For a number of years our annual staycation around Ireland was anchored by one unchangeable element - a visit to Gregans Castle hotel in Clare. The hotel was - and continues to be - a beacon of excellent hospitality and superb attention to detail, and a high point was always the amazing cooking of Mickael Viljanen. With Mickael's departure to Dublin in 2012, David Hurley took up the reins in the kitchen of Gregans, and return visits have shown his cooking to be at least the equal of Mickael's.
Oddly though, despite my admiration of Mr Viljanen's cooking, and despite his new location, Dublin's Greenhouse Restaurant, being on my ‘most want to eat there’ list each year, I’ve never gotten to eat in The Greenhouse - until my mum suggested a day trip to Dublin on the train and 'would you know of anywhere we could have a nice lunch?' I would indeed!
The three course lunch at €32.00 must be one of the bargains of the city, and I promised myself that that’s what we’d have. But, once we got there, seated with a glass of Prosecco in that lovely, elegant, unpretentious room, I slipped into a kind of comfort zone that Mickael must have bottled in the Burren and has oozing out of some hidden scent diffusers, and there just didn’t seem to be any point in not ordering the five course tasting menu. Mum just went along with it.
Roast foie gras with blood orange and liquorice was a sumptuous way to kick off and set the tone for the parade of flavours and technical virtuosity that was to follow. Tartare of salmon with avocado, horseradish, oyster and Indonesian dressing was presented in proper tartare style and studded with slivers of radish. It was a great 'freshen up' for the palate after the rich opening course though I confess I wasn’t a great fan of the horseradish snow - it was a little too tricksy for me, and a little too shockingly cold, but the dish was otherwise excellent.
Turbot with fennel and cockles had nothing tricksy at all about it; it was just a superb piece of fish, perfectly cooked, the creamy turbot wonderfully matched to the clean taste of fennel and the gentle salty kick from the cockles - the kind of perfectly tuned balance that is the hallmark of Mickael's cooking. Another hallmark is the way he connects his menus: each dish is just a chapter in the overall story - a story that is threaded together with connected ingredients and components as surely as the characters in a riveting book.You can’t learn this, because it's simply elemental, instinctual, a kind of alchemy.
Short rib of beef with bone marrow, snails, celeriac, shallots and celery brought us to the meat of our lunch. It was as rich and unctuous a dish as it sounds, and in many hands it could have been overwhelming - too heavy, too filling, a deal-breaker for dessert - but it wasn’t. The celeriac and the celery kept the balance just right, the snails offering that same gentle salty offset to keep the juices flowing. ‘Imagine’ said my mother, ‘not a potato in sight.’ She declared she wouldn’t eat for the rest of the week. Then the dessert arrived - a beautiful bar of chocolate and caramel with lovage, scattered with some sea salt. What’s not to love about a chocolate caramel bar? It was utterly gorgeous, the faint hint of aniseed from the lovage connecting this satisfying course all the way back to the opening foie gras with it’s liquorice slick, a thread of flavours that led us all the way along: liquorice with the foie gras picked up by the oyster and Indonesian dressing with the salmon, picked up and carried by the fennel and the cockles with the turbot, picked up again by the snails,the celeriac and the celery with the beef and now wonderfully bookended by the simple understanding of what you can do with lovage and a sprinkle of sea salt.
Some handmade truffles from a lacquered box and some tiny portions of carrot cake brought this triumphant lunch to an end. A really nice Gruner Veltliner from Hirsch worked well as a single bottle choice for a tasting menu.
As we got ready to leave, Mickael strolled out of the kitchen, shy and quiet, as always. ‘That was some amazing cooking’, I said. ‘As long as you enjoyed your lunch, that’s what's important’, he said. We did indeed, Mickael.
Photographs by Eamon Barrett.
Dawson St, Dublin 2 www.thegreenhouserestaurant.ie Tel: (01) 676 7015