It’s summer, or at least we hope so. The sun blinking out from behind leaden sheaths of clouds is filling the streets of Dublin with the hum of happy people. Stanley Tucci is in town too, I read, spreading the news of a certain brand of gin. The joys of a cold cocktail on a warm day. But the mood feels more like his classic negroni, or a sbagliato with prosecco in it, a cocktail that went viral on TikTok after it was name-checked by House of the Dragon star Emma D’Arcy.
There are negronis, but no sbagliatos on the drinks list of La Maison’s fine outdoor terrace in Castle Market, in central Dublin, although it’s very likely that they would be an option. First opened in 2001 by Breton chef Olivier Quenet, it now has an Italian co-owner, Giorgio Urbani, a former director of GiGi’s restaurant in Ranelagh. But apart from some cocktails and Italian wines, it is Français all the way. It’s spiffed up, but still looks very much like the original. Cathal Dunne, who previously worked there as head chef before stints in Mulberry Garden and Balfe’s, is back in the kitchen.
I had eaten a very fine lunch in La Maison last year, celebrating a friend’s milestone birthday and had it earmarked for a return visit. Recently, a food pal mentioned it in passing and there it was, right back up at the top of my list.
It’s the sort of four-starter, four-main-course formula menu you would see in France
An early booking gets me in neatly before the clock has struck 6.15pm, the cut-off time for the early-bird menu. It runs five days a week, Tuesday to Sunday, with the exception of Saturdays, and is so competitively priced, with two courses for €32.50 or three for €39, that it’s more startling than the break in the weather.
It’s the sort of four-starter, four-main-course formula menu you would see in France. Soup du jour is one of the options and learning that it is French onion soup, my chapeau is duly thrust into the more affordable ring. Water is offered, a request for tap water is unperturbed by flinches, and a wooden board with sliced baguette, good pesto and two giant olives lands on the table.
The French onion soup comes in the classic white ceramic crock, the molten Gruyère cheese dripping from the croutons into the tasty beef stock which is thickly laden with slow-cooked onions. It simply has to be eaten scalding, despite warnings. Have you truly had the soupe a l’oignon experience if you haven’t put it to the lava test?
Grilled asparagus with a poached egg coated in golden breadcrumbs is good, if a little under-seasoned, although there’s salt and pepper on the table. The egg yields to release the soft yolk which oozes across the plate to meet the mustardy mayo, making a nice sauce for the French asparagus.
The roast cod is cooked precisely, golden yet not a minute over, sitting on top of the savoury sweetness of peperonata, accompanied by a breadcrumb-encrusted globe of brandade
For main course, we’ve chosen cod and confit duck, which has presented us with a bit of a wine dilemma. The lightest French red, a Pinot Noir, is €68, which just feels a bit spendy for an early-bird outing, so it’s a Domaine des Anges Grenache and Syrah blend (€43), which, as expected, works better with the duck than the fish.
The roast cod is cooked precisely, golden yet not a minute over, sitting on top of the savoury sweetness of peperonata, accompanied by a breadcrumb-encrusted globe of brandade. A generous side order of house-cut fries (€5.50) is nicely done, although not taken to triple-cooked glory. The skin of the duck is crispy and properly rendered, served on a restrained pomme purée and flanked with Puy lentils and morteaux sausage.
Dessert is a perfect crème brulée, served in a low-sided brown ramekin so that there’s plenty of glassy caramel to shatter. The cheese option is a mere €3 supplement and includes Camembert, Gruyère, Cashel Blue and a goat’s cheese, which perhaps would have benefited from a little time longer out of the fridge.
La Maison can be pricey if you go à la carte, and the wine list needs a bit of work at the more affordable end. But as an early-bird menu, it scores highly, not just for its unfussy French classics and value, but also for the wonderful service from the manager, Cian Waters. This menu is an absolute bargain.
Dinner for two with a bottle of wine was €129.50.
The verdict: A delicious and affordable early-bird menu.
Music: A very fine busker across the street; be sure to tip him.
Food provenance: Kish Fish, Pat McLoughlin and John Stone meat, French duck from La Rousse Foods, and vegetables from Gold River Farm and Caterway.
Vegetarian options: One starter and main course option, for example burrata and potato gnocchi Provençale.
Wheelchair Access: Accessible room with no accessible toilet.