Dax Entertainment

As the country's restaurants reopen, Aoife Carrigy revisited one of Dublin's finest for her first post-lockdown outing - an experience that, after months of home cooking, “felt like waking up in a rainforest after slumbering in a savannah.”

I was full of all sorts of emotions last Friday evening en route to Dax restaurant in the heart of Georgian Dublin. 

There was that gorgeous glow that the anticipated pleasure of a great restaurant elicits: knowing you'll be in excellent hands for the evening, as talented professionals choreograph their finessed efforts front and back of house to give you the best night possible. There was giddiness too, to be frocked up and meeting a school friend who has been having a challenging lockdown as a primary carer to a beautiful soul with special needs, and to have nothing to do but choose what we'd most like to eat and drink, sit back and chat amongst ourselves as waves of deliciousness arrive before us.
There was relief that we'd got to this point of the process where restaurants and pubs were slowly reopening – and a lingering frisson of disbelief, which I still get blasts of all these months later, that this is our new reality.

If I'm honest there was a little fear in the mix, or tentative nerves at least: not so much that I wasn't delighted with my brief to review one of my favourite restaurants - and one that counts Georgina Campbell's Restaurant of the Year 2018 and a GC Wine Award among its well-earned accolades - but certainly more anxiety than was shown by the laughably laidback fox who sauntered across my path on Leeson Street, pausing only to have a territorial dispute with a swooping seagull. The city has become their Friday evening haunt, and we humans are only starting our gradual reclaiming of those streets as our leisure-time habitat.

Around on Pembroke Street, an alarm was barking loudly and I hoped it wasn't an omen of things to come. But a few skips later down the steps to the plush carpeted basement that Dax calls home, followed by a couple of squirts of hand sanitiser to bless the divine experience ahead, I was being greeted by one of the best maitre d's in the business.

Even behind his visor, Olivier Meisonnave exudes a signature blend of warm charm and assured authority amassed over decades in the finest of dining rooms. When he opened Dax in 2004, Olivier brought with him a congregation of well-heeled converts from his time as maitre d' at the (then) two-star Thorntons Restaurant, and he has been steadily recruiting ever since.

Settling me in at my table, where my friend was just ahead of me – we would have met nearby for a drink first, but of course that would have meant ordering a meal too – Olivier suggested a glass of Domaine Renardat-Fache Bugey Cerdon, a joyous plum-pink fizz from the French alpine foothills of southern Jura. Based on juicy-flavoured Gamay and Poulsard grapes, it is produced in the méthode ancestrale without a secondary fermentation or added yeast or sugars to give an off-dry, naturally sparkling, low-alcohol wine of 8% abv. It reminded me of well-made kir royale, counterbalancing elegant structure and vibrant summer fruits, only without the added cassis.

Olivier first served this gorgeous drop in Mionnay near Lyon back in 1990 at the three-starred restaurant of legendary nouvelle cuisine innovator Alain Chapel, and has been searching for it ever since. He recently rediscovered it thanks to Enrico Fantasia of Grape Circus who now sources it from the organic growers who produce it. This is the kind of kaleidoscopic experience that makes restaurants special, where a particular shard of deliciousness might lodge itself in Olivier's memory for three decades before being brought back to life by Enrico's curiosity to discover the traditional treasures that wine-making folk such as the Renardat-Fache family are faithfully keeping alive. This is what shared gastronomic culture is all about.

Happily, that same confluence of people, passion and pursuit of pleasure is expressed through every mouthful of every plate of impeccably sourced food served at Dax. For four years now, Graham Neville has been honing his pared back style of cooking in the Dax kitchen. Graham is another alumni of Thorntons, where he worked for seven years before heading up the kitchens at Residence for several more and picking up the title of Best Chef in Ireland for the first of two times to date. Of all the many things that I admire about his culinary style – the technical skill, the bold aesthetic, the unabashed luxury – it is his quiet restraint that is most disarming. His food doesn't feel like it was squeezed from a siphon or pinched by a tweezers, though it may have been. It is not trying to impress with clever concepts but rather win over with subtly layered and sometimes dazzling flavour pairings.

Take my starter of pan-seared foie gras, impossibly light in texture for all its inherent richness and served with lightly pickled cherries, rich Roscoff onion puree and an inspired shell of roasted seeds, amongst which the occasional coriander seed bursts like a ray of sunshine. Or the addition of Szechuan pepper to bring a smouldering heat and bright fragrance to the black pepper seasoning on a perfectly cooked North Leinster fillet of beef, served with slow-cooked Jacob's Ladder rib of beef and a fat sweet carrot and old-school brandy and peppercorn sauce. These brilliant little touches illuminate the excellence around them.

This is a chef who can harness the comfort of classics while making unlikely juxtapositions sing. My main course of perfectly cooked turbot was sauced with heady elderflower and earthy saffron. His signature summer dish is a plump courgette flower from Iona Farm in north county Dublin stuffed with the meaty flesh of Dublin Bay prawns and perched like a lacquered jewel amidst a sabayon-light crown of lemongrass and ginger bisque. Who knew that the flavour of gingernut biscuits and roast langoustine shells were a pairing from heaven? Graham Neville, that's who.

Elsewhere, this team have the confidence to minimise the cheffing and let the sourcing speak for itself, as with a starter of taut Annagassan smoked salmon and pristine Clogherhead crab meat, set like a sun and half moon within a constellation of garnishes: minced egg whites and yolk, red onion, capers and lolly-orange trout roe topped with Granny Smith matchsticks and a tumble of charcoal grey caviar. Eating this kind of food after months of home cooking felt like waking up in a rainforest after slumbering in a savannah.

Unsurprisingly, this is a kitchen that can produce a textbook tarte tatin with planifolia vanilla ice cream, or nail a perfect chocolate fondant with a surprisingly compatible lemon sorbet.

Nor is it unexpected that Olivier effortlessly guides us through just-right wines by the glass to complement each dish: luscious Domaine Baumard Coteau du Layon with the foie; salty-fresh Domaine Cazalet blend of Barroque and Gros Manseng with the salmon; sunny Villa Huesgen Mosel Riesling with the turbot; generous Les Deux Cols Côtes du Rhônes with the beef; and a cool sweet red Domaine Petri Geraud Banyuls with dessert.

What was surprising to me was how quickly I stopped seeing the visors on all the staff, how normalised a part of their uniform it became.

None of this kind of excellence comes cheap though there is value to be had, given that three courses of starter, fish or meat and dessert (from a limited choice of two each) comes to €78, while four courses (fish and meat) is just €11 more. Likewise, a wine list that is dominated by discounted premier wines including lots of left bank heavyweights offers much temptation to those who can afford it. However, as at many of our top flight restaurants, lunch - at €29 for two courses, or €36 for three - is a real snip for the outstanding experience offered.

Value is a relative concept, and it's worth remembering at this transitional time that our favourite restaurants survive because we support them, especially if they've had to reduce capacity by 30 per cent as is the case here. From a diner's perspective, that reduced capacity makes the elegant room feel even roomier. From a restaurateur's perspective, it's a brave leap of faith into the uncharted territory ahead.

We can't always afford to spoil ourselves in gastro-temples like Dax – I know that for me, personally, disposable income is at a premium. But right now, any support we can offer our favourite restaurants will surely nourish our shared gastronomic culture. And there's real value in that.

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