Dax, Dublin: accomplished French fare
The cooking style at Dax marries well with Irish ingredients such as blackface Achill Island lamb
- 23 Pembroke St Upper
- (01) 6761494
The blackface sheep of Achill Island are built to cling to one of the windiest edges of the edge of Europe. In hippy Afghan-length fleeces they set their faces to the wind and graze on hummocky patches of herbs and grasses washed in the salt-laden Atlantic blasts.
I’m eating blackface lamb in Dax on Upper Pembroke Street in Dublin, a place almost as far from wild mountainsides as you can get here. If knowing the lamb belly once had a black face (oh so cute) might be too much information, don’t look at the photograph on the restaurant website until you’ve eaten, with long pauses between mouthfuls to savour the experience.
Achill islanders Edward Johnston, who is a solicitor in Dublin, and vet John Corrigan supply restaurants with blackface lamb from July to December. In this basement restaurant, it’s offered as a curve of the silkiest belly meat rolled and served on minted pea puree. There are milky clumps of Knockalara sheep’s cheese scattered like sea foam over the dark meat. Even the fat on this lamb is swoon-worthy. It’s food that tells you all you need to know about what makes meat delicious. (Not a bland diet fed to an animal standing indoors.)
The decade since Dax (named after the Aquitaine village of restaurateur Olivier Meisonnave) opened has had more than its share of hairy moments. Aside from the wider economy, there’s the stuff of stomach-churning 4am dread for restaurateurs: you’ve set up your restaurant, the customers like it, but what happens if your chef decides to set up their own place?
That happened to Meisonnave this year when head chef Conor Dempsey moved after seven years to set up his own place, Amuse on Dawson Street in Dublin. Another Conor (O’Dowd) replaced him in the kitchen. We hear all this from Meisonnave because it’s hard to slip past him and into my seat at a corner table with an old friend unnoticed. Three years ago Meisonnave and I spent five spirit-sapping hours at a table on plastic chairs in a fake restaurant tasting tepid food cooked by Masterchef contestants. Yes, I know, poor us. But there’s a legacy of instant face recognition from our brief time as reality TV hostages.
We’re in the dog days of summer and it’s quiet at lunch but there’s no sign the kitchen is taking anything easy. My friend gets lots of life advice over his smooth, creamy butternut squash soup dressed with a butter-fried sage leaf standing proudly in the middle. It’s a reminder of what a champion vegetable it is and how worthwhile it is to battle the hard skin to get to the sweet flesh. My salad is white peach with quivering quarters of Toonsbridge mozzarella and Iberico ham ticking all the flavour and texture boxes of salt, sweet and creamy.
Then there’s that luscious lamb and across the table some sea trout, a thick, pale pink fillet of lovely fish, cooked skin crisp and sprinkled with brown shrimps. The red wine sauce isn’t overpowering and there’s a bed of just-wilted spinach leaves to bring it all together.
A toasted meringue dessert is a can-I-lick-the-bowl childhood memory of uncooked meringue piped onto the plate and then blow-torched crisp on top. I get a panna cotta as smooth as a solicitor’s brass nameplate sprinkled with sliced strawberries and happy-making chunks of honeycomb.
Dax has weathered a tough climate and the loss of its chef impressively. It does the high-end cooking that involves following seasons and ingredients. Our lunch is €26 for three courses. From this month, it will be €24.50 for two courses and €29.50 for three.
The Verdict: 7/10 Dax, 23 Pembroke Street Upper, Dublin 2 tel: 01 676-1494
Food provenance: Good. Knockalara cheese, Castledermot beef, Clogherhead crab and that Achill lamb
Vegetarian options: Imaginative
Wheelchair access: No
Verdict: Who says business lunches have to be bland?