Review: An old Dublin favourite gets a new, exciting chef

Graham Neville, the city’s best non-starred chef, is shaking things up at Dax Restaurant

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Address: 23 Upper Pembroke St
Telephone: (01) 676 1494
Cuisine: French
Cost: €€€€

Those pesky furballs that a new carpet molts are underfoot in Dax on my first visit. The tables in the basement restaurant in Dublin’s Upper Pembroke Street are cloaked in white linen and there’s a spring in everyone’s step. Dax has a new chef. Dubliner Graham Neville has migrated from the swanky folds of Residence on Stephen’s Green to here. He is the city’s best non-starred chef. Maybe the guide was allergic to the members’ club notion. Although Restaurant 41 was open to everyone it suffered bouts of invisible red rope syndrome when it came to the best tables in the house.

So now this fresh start, which has history in another Dublin restaurant. Neville and Olivier Meisonnave, the Frenchman behind Dax, worked together in Thornton’s on the canal earlier in their careers. Last month the basement closed briefly for a quick refurbishment mainly involving that new grey carpet, covering a bockety stone floor, soaking up some of the noise and solving perennial table wobble issues.

I dashed in shortly after they reopened (with the carpet still bedding down) and found a restaurant with a split personality. There were smidgeons of the new broom as if he was working through the menu like osmosis from bottom to top. But it was little changed from old Dax, businesslike French cooking using good Irish ingredients.

But new Dax got fully off the blocks since then, we’re told, with Neville’s menu launching eight days ago. Damnation. That first meal is irrelevant, dead menu walking. So I’m back, alone and sat up at a comfortable bar table to see where this is going to go.


Courgette flower

The first thing I see is a familiar friend. The courgette flower has made the trip from the Green. I loved it in Restaurant 41. Back then he sourced it in the restaurant’s own garden. Now it comes from Iona farm, stuffed with prawn and served in a prawn bisque. It’s a summer treat in the Irish food calendar but I’m going for a quail dish instead. A fluffy circle of waffle pancake has a necklace of creme fraiche dotted like pearls around it. Sat on top is a lollipop size quail drumstick, a tiny quail egg, a slice of smoked eel and a quail breast so small you could eat it in a single bite. It is satisfyingly rich, the eel almost hammy in its own way, making this eggy meaty lusciousness the poshest breakfast roll in town.

My main is a beautiful plate of fillet of brill. The fish flakes in perfect white petals under a butter fried crisp skin. Underneath is the fish, and there’s some cracked wheat like nutty rice with sweet ribbons of onion through it and the whole thing is surrounded by a buttery elderflower sauce. It’s a pretty beige plate, nicely bitter white asparagus spears adding to the muted look of it all. But then you get to the broadbeans, which taste like they were picked and podded earlier that day, then barely blanched so still have their bite. But they’re coated with a herby greenness only noticeable when you chase one through the sauce and it streaks a jet stream of summer green through all the paleness. It’s a thoughtful flourish taking the plate from one thing to another by the time you’ve finished eating.

Bowl of summer

Dessert is a light and lovely bowl of summer. Irish strawberries are cut into juicy chunks and dotted with a yuzu sorbet that fills your mouth with sherbet-y fizz. There are small leaves of purple basil and jagged shards of lemon meringue, in the shape of thin Daz white pieces flecked with lemon zest that manage to combine sweet and tangy. The only element I would lose is the rubbery small chunks of sponge, but only because they’re nicely ordinary and suffer by being next to the extraordinary.

So Graham Neville has arrived to do what he does so brilliantly in this smart basement place. If Michelin continue to cold shoulder his cooking then Dax will be the best non-starred restaurant in the city, an honour previously held by The Greenhouse. Dax is already a busy place so make plans to go soon. This is a partnership that’s going places.

 Dax Restaurant, 23 Upper Pembroke St, Dublin 2 (01) 676 1494 

Verdict: 8.5/10 Dublin's best non-starred chef turns Dax into a stellar place to eat.

Dinner for two with sparkling water and two glasses of wine came to €141.00. The second dinner for one with sparkling water came to €59

Music: Nice, low-key background

Food Provenance: Good. Those Iona Farm flowers, lamb from Ballycullane and Annagassan smoked salmon among the names

Wheelchair access: No

Vegetarian options: Limited

Facilities: Small but fine

City centre patch of holiday

Red painted benches bolted to the shop are the substitute for the deckchairs of the original Scoop at their new city centre gelato and crepe place. The Ranelagh shop has fabric and timber old school deck chairs on the footpath outside for a beach postcard vibe to your cone experience. (You’ll need a buddy to help haul you out at the end).

The city centre Scoop is fittingly in what used to be 747 Travel, the holiday shop on the corner of Aungier St. Even without the deckchairs it’s turned a traffic choked corner into a little patch of holiday with creamy cones of excellent house-made gelato.

Scoop Dessert Parlour 82 Aungier St, Dublin 2 

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a founder of Pocket Forests