Many dinners ago, I worked for the Sunday Times. I was the paper’s Irish food and drinks writer and it was a great position for someone who had chanced his arm writing restaurant reviews and somehow got away with it. The job paid well but it also carried the prestige of writing for the same newspaper that, in my mind, one of the world’s greatest broadsheet wits and restaurant critics – AA Gill – also wrote.
In the course of my gig, I was made up when asked by Gill to recommend some restaurants to try on a visit he was making to Dublin (which he discovered he loved) to review a restaurant for the British edition of the newspaper. One place I recommended he visit was Chapter One and I was in the loop while he was en route to the restaurant.
It was the first, and only, time I broke critics’ omertà and tipped off a restaurant that a reviewer was on his way. The way I saw it, my loyalty lay with the reputation of Dublin as a capital that could kick it with the best of them – as far as grub was concerned – rather than with the unspoken code of restaurant critics. So I let Chapter One’s chef, Ross Lewis, know that the brilliantly caustic Gill was coming. And besides, fifteen minutes advance warning was hardly going to turn a bad restaurant into a good one – the tip-off was more of a ‘make sure your waiters don’t have egg on their chin’ than a ‘make sure you suddenly become more talented in the kitchen’ kind of notice – and anyway, Chapter One had always been impeccably turned out.
The shenanigans would have been kosher only for Lewis, in turn, tipping off his jolly maitre d’, Martin Corbett. When Gill arrived, Mr Corbett effusively (as was his charming wont) greeted him with a hearty “HELLO! WELCOME MR GILL!” His enthusiasm was such that Gill knew that someone had let the cat out of the bag; he even mentioned it in his review.
So I’m putting my hands up, officially, and admitting that it was me whodunnit. The thing is though, AA Gill will never know, since the acid-witted writer, who once described capers as “Satan’s bogies”, passed away last week. The world has certainly become a dimmer place since, but that’s 2016 for you.
Meanwhile, back in the dining room. I was lunching as a guest of Desiree Shortt, the North Great George’s Street grandee, Chapter One regular and restorer of one of Dublin’s finest Georgian piles, Mahaffy House. Odd couple we may be – Lady & the Tramp springs to mind – but the lady and I have always had a hoot. Our every-once-in-a-while lunches are unfailingly hotly-anticipated and this, our end-of-year one, had been brought forward due to her glam gaff being chosen as a location for an upcoming high-profile film. It meant she would soon most likely be preoccupied with show biz folk criticising her carpet and climbing her walls, covered in gaffer tape. But then again, I hear Mel Gibson is a changed man these days.
I could prattle on for paragraphs about the exceptional meal we had, but I won’t, you’ll only end up with drool on your screen and I’ve already spent most of this review executing the two most important duties of the restaurant critic: humble-bragging and namedropping, so I don’t have much space left to talk about the food. That said, a highlight was the starter of charred, cured mackerel and poached Clarenbridge oysters with apple, lovage dressing and oyster cream. It dazzled. Then the main event’s star: a dry-aged rump (titter!) of Irish beef, roasted with lindi pepper, pickled garlic glaze, cauliflower and Coolea cheese that was absolutely cracking.
There was wine taken too – the list is one of the city’s best and the sommelier is a brilliant match-maker – a gamey Grūner Veltliner (Heinz W, ‘Joseph’, 2015) and a generous splash of, if memory serves, an assured Rhone Syrah (Guigal, St Joseph ‘Lieu Dit’ 2010) both of which played excellent parts in a long, theatrically good lunch.
At the table next to us, another restaurant critic seemed equally enamored of his victuals, falling into misty-eyed reverie every now and then – not that the only diners at Chapter One are critics, but it says something that it’s a restaurant where I’ve witnessed more than a few bus man’s holidays over the years. I’m saddened that Adrian Gill never made it back to Chapter One, but I’m certain he would have enjoyed it second time around as much as he had on his maiden visit when he found “a really accomplished kitchen … keeping a lot of competing ingredients and methods under tight control”. And I’m quite sure we would have too.
In memory of AA Gill, 1954-2016