The Garden Room at the Merrion Hotel: Go upmarket on a budget

Review: Choose carefully and lunch won’t come with a bill that requires a defibrillator at this five-star hotel

The Garden Room at the Merrion Hotel
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Address: Upper Merrion St, Dublin 2
Telephone: (01) 603 0608
Cuisine: Irish
Cost: €€€

I love The Merrion for its deep couches, creaky floors and heavy silver tea pots. A group of us used to sink into the cushioned luxury of an afternoon tea once a year in the run-up to Christmas. In the early years we shared a tiered cake stand between two or someone might choose from the bar menu while others had the full works. We fell away from it after they introduced the Everyone Has to Order Afternoon Tea rule in the busy run-up to Christmas. It was cake stands for all in December so we gathered our skirts and went elsewhere.

Miraculously the Dublin hotel opposite Government buildings on Merrion Row survived without us. In fact it’s thrived, with a portfolio of places to eat under its roof, each with their own distinct personality. There’s Guilbaud’s of course, the Cellar Bar with its cosy clubby restaurant, and those fireside drawing rooms with their pastry tributes to the hotel’s art collection. And the latest addition is The Garden Room which overlooks the courtyard garden where sculptor Rowan Gillespie’s Joyce sundial is weathering nicely with verdigris-like tears on the writer’s wistful face. Joyce seems happy looking away from the bolt-on balconies on the newer part of the hotel, which have not weathered as beautifully.

We get a table at the floor-to-ceiling window. It’s a generous round wicker table with a glass top and comfortable wicker chairs for the full “master of all you survey” feeling. My brother wonders if they move the wicker furniture outside in the summer. He’s been living in warmer places with more predictable seasons for a while.

The choice

The fern-decorated menu is the size of a Berliner newspaper and with almost as many words. We feel like a nap after getting to the end. It’s a menu that is rising above the culture of small plate eating, apart from a “snacks” section at the start, which I presume translates as smaller starters. They welcome all comers here, according to a legend at the top of the menu, including those who want “a speedy salad or a relaxed dinner”.

We fall somewhere between those two but that’s okay. Service is excellent, friendly and professional. We get warm bread with Glenilen butter that’s served waxy and hard from the fridge rather than at room temperature. The bread is lovely but has none of the tang or tacky texture of what I’d call sour dough.

My wood pigeon starter is earthier than I expect with a sliver of fried liver under the tiny leg and breast meat like a tip of a hat to the man outside and his love of organ meats. It’s on a small bowl of lentils and carrots diced to lentil-sized cubes. I’d like a little more astringency to the sauce to lift it all out of its bass register but it’s still great hearty cooking for an all-day hotel menu.

Goats cheese

My mum’s goat and beet riff is a good take on this menu trope. Jane Murphy’s Ardsallagh goats cheese has been whipped into a cloudy creamy circle. I chaired a panel of women producers with Jane at the Feast Cork festival recently and heard some great anecdotes from the other side of the cheese makers’ stall.

When she first started selling in one Dublin market, she dubbed her clientele the newly weds and the nearly deads because everyone seemed to be pushing either a buggy or a zimmer frame.

They’ve done a lovely plate with her cheese here. There are properly crisp rounds of purple beet standing up sentinel style in the cheese surrounded by chunks of luscious golden beets, like stored up sunshine. There are capers and golden raisins to bring it all together with simple sweet and sour notes. It is so much better a treatment of vegetables than the smoked carrots side dish which is more watery than a November weather forecast.

The only main we get is the pork belly special, a beautifully presented plate of juicy pork belly finished with a spiced glaze on skin scored into diamonds. The duff note is the micro coriander on the top which wilted under a heat lamp before it came to the table. Likewise the delicious salad carefully plated to mirror the shape of the pork would have been better without exposure to heat. It’s a hazard of a dish with hot and cold halves.

Dessert looks beautiful, as you’d expect. A fat pear halved and poached is topped with ice-cream, a disk of dehydrated pear sits on top threaded through with a chocolate scroll. The pear is lovely but could be softer. I like my poached pears to be sliceable with a spoon. This one needs a knife and fork.

We finish with good coffee served in green and white china obviously chosen for the restaurant with its leafy theme. I like the Garden Room. Choose carefully and lunch won’t come with a bill that requires a defibrillator charging on standby. If afternoon tea is booked out for December, you could forgo the finger sandwiches and do a lot worse than book a table here.

Lunch for three with a glass of wine, sparkling water and two coffees came to €103.50.

Verdict: A less businessy option for lunch
Facilities: Great
Music: Bland
Food provenance: Good. Harty's oysters, Ardsallagh cheese and Glenilen butter all name-checked 
Vegetarian options: Good
Wheelchair access: Yes

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