Review: Frères Jacques
The restaurant may be cartoonishly French but there’s nothing funny about its prices
It is a given that the French invented restaurants. But when? The accepted story used to be that restaurants were a by-product of the French Revolution, or so the story goes. When the aristocracy lost their heads, their newly unemployed chefs opened dining rooms for the plain people of Paris.
In his book The Table Comes First, Adam Gopnik draws on the work of (mostly women) historians to debunk that myth. Yes, the French did invent them. But restaurants were born 20 years before the Revolution. The word “restaurant” was an 18th-century term for a dish, not a place. A restaurant was a chicken or beef broth which was served as a health food to fastidious diners who didn’t want to share tables in the beery bowels of a tavern. The first French “restaurants” were the fro-yo bars of their day, prescribed by doctors and safe for women to dine in without being mistaken for an item on the menu.
Dublin’s Les Frères Jacques opened beside the Olympia Theatre on Dame Street in 1986. She has remained solidly there in the ebb and flow of restaurants, bars and Spars that have come and gone. Now silted up around her are a strip of fast food joints aimed at the passing tourist trade. Even Les Frères Jacques seems to have set out her stall to lure tourists with the promise of a two-course €18 lunch.
You go into this restaurant through a side door which heightens the impression of entering Madame’s Good Room. The kitchen is a distant invisible place, although the seafood and fish plate is presented raw by the waiter before you order. The central jewel in this briny crown is a live lobster who twitches when he’s stroked down the length of his exoskeleton.
The room is painted in a cocoa brown, with sepia photographs of French women on the beach in full black crinolines with black umbrellas, family gatherings, food markets and garden parties. Linen curtains finish off the look, and two tablecloths – one white, one beige – are arranged on the empty tables.
Les Frères Jacques has a reputation as an expensive place and when you look down the lunch menu, which is a mirror of the evening offering, you can see why. Yes, there may be a special two- or three-plate deal but there are enough extras to rival a crowd scene from Ben Hur. My native oysters are €10.50 extra. The “signature” dish, sole meunière, is a hefty €15 extra. So an €18 bargain lunch quickly turns into a €43.50 blow-out.
The good news is that wines with a Monday or Tuesday lunch are half price, only by the bottle mind, not by the glass. We choose a bottle of Rully, a French chardonnay which promises a palate of, among other things, “crushed stones, grapefruit, butter and nuts”, which gets a nomination in the Ridiculous Tasting Notes awards for 2013. Despite this, it’s delicious.