhaps because it isn't pasteurized for shipping. Some prefer the toastier, maltier (and, I think, sweeter) Murphy's Irish Stout, which, like the slightly chocolaty Beamish Genuine Stout, is brewed in Cork.
Mermaid Café 69— 70 Dame St.; 353-1/670-8236; dinner for two $70.
Tea Room Clarence Hotel, 6— 8 Wellington Quay; 353-1/670-7766; dinner for two $90.
Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud 21 Merrion St.; 353-1/676-4192; dinner for two $150, including service.