Meet Jules. He’s your ageing uncle strapped into a biker jacket and skinny jeans. Jules is the new restaurant in the building that was Les Fréres Jacques on Dame Street, in Dublin. After nearly 30 years it’s au revoir flounce and Frenchy-Frenchness and salut wine bar offering more Ottolenghi than oh là là.
Les Fréres Jacques opened beside the Olympia Theatre in 1986. Last year Breton owner Jean Jacques Caillabet announced his plans to retire and sell or lease the building.
Golden-age venues can turn brassy around the edges, and so it was with Les Fréres Jacques, where the butter- and wine-laden cooking congealed into a dated expensive affair that lost even the nostalgic senior-counsel crowd.
The revamp brings the place up to date. Just not today’s date. More like a 1998 neighbourhood winebar in Surrey.
It’s still vaguely French. I think I recognise the nostalgic black and white photographs of Moulins Rouge and a market that might be old spit and sawdust Les Halles from the old joint.
The chairs seem to be the same tall-backed vinyl numbers that used to sit around the linen-covered tables. The tablecloths have gone to the great laundry in the sky. Instead of tables at the front on the ground floor, there is now a long bar. It’s a wine bar see?
You can sit at the window looking out on to the sometimes messy urban scene that is nighttime Dame Street, or you can be led to your bare table down the back, where terracotta-painted walls make me feel nostalgic for the 1990s, when we all still had the run of ourselves.
My friend is sitting at the bar when I arrive. She seems to be the only person here not on the payroll, a scenario I feared when I rang to book a table for two to get a friendly “of course” with the echoing sound of empty restaurant behind it.
In fairness it's a Monday night, but there's only one other table of two all night. "Is it Christmas?" my friend asks the waiter as we head to the table. He blinks. She nods at the sound system. A jazz instrumental Good King Wenceslas is playing, which adds to the impression we're about to eat dinner in the loneliest restaurant in the world. He heads off to switch to something less unseasonal.
The interesting aspect of the meal is it turns on its head the typical formula of impressive starters dwindling to mediocre desserts. The sweet end of the night is just that: flavours nailed, spoons licked.
But we’re not there yet.
To start is a small slice of duck rillettes, brown shreds of duck meat in a meat-loaf-type slice with a fridge cold doll-sized kilner jar of plum jam. It’s fine but the toasts served with it have been baked to bread shrapnel.
Across the table is a beetroot carpaccio, sliced rounds of boiled (I’m guessing) beets sprinkled with feta, a mint pesto that doesn’t taste of mint, and pomegranate seeds. Again nothing is wrong with it, in that watered down looks-like-Ottolenghi style, but nothing about is particularly zinging either.
Mains are better. I get a thick fillet of salmon topped with cucumber tagliatelle, which turns out to be ribbons of mandolined pickled cucumber. The red pepper and cajun paste painted on to the fish skin like a layer of marzipan on a cake is less impressive. There’s a minute steak that’s juicy but not tasting of very much, with a rocket and parmesan salad and celeriac remoulade.
By now my expectations are dialled down to middlin’, so three passion fruit halves filled with a white chocolate and passionfruit cream and topped with glassy burnt sugar are a delightful surprise. A glass of warm red fruits with fluffy chantilly cream is gorgeous.
It’s a challenge taking on an old pantomime dame and reinventing it with flair. Either you put a gallic nose in the air and carry on like before or try to attract a new audience. They’ve dropped the eye-watering prices, so that’s good, but to really wow a crowd they need to ratchet up the cooking several notches above the level of a generic 1990s winebar.
Dinner for two with two glasses of wine and tea came to €83.50.