The Saddle Room: Dublin’s best Sunday-night dining secret

Parts of the Shelbourne are for being seen. Its restaurant is for being fed. Very well

Sat, Oct 13, 2018, 06:00

   

The Saddle Room

The decision to eat here crystallised when someone’s muddy shoe kicked me in the face as we commando-crawled on our backs up a muddy slope. Or maybe it was when I was momentarily stuck at the top of a 3m wall with no real certainty that I could inch my ribcage far enough over the top to swing over and down the other side.

Either way I’ve earned this early-bird dinner in a room far from the mud and madness of Hell & Back, in Kilruddery. It’s still another 12 hours before the “did they drive tractors over us?” aches will arrive. But it’s fittingly chilly outside to need long sleeves and 90 denier to cover up the onset of a Technicolor bloom of obstacle-course bruises. 

I’ve had the Shelbourne Hotel in the back of my mind for a while, and not just for a treat after a hugely fun Hunger Games re-enactment in the wilds of Wicklow. The Shelbourne’s Saddle Room restaurant is one of the few in Dublin that keep the lights on on a Sunday. It’s a place where there’s hope of getting a good dinner on a school night when so many of the city’s chefs are putting their feet up.

The pretheatre menu is full of things both light and earthy that sound good for this lowering-of-the-light transition season

St Stephen’s Green is all yellows and bronzes and the city is quiet, the lunch crowd gone home to watch Antiques Roadshow. Dry leaves skitter along the road, blown by the wind along the nearly empty streets. The Saddle Room feels as autumny as new boots and a knitted scarf. 

I’ve been given a table in the corner of the room to the side of the hotel. You arrive to an area with an open kitchen and the oyster bar, then go past the Elton John gold lamé button-upholstered booths to a room of cappuccino carpets and walnut browns. It feels like a set for a brandy ad, or a cigar ad, or both. The pretheatre menu is full of things both light and earthy that sound good for this lowering-of-the-light transition season. There are plenty of spendier dishes on the à la carte, but I like the cut of the €35 early-bird option.

Only, hang on a minute, it feels a little too scrimpy when my oyster plate arrives with four luscious oysters nestled in their glass wells on a specially designed oyster plate. A fork and spoon sit in the wells where the other two oysters should be. I am not in the whole of my health enough to look back at the menu and see the word “six” on the oyster starter so assume that’s what an early bird gets. 

It’s a forgivable mistake, because everything else is perfect. Fivemiletown goat’s cheese has been whipped into a creamy circle dotted with scrolls of pickled butternut squash – a light take on this autumn staple – a squash puree that takes the sweetness of this sunny vegetable down into the comfort zone, and a beautiful dark walnut pesto in the middle of the swirl. There are shards of onions pickled so lightly they still taste of onion. It’s these humbler vegetables where this kitchen shines, like the baby potatoes with my venison main course. They’re properly tasty spuds, finished with just the right amount of salt and a side of long-stem broccoli cooked so briefly it’s lost none of its bright flavour or colour.

Desserts put the tin hat on the happy face. My bread pudding is the loveliest thing, the baby that a loved-up bread-and-butter pudding would make with a Yorkshire pudding

My venison is a celebration of Irish wild meat, one of the consolations of winter, along with candle-lit suppers of a whole baked Mont d’Or with toasted crusts for dipping. The venison comes as small lusciously tender rounds of pink meat with spears of salsify and nutty brown mushrooms. Carol gets the skate wings, two small ones crisped in butter, their sweetness battoned down with a Parmesan and truffle cream and then lightened up with dill sprigs and capers. 

Desserts put the tin hat on the happy face. My bread pudding is the loveliest thing, the baby that a loved-up bread-and-butter pudding would make with a Yorkshire pudding. There’s a jammy berry ooze in the middle and clots of it in the creme anglaise, which, if I ruled the world, would be served warm with this deeply comforting dish. A biscuity buttery pastry case filled with sooty chocolate fondant and finished with pistachio ice cream and brandy tuile is an exercise in doing the classics brilliantly. 

There are parts of the dolled-up Shelbourne where you get dolled up and go to be seen. The Saddle Room is where you go to be fed. Extremely well. Seven-day operations can grow tired around the edges. But this is a kitchen paying the extra attention you typically find in smaller chef-patron operations, where a pride is taken in everything that leaves the pass. It’s been the heaven to my Hell & Back. 

Dinner for two, with two bottles of sparkling water, a glass of Riesling, tea and coffee, comes to €113.

Verdict 8½/10. Dublin’s best Sunday-night dining secret. Putting your faith back in hotel restaurants
Facilities Good
Music Nice
Food provenance Limited. Fivemiletown goat’s cheese the only name 
Wheelchair access Yes
Vegetarian options Limited. You need to be a fan of goat’s cheese