Review: Relaxed dining with a classic French wine list

Some dishes lacked spark during opening night but this chef is clever and skilful

   

Mae Restaurant

  • Proprietor: Gráinne O’Keefe
  • 53 Shelbourne Rd, Ballsbridge, Dublin, D04 XC66
  • 01 231 3903
  • www.maerestaurant.ie
  • Irish

Is it fair to review a restaurant on its first night? It’s a question that is often asked. And the brutal response is, probably yes. If a restaurant is charging full whack day one, it’s game on. There is always the option to go with a soft opening with lower prices.

I feel somewhat relieved when I see on Instagram that Gráinne O’Keefe, the chef and owner of Mae restaurant, had a trial run with family and friends the day before she opened her smart, new restaurant above The French Paradox wine shop in Ballsbridge. Amid the flurry to bag a reservation, I have found myself with a table for two at 6pm, the first of two sittings on her very first night.

Just across from my perch at a compact high table for two, I spot a tray of serious-looking knives on the zinc bar counter, and I conclude two things. One, it could be dangerous to offend a chef with this level of weaponry. And two, there’s a pretty good chance that steak is on the €60 multicourse menu. It is the only food decision we’re required to make, steak or fish, the rest is no choice.

Two hefty slices of brown soda bread with whipped butter kick off our meal, followed by smaller bites. There’s a tiny tart with small cubes of beetroot that have been marinated in pickled walnut juice and dusted with finely grated goats’ cheese; a finger of brioche topped with a chicken liver parfait, pickled onions and caramelised fig; and a Gruyère and Basque ham croqueta, coated in cheese that has crisped and intensified, yielding to a creamy interior.

The classic French list at Mae extends to an impressive 80 pages of wines imported directly by The French Paradox. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The classic French list at Mae extends to an impressive 80 pages of wines imported directly by The French Paradox. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

We have opted for the €35 wine pairing (there is also a €50 option), as the classic French list extends to an impressive 80 pages of wines imported directly by The French Paradox. Julien Chaigneau, the sommelier, is engaging and talks us through them. It’s Pouilly-Fumé with the bites, leading on to a more full-bodied white to go with the agnolotti which ooze with creamy Cais na Tire cheese. There’s a bit of texture from flakes of crisped artichoke, but the sauce, a puree of Jerusalem artichoke, is just a little bit thick and could be pointed up with acidity.

The tray of weaponry makes an appearance for those who have ordered steak, each knife brandishing a different blade and handle. O’Keefe commissioned eight Irish knife-makers, and the carnivores in the room get to choose. The finely balanced Fingal Ferguson knife makes the cut and is put to work on the charred rib-eye which is rare in the middle and topped with tiny dice of celeriac. A tarragon sauce is a reminder of how well this herb goes with beef, although a piece of slow-cooked beef, while generous, is extraneous. Especially if you want to tuck into the side dish of Parmesan dauphinoise, a mound of sliced potatoes piled high and burnished gold.

Higgins butchers rib-eye, morels, celeriac, tarragon sauce
Higgins butchers rib-eye, morels, celeriac, tarragon sauce

No such knife is required for the cod. I’m unsure whether it has been lightly cooked using sous vide before being finished under the grill, but somehow, it’s just a little bit soft and opaque in texture, and the beurre blanc needs a bit more sharpness.

The tarte Tatin with Calvados and crème fraiche is O’Keefe at her best. The fine pastry is delicate and crisp, and the apples are loaded with just the right amount of caramel. This was a favourite in Clanbrassil House, and I’ve a feeling she won’t be able to take it off the menu here.

Cod, black garlic, beurre blanc, seaweed
Cod, black garlic, beurre blanc, seaweed

There are lovely details in Mae, from the monogrammed napkins, hand-made plates, and fine Grassl stemware, to those beautiful sharp knives. O’Keefe made her name at Clanbrassil House with clever, skilful cooking, and while some of our dishes lacked a bit of precision and spark, I’m putting that down to opening-night wrinkles. This talented chef has resolutely put her money where her mouth is, and I have so much respect for someone with the bravery to pursue their dream.

Apple tart Tatin, Calvados, crème fraiche
Apple tart Tatin, Calvados, crème fraiche

Doing two services can be tricky when it comes to managing customer expectations, and I’m hoping that knives won’t be required to clear the dining room from the 6pm service. It’s a little bit tight, and the later sitting would certainly allow more time to enjoy the experience. Ballsbridge has been very much in need of a smart, new restaurant, and this might be it. Just be sure to book the 8.30pm slot.

Dinner for two with wine pairings was €190

The verdict: A generous tasting menu and classic wine list

Facilities: Smart, with fluffy individual hand towels

Music: Subtle, barely audible, it’s all about the chat

Food provenance: Meat from Higgins Butchers, fish from Sustainable Seafood Ireland

Vegetarian options: Yes, vegan option with prior notice

Wheelchair access: Downstairs table available with accessible toilet