Aoife Carrigy takes her mum out for a spot of 'ladies who lunch' in one of Dublin's hottest restaurants and is pleasantly surprised that its male-centric demeanour is quite dashing and the plates are filled with eloquent culinary delights.
Dax is one seriously blokey restaurant. It’s staffed by blokes, either in chefs whites or the cook’s aprons worn by all floor staff including the ever-suave owner, Olivier Meisonnave. The clientele is mostly suited-and-booted blokes, from Baggotonia’s better-appointed offices, and they serve lunch weekdays only except for international rugby Saturdays. At €20 for a typical à la carte starter, this is prime corporate account fare. The cocoon-like basement dining room is quintessential deal-sealing territory, with blinds drawn to the brash daylight, snug corners for extra privacy and that priceless feeling of being in supremely competent hands.
The team at Dax were named Georgina Campbell's Ireland Guide 2018 Restaurant of the Year and Best Restaurant Dublin in the RAI's 2019 Irish Restaurant Awards, where head chef Graham Neville was also named Best Chef in Ireland. In a former life, as head chef at Restaurant FortyOne in Residence, Graham also clinched Best Chef in Ireland at the 2014 FOOD&WINE Restaurant of the Year Awards.
For all these accomplishments, there is a down-to-earth quality about the hospitality here that comes from the top: Olivier is one of the finest maître d’s in town with a welcome that is steadfastly warm and efficient without tipping towards fawning.
He is also a pro who can spot a restaurant critic a mile off, which is why myself and my (most un-blokey) mother found ourselves sampling one of those €20 starters, despite our resolve to stick with the set lunch menu.
We settled in with excellent crusty bread and richly flavoured butter and two glasses of Villa Huesgen Mosel Riesling 2016 (€12.50), chosen from a dozen plus European wines by the glass. The list itself is predominantly French and includes several pages of Grand Cru Bordeaux and Burgundies. Their three-figure prices are somewhat softened by the 20 per cent discount offered on these premium wines, so if you want €160 off a 1998 Château Mouton Rothschild, this is your spot!
To start, my smoked salmon from Annagassan in County Louth came with a simple-sounding pairing of choux pastry and egg yolk emulsion. Its presentation was elaborate, with picturesque garnishes of pickled seaweed, trout caviar, parsley cream and slivered radish providing nuanced support to the delicately smoked fish. As a dish, it was both fresh and luxuriant and it won me over in the first mouthful.
Across from me, a light cream-based broth of cockles, mussels and shrimp displayed the refinement that Graham Neville is such a master of. Every element including the brunoise of just-tender vegetables held its own, while a crescent of caraway seeded pastry offered textural contrast.
Before our mains a complimentary á la carte starter arrived, blowing my attempts at undercover reviewing out through the narrow cracks in those blinds. And what a starter it was... pristine courgette flowers grown by Iona Farm near the Dublin-Meath border stuffed with sweet, meaty Dundalk Bay lobster. A signature dish of Graham’s, this year’s twist is a stratospheric sauce that tastes of spicy, caramelised gingerbread. The smart money would be to pay €20 for this plate of beauty, followed by a set-lunch main and dessert, tallying up to a €49 food bill.
For mains, I had free-range pork belly from the Salter family’s sixth-generation farm in Carlow. It had been skillfully rendered into that flab-free exactitude that allows this oft-abused cut to shine. A nuanced pork stock reduction, inspired red cabbage purée, Hasselback-style broccoli stem and early summer peas were strong ensemble players.
The winning main course was a perfectly pink breast of Moulard duck (the progeny of meaty Mallard and delicate Pekin) with sweet pearl onions and a sauce that layered classic French flavours with Asian overtones of sesame and ginger. Our clever waiter paired this with a cherry-rich Negroamaro Salice de Salentino Riserva 2013 from Sampietrana (€12), while he recommended a silky Cotes du Rhone Villages GSM-blend from St Gayan in Rasteau (€12.50) with my pork.
We finished on two excellent desserts that nailed that balance of rich deep flavours and bright light notes. Opera gateaux’s dark coffee and chocolate flavours were offset by an eye-widening yuzu sorbet with kaffir lime and Thai basil, while a deconstructed vanilla cheesecake featured crumbly shortbread biscuits, aromatic gariguette strawberries and tangy rhubarb ice-cream. We resisted the half-dozen dessert wines available by the glass but it was nice to know they were there.
Graham Neville has just completed a three-year term as Commissioner General of Eurotoques Ireland, a community of chefs and cooks whose remit is ‘to preserve Irish culinary heritage by supporting traditional cooking methods and promoting producers of local and seasonal artisan products’.
At Dax, those principles translate into exemplary local sourcing and some of the most confident and innovative culinary creativity on this island. With shiny new restaurants opening all the time, it’s wonderful to see this team of consummate professionals quietly doing their brilliant thing. As with most restaurants of this standard, the set menu is an affordable way to sample highly skilled cooking with flashes of flair – but if you can afford to splurge, the tasting menu (€120 for five courses with wine pairings) is the way to go.
The bottom line
Our bill for two came to €130 before a tip for a three-course set lunch (€35), two glasses of wine each, a bottle of sparkling water and two espressos.
23 Upper Pembroke St, Dublin 2
Author: Aoife Carrigy
Aoife’s first proper work experience (if you don’t count a formative stint as the milkman’s assistant) was a TY placement as commis chef in The Wishbone in Glasthule, where she caught the restaurant bug. From her teens and through her 20s she worked front-of-house in restaurants around Dublin and beyond, before a freelance gig as restaurant columnist for the Dublin Event Guide and then Totally Dublin turned into a five-year full-time editorial stint in FOOD&WINE Magazine. She has been freelance since 2010 and keeps herself busy co-writing and editing cookbooks as well as writing on food, drinks and travel. Aoife is WSET-trained and is currently researching a Masters on ‘Cultural Representations of the Irish Pub’ at TU Dublin.