She’s my oldest friend but it’s looking like I might have to ditch her. We’re jinxed. A series of misadventures the last time we met for dinner led to one of the worst meals of the year.
Now we’re sitting in bucket chairs looking at an empty menu with a piece of paper clipped to the front like an afterthought. It lists pulled pork and a pancake for dessert. “Do you have any other food?” we ask the barman in Dakota on Dublin’s South William Street. “No, that’s all we have,” he shrugs. It’s not even 7pm. We’ve got ourselves some bad juju here.
The night started out with a gastropub in mind, but the jinxed friend has been. Nothing special, it seems. And my phone changed gastropub to gastrointestinal when I was sending the “let’s meet here” text, which seemed like a message of sorts. Plan B was dark, empty and looked about as promising as a dentist’s waiting room. Then the cupboard in plan C was bare.
This is how we end up standing outside La Maison on Dublin’s Castle Market. La Maison is a wallpaper restaurant in this corner of Dublin where a shiny new venture seems to pop up like bubbles in a shook-up Prosecco.
It’s as if it’s always been there, sprouting a cramped little lean-to out front for summer evening people watching. Tonight there’s an all-night €26 early bird which puts it into the same price range as a bar meal.
And so the world is set to rights again as we sit down in the high-ceilinged upstairs room on lipstick red leather banquette and bentwood chairs. There’s a crisp white linen tablecloth on the table and jazz standards on the sound system.
We get a small wooden board with springy brown sourdough (a reminder that this little place started out as a beautiful French bakery) and a lemony and garlicky tapenade with a teaspoon to slather it on the bread. Nothing is new-fangled (except an occasional slate). A couple of ingredients feature for their cheapness rather than their flavour. But we love it.
On that slate there’s a line of warm potato chunks tossed with a few baby capers and lightly dressed. They’ve been roofed with three small pieces of mackerel, lightly dusted in flour and then fried until the skin is crisper than a Tayto.
Carol gets a goat’s cheese salad. The cheese has been sliced off one of those Swiss roll sized catering logs, complete with collapsed rubbery rind, but it’s at perfect temperature, warm enough to crumble and collapse like its proper fresh goat cheese cousins. It’s been topped with a crunchy toasted seed mix and surrounded with cinnamon-poached slices of pear and cubes of sweet beetroot on good fresh leaves.
Her main course is equally crowd-pleasing, a lightly floured lemon sole fillet draped over perfect wilted spinach and mushrooms, a buttery bisque over the whole thing to bring the comforting flavours to a classically rounded finish.
I get a large bowl of cockles and mussels, teeny but good, sprinkled with dill, flat leaf parsley and pea shoots. The only off note are the chunks of “smoked pork belly” which could double as a rubber door wedge and are hammier than a pantomime dame at the start of her run.
Desserts are a tooth-achingly sweet lemon curd topped with uncooked blowtorched meringue (a trend that’s gone viral) and a chocolate fondant which spills dark chocolate out of its spongey innards. It’s another reminder of the bakery from which La Maison sprang.
Peppermint tea comes with a chopping board, sharp knife and chunks of dark and white chocolate which threaten to explode like shrapnel under the knife but make a friendly finish to a proper casual meal.
Dinner for two with a bottle of wine, sparkling water and tea came to €85.75
La Maison, 15 Castlemarket, Dublin 2, tel: 01- 672 7258
Music: Gorgeous jazz standards
Food provenance: Scant. McLoughlin’s beef gets a mention
Wheelchair access: Yes, but limited space
Vegetarian options: Good
THE VERDICT: 7/10. Competent well-priced French cooking in a charming place with good service