There will be five kinds of potato, or so it has been foretold. No online menus give a flavour of what's coming when you enter the Members' Restaurant in the Houses of the Oireachtas. Omertà prevails in Dublin's secret dining room, where a table is about as attainable as an Aimsir booking, if you don't have friends in elected places.
Over the years I’ve tried to breach the walls, but I have yet to meet a public representative who wants to bring anyone to lunch who might have a bad word to say. Then serendipity (in the shape of a raffle win) gifts a voucher for a meal for four in the hallowed walls.
You follow the footsteps of hungry folk, grassroots brushed down and lanyarded to be smoothly escorted into the beating heart of the prize where beef is corned and vegetables are medleyed. The Members' Restaurant is the good room for guests. As The Irish Times's Leinster House expert Miriam Lord explained a few years ago, workaday eating happens in the canteen. This good room, in contrast, sits big and bright and mostly empty at the end of a long walk on deep carpet. And there are not five but seven kinds of potato if you count "skinny fries and chunky chips" twice.
Gnarly pasta parcels rapidly cooling to the texture of bath-softened toenails are covered with what can only be described as despair in sauce form
The air of a pricey nursing home where most of the residents are out at aqua aerobics continues in the wine-and-mustard carpet, blue chairs and starched white tablecloths with dark-blue paper toppers for spillage. The milk jugs and sugar bowls and salt and pepper shakers come with orange trim and the official harp. The house wine is labelled with a sketch of the Houses of the Oireachtas elegantly imagined, freed from cars in the city’s most entitled car park.
It’s a menu with multiple personalities. The phrases gluten free, “available vegan” (which sounds like a Tinder listing) sit alongside the chef’s Irish roast of the day (with roast potatoes, natch) and soup. There is something called “smoked avocado dressing” on the vegetarian club sandwich, which makes me yearn for the tang of salad cream and simpler times.
I take refuge in the soup. It’s parsnip but tastes mainly of potato. A smoked-salmon plate is fine, and the jazzier starter of pan-fried prawns with ginger-chilli-and-coriander butter is nicely done.
The best main course is the corned beef. Slices of organ-coloured meat are served with a buttery sauce, in a dish that doesn’t try to be anything it isn’t. The spinach-and-ricotta tortellini is a less fortunate choice. Gnarly pasta parcels rapidly cooling to the texture of bath-softened toenails are covered with what can only be described as despair in sauce form. My sea trout is better, a coating of toasted-almond flakes scattered on top as if to try to provide the crispness of skin that has been lost from the actual skin.
The medley of veg includes two halves of a potato that looks like it might have been peeled a while ago and then boiled so the outer layer turns into a sort of ghost skin. There are sticks of carrots and swedes boiled to barely solid puree.
A “super salad” (which we dub the Micheál Martin special) is made with fresh ingredients and dressed with a lime vinaigrette. There’s quinoa, a smattering of pomegranate seeds, rocket, spinach and watery tomatoes. It’s grand for a metaphor of our globalised world, a dish that makes little sense and leaves you strangely empty inside.
Two apple tarts disappear before I get a chance to try them. I’m too mesmerised by the sharing plate of desserts. It’s a slate (upcycled from the roof?) holding four small, hard plastic containers containing a few mouthfuls of stodge, ranging from lemony to chocolatey to jammy to creamy but mostly sugary. Each pot contains a small hard plastic spoon and the whole shebang has been dusted with icing sugar.
Our sharing plate is a trolley dash through the fancy dessert aisle by a panicked cook whose guests would have loved a calming crumble
Desserts don’t come much more single use than this, a trolley dash through the fancy dessert aisle by a cook whose guests would have loved a calming crumble. It’s worth remembering the next time a member pats a child environmentalist on his or her worried head and tells them they’re fixing stuff.
Most of the main courses are under €10. This is a subsidised good room. If we are what our political grassroots eat, then lunch in the Members’ Restaurant feels strangely rudderless, as if we’re heading towards a future where the bits of land not farmed for infant formula will be sold to international co-living tax-avoidance funds.
The staff – smart and friendly women who make you feel welcome and minded – are the best thing about the place. You can buy a bottle of the house wine for €15 with a gift bag. They sit in a display cabinet alongside a Michael D knitted tea cosy, a strangely comforting sight. The Members’ Restaurant could be a showcase for what we do brilliantly. Instead it feels as if we’re a long way from even beginning to work out what that is.
Lunch for four with a glass of wine would have cost about €90, had we been paying
- Verdict The staff save its score from being lower than 5/10. Forget the food, feel the power
- Facilities Fine
- Food provenance Kish Fish, Gahan and Heaney Meats, Total Produce and Pallas Foods all namechecked
- Music None. Muted TV screens show Leaders' Questions
- Wheelchair access ★★★★★ Fully accessible
- Vegetarian options Grim to middling