La Belle France
Sensibly priced and quintessentially French, the rustic cuisine served at brilliant bistro La Maison is not to be sniffed at, writes ernie whalley
The town i grew up in was described in a Victorian gazetteer as "ill-built, but of good entertainment". Eighty years later, the entertainment had migrated up the A6 to Manchester, otherwise no change. The town council was known for its slothful attitude and reluctance to spend money to make the town a civilized place to live.
Take the annual water shortage. The tiny reservoir in the hills was insufficient for the town's needs, so every summer brought the local equivalent of the glimmer man round to make sure no one was watering their garden, plus a rash of pamphlets advising citizens to 'Put a Brick in Your Cistern' or 'Take a Bath with a Friend'. Eventually, the corpo built a second reservoir only to find the water level in the original was dropping alarmingly as water from it percolated into the new one.
This sad scenario parallels what often happens when a restaurateur opens a second outlet. All too frequently an immense effort goes into kick-starting the new enterprise, while the original suffers. In a worst-case situation, standards slide at both outlets as the proprietor shuttles between the two. So I was a tad alarmed when I heard that Olivier Quenet, whose culinary flair so impressed me when I reviewed Vaughan's of Terenure a year ago, had taken over La Maison des Gourmets in Castle Market and had, at the same time, retained his former charge.
I met The Lit'ry Chick in Grogan's where I phoned the restaurant -- they don't take bookings -- to say "we're next door". The ground floor was jammers, so we were directed upstairs to a pleasant room about two thirds full.
La Maison, as it's now called, is quintessentially French and authentically rustic French at that. I was surprised to find the menu listed andouillette -- a smoked sausage fashioned, usually, from pig's intestines, a thinner and less offensive version of the foetid andouille. To paraphrase the old saying about playing the accordian, I consider a true gentleman to be a person who could eat andouille but doesn't. The andouillette on the menu is AAAAA -- marked with the approval of the Association Amicale des Amateurs d'Andouillette Authentiques -- so it's the pig's bollocks of these pongy snags.
The waiter/sommelier arrived to guide us through the short but interesting list on which I recognised wines imported by Enrico Fantasia and Charles Derain, ex-sommelier of Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud. Sound thinking. He put in a plea for the Bourgeuil 2004 to which I acceded, only to find it thin and characterless, a thorn among roses. I can only assume they have shedloads down the cellar and your man had been told to shift it.
Lit'ry Chick was quick off the mark and took the asparagus with poached egg and foie gras for starters. I had a nibble and it was everything the ingredients promised. I was very happy with my own plateau des pâtés du jour -- three pâtés and some rillettes with rather good bread. Lit'ry Chick then astounded me by taking the andouillette, which came with wholegrain mustard and fine pommes Lyonnaise. Bravo! I chickened out and had the lamb shank, tender and tasty, accompanied by superb pommes boulangère. We shared a side dish of exceptionally good ratatouille.
Desserts, as expected, pleased. I flirted with the tarte tatin before opting for the French cheese selection, while Lit'ry Chick took a delicious chocolate confection. Coffee was, ah um, say no more but I've learned to expect little from les Français.
There was absolutely no sign of second-restaurant syndrome. La Maison is one brilliant bistro, the kind Dublin needs more of. At last L'Gueuleton has some decent competition in this idiom. Coffee apart, the only negative is you need a large shoehorn to get into the bogs.
Verdict: Nice rooms, caring staff, decent linen and glassware and glorious food at sensible prices.
€105.50 for two starters, two mains, two desserts, bottle of wine.
La Maison, 15 Castle Market, Dublin 2