Alan O’Reilly is a chef known for what he puts on the plate, not from television or brand associations, so his name is perhaps less familiar than some. He is all about the classics, most notably the bistrotheque movement, which started in Paris and surfaced in London when the Galvin brothers opened their wonderful Galvin Bistrot de Luxe in 2005. At the time, the boom in Ireland was getting boomier, air-traffic controllers were on permanent helicopter alert, and change from a €100 note on a night out was a rare thing.
Sensing that not everyone had pockets the size of a Galway Races tent, O’Reilly and his brother Patrick opened Alexis Bar and Grill in Dún Laoghaire in 2007, unleashing a stampede across pink Hummers for keenly priced bistro food. It wasn’t the first time O’Reilly had trotted out terrines, feuilletés and cassoulets: he has been in the game for quite a while, notably at Morels in Glasthule, in south Co Dublin, and has had a number of restaurants since Alexis closed its doors.
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In November he opened Laurel, a smart restaurant above Kelly & Coopers pub in Blackrock. A double-height atrium, white-linen-clad tables and squishy banquettes have smartened it up no end. Paula Patz, formerly of Pichet, Glas and Forest & Marcy, is the head chef in the semi-open kitchen.
While the menu is not quite in the vein of Alexis’s, three courses will set you back just a shade over €50, which is pretty impressive these days, and the accessible wine list has more than a handful of bottles below €40, and 10 by the glass. Word is that it’s getting a few cooler, low-intervention additions.
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Three types of bread and miso butter arrive at our table, followed by an artichoke amuse bouche, which is a tasty bite with our Alba Vega Albarino (€35). We follow with St Tola goat’s cheese creme brulee (€12.50), which piles on to the fine barley crackers nicely. The beef tartare (€15.50) with a raw quail’s egg comes with dabs of mayo, slices of radish and curls of spring onion, but somehow it’s a little bit pallid.
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I had been looking forward to the braised black sole with leek and langoustine (€28), expecting it to be served as a fillet, dressed modestly with a crustacean beurre blanc. What arrives is a far cheffier interpretation. The fillet, which has been filled with a langoustine mousse, has been rolled and braised in a fish stock, and served with a leek and prawn ragout and a rich langoustine sauce, and topped with a kataffi-clad langoustine. I would happily have saved them all the trouble of this work for something simpler.
Similarly, the roasted free-range chicken (€26) has been through a transformation. The legs and breast have been deboned, reassembled and wrapped in the skin, cooked in a water bath and finished with butter for a roasted golden hue. Clearly, the goose liver was not included in the tweakment package, and the veins, visible in its lightly salted flesh, are unpleasant, as is the level of cooking of the lobe, which is blood-heat warm and not caramelised on the outside.
But these are perhaps minor blips on a stormy winter’s evening, when largesse is what wins the heart, as sides of buttery mash and cubed roast potatoes land on the table. There is plenty of eating here, so much so that you may struggle to find room for dessert. But a blackberry cheesecake with sorbet (€10) is a refreshing end to our meal, and a plate of petits fours arrives when we ask for the bill. If you prefer to finish with cheese, you will find it is the same price as a dessert.
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Laurel is all about generosity, great service and very reasonable prices. I can see why it’s so popular in this neighbourhood, offering a very comfortable space for a special night out – there’s a birthday across the room and a family dinner beside us.
Some of the dishes are complicated, verging on overwrought, and I’m wondering if this is because much of the prep is done in advance, with dishes requiring just a minimal level of finishing when they are ordered. I have no problem with this logic as long as the outcome is good, and clearly this is not a place driven by short cuts. The menu I had is soon to change, which may just bring a simpler and lighter approach as spring arrives.
Dinner for two with a bottle of wine was €127.
THE VERDICT: A keenly-priced neighbourhood restaurant
Music: Amy Winehouse, Supertramp, The Doors, and Grace Jones, played at an enthusiastic level
Food provenance: The Catch Fishmongers, Harry Buckley meat, Wild Irish Game, La Rousse
Vegetarian options: Starters of goat’s cheese brûlée, and celeriac with pickled shimeji and hazelnuts; main course of gnocchi with pumpkin seed pesto; vegan options on request.
Wheelchair access: The Laurel menu can be served downstairs, where the room is accessible, with an accessible toilet