W hat is it about back lanes that brings out a school kid urge to go on the lam? It seems like restaurants down laneways lend themselves to a bit of afternoon amnesia about the duties of life. The Unicorn restaurant once hosted countless linners (lunch that lingers into dinner) on lost afternoons down a laneway. It was no coincidence that the Unicorn sat in the heart of the Dublin district most densely populated with journalists, politicians and other assorted hacks.
One Pico is also down a laneway near Leinster House. It’s a cut stone building on a back lane where the other spending options are a sandwich or a haircut. On a cruelly blustery day, they’ve got plug-in heaters going to take the chill off the room.
Grey velour comfy chairs get pulled up to the linened tables. So with the feeling that we're back in the 1990s, in a good way, we settle in. Shortly after us, Eamon Gilmore bags the politician's dream seat, back to the corner, able to survey the room and all its occupants.
The first dish is welcomed to the table with a small hug, hands wrapped for warmth around the bowl part of a large hot white plate containing a porridgy portion of risotto. It’s not just a hand warmer, it’s a deeply right set of flavours.
The dish is described on the menu as a white onion risotto, which is a bit like a promise of a musical song. Onion is a given in risotto, right? It’s the curtain up that gets forgotten as other more special ingredients are added and get all the billing. But not here. The onions have been cooked slowly to melt into sweetness and the effect is both soothing and interesting. To add some oomph, it has been sprinkled with thready clumps of braised oxtail, and fried shallots for a bit of crunch.
I get a ham hock terrine. Hidden under a crisped slice of sour dough (so crisp that it explodes into shards) is a splodge of foie gras, marooned like a strange egg yolk in a sea of pink ham. I’m not sure its dense butter-from-the-fridge texture adds much to the ham, other than a nod to fine dining of old. Elsewhere on the beautiful plate are dots of tarragon mayonnaise which do a much nicer job of partnering the salty ham.
Main courses follow the same roadmap of humble (ish) ingredients cooked skilfully. A lump of braised pork neck looks as leathery as a schoolmaster’s strap and takes some sawing to get through. But once through the outer leather, the meat has cooked down to an unexpected softness. There’s a spring onion with its hairy roots still attached which makes for a rustic presentation, brown splodges of burnt apple puree and a knob of salsify glazed in maple.
My pan-fried ray is butter crisp on top and has been draped with a sliver of cauliflower mandolined so thin it looks like coral that was caught with the fish. There are more morsels of cauliflower nestled deep in fluffy pieces of popcorn-sized batter. The fish is good and has humble brown shrimp sprinkled around it it, along with some baby capers for a typically French rendition of a classic dish.
We finish with an excellent brown sugar tart, which sounds like a sugar sandwich but is an excellent creme caramel-type custard on a base so buttery it nearly moos. The great thing about it is how freshly made it all tastes, with room-temperature toffee worth using a finger to clear the last splodges from the plate. There’s an orange pumpkin panna cotta with shards of pink sugar glass and a good house-made ice cream.
As we finish up there’s a sense that no-one in this room is in a hurry to get back to their day. There’s even the clink of ice in a wine bucket from a nearby table.
At €29 for three courses One Pico is not a place for a daily feed. But when there’s time for a longer spot of lunching in the working day, you won’t go far wrong on the lam down this laneway.