New look, same great food at Alexis

Alexis in Dún Laoghaire has had a revamp but its more Botox than a full face-lift, and the results are very impressive, writes…

Alexis in Dún Laoghaire has had a revamp but its more Botox than a full face-lift, and the results are very impressive, writes CATHERINE CLEARY

RESTAURANTS HAVE A life cycle. The good ones are born with a bang and then steadily build a tribe. Then, fairly or unfairly, we forget about them, or get bored with them, or distracted, like magpies, by shiny new ones. If they can ride out the lull in the middle years, nostalgia will bring people back. Otherwise it’s a shark-like move-or-die imperative, and never more so than at the helm of a large, mid-market restaurant.

Alexis Bar and Grill in Dún Laoghaire opened nearly five years ago. The Bar and Grill bit of the name had that nonchalant mid-Atlantic build-it-big and fill-it-up confidence to it. But the feel was more brasserie than steakhouse. The Alexis in question was Alexis Soyer, the 19th-century French forefather of the campaigning celebrity chef figure.

The five-year timeline is important. It’s the span at which a restaurant can start to sag. But it also dates this place firmly in an era when the idea of diners guarding cash like Confirmation money seemed laughable. So the interim years have seen Alexis, like every other mid-range restaurant determined to ride things out, dropping prices and keeping the food reliable.


And now they’ve done a small reinvention. It’s more Botox than a full face-lift: there’s a new chef; more hardcore ingredients (caramelised sweetbreads anyone?); a shift to organic and biodynamic wines; and an attempt to take the big-barn feel off the place, with softer chairs and fewer covers. Nothing to scare the horses, then.

It’s a first visit for me, so I’m not going to miss anything from the previous Alexis. A sign that they’re doing something right was the inability to get a table the first time I rang. So instead I’m here on a quiet Tuesday night.

I’m meeting my brother for a long-overdue sitdown without the band of small nephews. Generous guy that he is, he opts to try the set menu (€25 for three courses) and the à la carte is all mine. The first word that strikes me is “textures”. I’m assuming this is a catchall phrase for foams, jus, purees and lumps of stuff, blended, fried or otherwise transmogrified in the kitchen. The cauliflower in my scallop main (€24.50) is going to be in “texture” form. Yes, some people like menu jargon. But to get away with “textures” they better be good.

The starters come out like an exercise in restaurant presentation. Gavan’s whipped goats’ cheese has been piped into a perfect ice-cream swirl on to a round toast. Pea shoots and peppery purple cress sit on top, alongside a Parmesan tuille. There’s more goats’ cheese in a croquette, and those “textures” are pyramids of beetroot with a sweet nut crumble and a little puddle of beetroot under the croquette. As I type this, I hear it in Lorraine Pilkington’s voice (she’s the narrator of the Irish MasterChef).

This is as cheffy as things come, unapologetically so. More importantly, it’s also delicious. My blue fin tuna carpaccio has been assembled in a small round tower with tiny bits of tuna and avocado, a creamy lid and orange salmon roe, which ping with bursts of briney flavour. It looks beautiful, but is a bit bland in a way that a squeeze of lemon would fix. A small mound of marinated salmon and tiny cubed fresh vegetables, including some of the smallest diced radish I’ve ever seen, are exquisite in a small mouthful kind of way.

Gavan’s duck main course is great; luscious slices of duck fanned over a small bit of spinach and two chunky rectangles described on the menu as pont neuf potatoes. I wonder will diners down tools, look at the waiter when that plate arrives and say, “Really? Just two chips?”, which is how they come, balanced like Jenga blocks, one on top of the other. I think this is fine because the first two chips are always the best. But be warned. Tiny cubes of parsnip each have a doll-sized girolle balanced on top. And it’s all served on a piping hot plate, with a steady hand and a tea towel.

I get six scallops on a cauliflower purée alternated with deep-fried cauliflower florets where the batter tastes moreishly like prawn crackers. Around this is a pea purée and barely-blanched fresh peas. It’s a lovely plate of great, competent cooking.

On the waiter’s recommendation, we get a glass of Syrah (€5.25) and one of Vedeau Sauvignon Blanc (€4.75) to match our main courses. Both are excellent.

Desserts look a little underwhelming. A blackberry and almond tart could fit into a Mr Kipling box. But when I bite into it, the cake is so fresh and well made it’s a joy to eat. A cube of tangy blackberry jelly and some heavy cream are all it needs to sing. Gavan’s tangerine cheesecake is a perfect blend of dense cheese topping and a courageously unsweet tangerine jelly. Some crystalised tangerine skin adds a third, very grown-up dimension.

So the food in the slightly-new Alexis is very good, in a very mannered, cheffy fashion. At the set-menu prices of €19 for two courses and €25 for three, it’s pretty much a steal. My only quibble is the place still feels a bit big-barnish for these times. We like cosy places that give you a little hug of warmth when you walk in and offer you a nook to nest in. Apart from that, there’s nothing else to fault here.

Dinner for two with two glasses of wine, an orange juice, bottled water and two coffees came to €82.30.

Alexis Bar and Grill

17/18 Patrick Street, Dún Laoghaire, tel: 01-2808872

Music: A wide mix from 1980s rock to more recent ballads

Facilities: Pristine, with large flower vases

Wheelchair access: Yes

Coeliac friendly: Dishes are marked with a C symbol.

Food provenance: Good. Scallops come from Kilmore and there is a general commitment to keeping it local

Irish tapas at Cake Cafe

What are Irish tapas? Mostly they're Spanish tapas with a few Irish ingredients, but in Michelle Dermody's Cake Café, behind the Daintree Paper shop on Camden Street in Dublin, they're something special. I went for the €7.80 plate recently, and I wasn't sorry. Luscious chunks of cheeses, dried and cured meats and a couple of chutneys, one with onion and the other with apple, beetroot and raisins so plumped up with beet juice they were more like stone-less cherries. It came with two generous slices of great brown bread and was more a meal than a snack. It's not a venue known for its savoury offerings (for some it'll always be all about the cake), but this was seriously tasty and served on a wine coloured willow-pattern plate for the food-at-granny's feeling.

The Cake Café, 62 Pleasants Place, Dublin 8, tel: 01-4789394