Saturday, December 5, 2009

Chapter One, where indulgence is good

It was one of those great indulgent nights when you’d almost expect to wake up with gout never mind a hangover, but I woke the morning after our feast at Chapter One with neither. I can only attribute this to the excellence of the food and drink we’d consumed because, despite our indulgence, it’s just impossible to feel bad about something this good.

I also put it down to the superb company I was in that night; fellow gourmands who know when it’s neither the time nor the place for restraint. Briefly among the company also was the man himself, chef-proprietor Ross Lewis, who treated us to a tour of his newly revamped kitchen and, very generously, to two extra courses during our three and half hour repast.

The kitchen and the food that comes out of it are a testament to Lewis’ consummate professionalism and ability as a restaurateur. It is as aesthetically appealing as it is efficient in producing its world-class dishes. Tranquil and spotless, it turns out plate after plate of perfect food under the gaze of diners at the chef’s table and, of course, under the constant watchful eye of Lewis himself.

Food is the star at Chapter One. The cooking is classical, although with unique personality, and designed always to allow the ingredients to take centre stage. Flare is used to showcase produce, every ingredient to enhance the diner’s enjoyment of the dish. No needlessly complicated embellishments, nothing to distract from the quality of the food.

Knowing what we were preparing for and to do justice to the best of Irish cuisine, we spent a long time considering the wine list, with assistance from the very good humoured restaurant manager Declan Maxwell. To start off, the most experienced gourmand among us selected a developed gewurztraminer from Zind Humbrecht, as an aperitif to oil the wheels as we began the more serious deliberations.

It’s a good complaint when you want everything on the menu, but with the long journey ahead I thought it best to select lighter courses thereby allowing me to fit more in. And of course, I would inevitably dip into my companions’ plates too.

With breads selected – I opted for crusty white soda – and the last of our gewurtz slipping down nicely, the first amuse bouche arrived. A pretty arrangement of clams in a lively caper dressing with overnight oven-dried tomatoes and a few other morsels from the end of summer’s crop, it was the perfect opener for the seasonal feast on its way.

Next came Lewis’ beloved organic Irish sweetcorn soup, with a delicate little cepe tortellini at the centre and drizzle of cepe-scented olive oil on top. Sunshine in a bowl. From the vibrant yellow colour to the sweet and nutty flavours, the soup is a celebration of the early autumn. And it was as refreshing to hear Lewis talk so enthusiastically about his sweetcorn supplier, whose stock has already been blanched, removed from the cobs and carefully frozen to provide the basis of delicious stocks and soups for the next number of months. His delight in the wonderful produce translated perfectly into the delightfulness in our bowls.

At this point we took a quick pause to order a white wine for the approaching starter and fish courses; a densely mineral sauvignon blanc from the Chablis region which served as the perfect foil for the richness of my companions’ options, and a crisp, fruity compliment to my Langoustine spring roll with red pepper purée in the Basque style and basil oil.

My starter was indeed as good as it sounds but more interesting again was the charcuterie selection being dished up with great ceremony to my left. A tender and meaty piece of strongly smoked venison, which was deep crimson in colour, melty cured ham, moreish black pudding and velvety fois gras on toasted brioche held our attention as it was carefully plated up. To my right, some golden roasted quail with a white truffle and honey glaze appeared, served on a bed of gratinated peas and girolle mushrooms in a smoked bacon cream, lifted by some aged sherry vinegar.

Our plates were each returned empty, but not before we’d all sampled the glorious trolley and passed bites of juicy prawn in its smooth red pepper purée, and rich quail with creamy trimmings, around the table several times.

Once more the plates were cleared, new cutlery was laid, and we arrested to choose a suitable wine for the main course. We had two fish and one red meat on the way, so we opted for a pinot noir; a very lovely Mercurey 1er Cru ‘Les Ruelles’ 2004 from Château de Chamirey, which was opened to breath while we tended our next course.

Out came cod with a cassoulet of Morteau sausage, chopped green olives and fresh coco paimpol beans, fennel purée, and sauté queen scallops, compliments of the chef. The dish, which appears on the menu as a main course, was extremely tasty, and both fish and scallop alike were cooked to perfection. Again, the food was pretty as a picture but, more importantly, put together in such a way that you easily could construct good, greedy forkfuls, without necessarily appearing like a glutton.

At last we reached our fifth and main courses. So far we were all still in fine form, clearing plate after plate with no leftovers and plenty of room for more. My halibut with aubergine purée, basil and tomato, roast violet artichokes, and Dublin Bay brown shrimp was a delicious mix of late summer produce and Mediterranean flavours to enliven the moist white fish and sweet little shrimp. I was more than happy with our choice of Burgundy along side this dish, as were my companions next to hake in a red pepper glaze and rib of Aberdeen Angus beef with acidulated onion and sage compote.

What a pleasure to be served one course after another in the knowledge that each will be as perfect as the last, so all you have to do sit back and enjoy. Service was neither intrusive nor under-attentive, but friendly and helpful, making sure we got the most from our experience.

With the main part of our meal behind us we decided to share a single dessert in order to save room for some good Irish cheeses afterwards. Warm chocolate mousse, orange and campari jelly with coffee cream and vanilla ice cream was actually enough for the three of us – although, truth be told, I would gladly have been a glutton and got the lime parfait, pineapple and orange salad and coconut emulsion as well – and it lived up to the high praise from other diners in the restaurant.

After quick deliberations we decided on a plate of five cheeses including Durrus, Munster, and Glebe Brethan, and manager Declan Maxwell generously offered to add any further cheeses we might like to try. To top it off, we enjoyed a bottle of Rioja compliments of the chef, to quaff with our cheese and quince paste.

Finally we rounded off the meal with a selection of handmade chocolates, toffees and nougat, which we nibbled over a digestif of assorted Irish whiskeys; 12-year-old and 18-year-old Jameson and the very fine Jameson Crested Ten.

Our excellent hosts poured us out of the restaurant some three and a half hours after we came in, to go home and think about the feast we’d just had for days to come. Chapter One is everything you hope for from a fine dining restaurant, and everything I hope for from an Irish restaurant. Food is always front and centre in this establishment, and the customer’s pleasure is its ultimate goal.

Review, 5th December 2009

Chapter One

Basement of Writers Museum
18 - 19 Parnell Square
Dublin 1

T: 01 8732266

Open for lunch from Tuesday to Friday 12.30pm to 2.00pm, and for dinner from Tuesday to Saturday 6.00pm to 11.00pm

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