Review: A Pre-theatre restaurant that stages a real treat

Hugo’s looks like a blast from the past but its impressive food is more about the future

Sat, Oct 14, 2017, 06:15

   

Hugo's

  • French

It’s difficult to take anything seriously when it’s written in cartoon script. That’s my excuse for taking so long to discover Hugo’s. It’s a restaurant masquerading as a coffee shop on Dublin’s Merrion Row all cheery breezy blue outside with its name in loopy “aw shucks don’t mind us at all” lettering.  

But inside Hugo’s is a whole different ball of wool. It’s wallpaper and good napkins, oils in gilt frames and waiters in shin length white aprons and black waistcoats. We are as far from open kitchens, filament bulbs, tattoos and T-shirts as it is possible to get in this town. 

Old school front of house with great cooking at a democratically reasonable price

So far so atmospheric. But nostalgia gets a bit warped when we start hankering after something that never existed. Yes, Dublin had its golden age of restaurants but these typically came with heart-stopping bills and were peopled by cigar-chomping men ordering well done steaks. Old school front of house with great cooking at a democratically reasonable price was a more rarely sighted creature. 

So Hugo’s is more about the future than the past. It has a young woman at the helm. Margaret Roche is the head chef. Her culinary CV includes a three year stint at Alain Roux’s Waterside Inn in Bray, the English town that is also home to Heston’s Fat Duck. 

We’re here for an early bite. We are, almost, the youngest people in the room. Proof that the early bird is actually the stamping ground of the elder bird. Their days of homework supervision while stirring the pasta, or staying late at the office to avoid homework supervision while stirring the pasta, are happily in the past. 

Roche gets the thing that a lot of mid-range restaurants miss in their rush to tick trend boxes and buy job lots of slates and squeezy bottles. She mines the rich seam of Irish dairy for her luxury ingredients, freeing cheese from its worthy but dull slot on the cheeseboard and sprinkling it like fairy dust over lots of simple but truly tasty things. 

So there’s a puff pastry galette so fresh and light it needs to be smothered in Breda Maher’s creamy Cooleeney brie to stop it from taking flight. Caper berries have been sliced open to reveal pale innards like baby figs, if figs were salty and tangy. There’s a fluffy dill-laced cream cheese here too and toasted hazelnuts for crunch. The prosciutto is nearly an afterthought. This would work just as well without it. An obligatory handful of rocket tastes garden fresh rather than bag-weary. 

The mackerel has a Tayto crisp skin but its flesh is soft, not leathery as this humble hero fish is so often served

Anne gets the grilled mackerel, a beautiful plate with puddles of Velvet Cloud sheep’s milk yoghurt spooning a sorrel puree and all finished off with discs of perfect pickled beetroot. The mackerel has a Tayto crisp skin but its flesh is soft, not leathery as this humble hero fish is so often served. 

There’s the briefest of lulls between starters and mains (important if you’re hoping to make curtain up) and the big plates come, similarly impressive without any finger pointing or reverential explanations.

This food speaks for itself. My beet risotto is Barbie pink, light and expertly flavoured. On this rolling mound of brightness pea shoots are arranged in pretty arches and those sweetshop yellow and candy cane beets pickled and dotted around the whole plate. Cloudy clumps of Fivemiletown goats cheese stop the whole thing from getting too sweet. It’s a love song to summer. There’s a spatchcocked chicken spiced with warm nutty flavours and served with fresh leaves, clumps of ripe avocado and washboard slices of charred sweetcorn. 

Dessert is a drumroll moment. We have bad dessert history. Two restaurant kitchens wound up their aprons and turned us away when we tried to order and the last one might as well have. Hugo’s breaks the juju, by a whisker. My dessert is a deconstructed chocolate mousse trifle with salted caramel, house-made peanut butter ice cream and real nuts for crunch. 

An exotic fruit Eton Mess has less meringue than the dessert jinx queen would like. Her spoon keeps going through the fluffy cream hoping for the soft crunch of meringue and getting the clink of bowl. 

“Swap?”

“No I’m enjoying it,” she insists. 

“What, the martyrdom?”  

It’s a small wrinkle in a pretty flawless meal. Pre-theatre was a life raft during the recession when lunch was pushed into early evening and cash-strapped diners could still eat out before heading home to a box set. Old and new schools are combined brilliantly here. Hugo’s has atmosphere in spades teamed with a proper kitchen talent. It’s the happy marriage for which Dublin’s theatre culture has been waiting. Hugo’s is like the Trocadero, with much better food. 

Dinner for two with two glasses of wine and a mint tea €76.50 

Verdict: 8/10 An old fashioned place with new-fashioned cooking. 

Hugo’s Restaurant and Wine Bar, 6 Merrion Row. (01) 676 5955

Facilities: Downstairs with nifty gender graphics.
Food Provenance: Blessed are those cheesemakers. Cooleeney, Fivemiletown and Velvet Cloud get top billing. 
Vegetarian options: Good.
Music: Background.
Wheelchair access: No.

PESTO POWER

My box garden has given us buckets of tarragon and lovage which make a nifty pesto but I can’t bring myself to part with the cash they’re charging for pine nuts these days. Instead I toasted some sunflower seeds on a dry pan with a splash of soya sauce and use these as the nutty base with the herbs, a splash of olive oil and some elbow action with my mortar and pestle. The result was delicious spread on haddock before a quick roasting. Pesto without the penury.