|Dublin’s Grafton Street|
The recent weekend in the Fair City will sound like a Sybarite’s Progress but basing ourselves in the South City Centre in Buswell’s Hotel it afforded an opportunity, rare for a native of the auld place like myself, to enjoy the city without the need to “get home” and absorb the urban sights and sounds in a relaxed way without any need to hit the tourist trail. So over I went from lovely London Luton airport and for my Father’s 79th Birthday I set up camp at my favourite Dublin Hotel, Buswell’s in the city centre opposite the Irish Parliament and enjoyed an excellent Birthday dinner in the Saddle Room of the Shelbourne Hotel.
First up on the Friday we took the railway which is celebrating its 25th year, the DART or Dublin Area Rapid Transit from Pearse Station, formerly Westland Row. This in itself caused a slight outbreak of nostalgia on two counts. Westland Row was the terminus for the Boat Trains from the ferry at Dun Laoghaire and in its heyday was full of boarding houses, cafes and shops ministering to traveller’s needs. With the DART implementation 25 years ago and the traffic changing from passengers by rail to a Car Ferry the Boat Train (which used to go onto the pier beside the boat) stopped and Trinity College bought up the row of properties on the far side of the street so it has a somewhat sterile appearance these days compared to the hustle and bustle of yore. One of those shops was run by my Grand-Aunt Helena Nearey. When the young me was in town or going on the boat to Holyhead it was the first port of call and as she was a kindly lady I rarely came away empty handed.
Beside the station is one of Dublin’s finest churches, the Episcopal Church of St. Andrews. It is the Episcopal Church because it is the personal parish church of the Catholic (Cardinal) Archbishop of Dublin and its well mannered pedimented Doric front gives little hint of the massive scale of the interior modelled on the great basilicas of northern Italy. The first major Catholic Church on a main thoroughfare in Ireland after Catholic Emancipation (i.e.; the end of vindictive religious discrimination by the British colonial power in 1829) its interior with its side chapels and adjoining structures (originally a children and old folks home and accommodation for clergy) it has played an important role in city life. It is also famous because your correspondent was baptised there as the National Maternity Hospital at Holles Street where I was born was close and babies in those days were baptised quickly as dodgy Catholic Doctrine held if they died first they ended up in “Limbo.” I used to think I was special being water boarded as a 2 day old in such splendid surroundings but it turns out from the church guide that over a half a million kids have been baptised there – obviously one way tickets to Limbo were to be avoided!
So, on the splendid DART on the scenic trip along the south coast of Dublin with splendid views of the bay through Dalkey where we alighted at the next stop at Killiney. There were met by my old friend who, it occurred to me, I had first met 30 years ago. He is a true altruist and has restored the Martello Tower along with the defensive glacis, artillery battery and in a true coup de theatre has had an authentic cannon fitted to the tower and fired over the nervous neighbours!
|Guinea Pig, Dalkey|
After viewing the Tower and the superb views up and down the bay we to Dalkey and Bray Head we headed past the homes of the likes of The Edge, Bono and Enya to the old Viking village of Dalkey, itself something of Celebrity Central and our destination was the Celebs cantina the long established Guinea Pig Restaurant. This is situated in Railway Avenue but visitors alighting at the DART Station notice that the adjoining road is called “Atmospheric Avenue.” This is not a reference to the salubrious surroundings; local roads are called Sorrento and Vico because the views have been compared to the Bay of Naples, but to the fact that the original railway was an “Atmospheric Railway” where the carriages were pumped up by air pressure from Dun Laoghaire.
Opened in 1957, The Guinea Pig has become an established haunt of Dalkey locals and stars of the stage and screen. What attracts them is the timeless atmosphere and consistent good food prepared by the staff and equally courteous service. The emphasis has always been on fresh fish, some caught locally, beef and lamb from the not so distant hills of Co. Wicklow. Only a short walk from Dalkey Dart station, and therefore a pleasant 20 minute ride from the centre of Dublin the Guinea Pig along with the many other good restaurants and pubs in this attractive seaside town should be a pit stop for visitors.
The rooms manage to capture the comfortable familiarity of an old friend’s house. Seats are squishy, table decoration is unfussy and the staff are friendly without being obtrusive. We had the Early Bird menu, which at €24.50 (excluding dessert) seems a bit pricey but this has never been a cheap restaurant. For a birthday or a special occasion however, it might be worth splashing out. Though it is primarily a fish restaurant, there is a wide selection on the Early Bird menu, with eight starters and twelve mains to choose from. Our table ordered the chicken liver pate and the seafood chowder. The chowder was the best I ever had, a more luxurious offering than the name suggests with fresh seafood in a broth which was unctuous with cream, sherry and paprika. The toast for the excellent homemade pate was cold but was replaced in nano seconds when this was mentioned to the waiter. For mains the Dalkey Crab Meat with cream and cheese was served in a scallop shell but I’m not sure that the richness of sauce helped the really excellent crab meat. The Grilled Fillets of Sole with Ginger and Spring Onion were pronounced the best ever, simply grilled allowing the wonderful quality of the fresh fish to speak for itself. There was an extra change of five euro for the duck and the steak.
The desserts are presented to you on a tray but here there is a catch as they are extra on the early bird menu at 6 euros each but we settled for the selection of Irish Cheeses and Crackers and received a selection of four excellent farmhouse cheeses served with celery and small grapes. The wine was an excellent Merlot at 32 euros – wines seem expensive in Irish restaurants compared to the UK.
The menu choice may seem familiar, but it is the execution of the dishes which sets this restaurant apart. Portions are generous but it is the quality of the ingredients which stands out and the confident cooking which allows them to speak for themselves. This is not haute cuisine but rather reminded me of French Bistro food, good quality artisan ingredients treated simply and with respect. I had last been here 25 years ago so seeing the place again was a great pleasure and I didn’t feel strange for little has changed – the rest of Ireland may have been “interior designed” but the Guinea Pig has remained immune to faddism. Another connection with the French Bistro tradition is that the Chef Patron for the past 32 years has been Mervyn Stewart and as I remember on my last visit 25 years ago he still appears out front and visits every table. He knows his market and this is an establishment which never patronises the customer. It was good to catch up with Mervyn and swap notes on Malta which he frequently visits. He is looking unseasonably well for such a hard working chef and the Guinea Pig is very much a family restaurant with his wife and daughter keeping front of house. I suspect it won’t take another quarter of a century before my next visit!
Saturday night and we met up for drinks at Buswells with old buddies before heading over towards George’s Street for noodles. On the way we passed ample evidence of the nightlife which has made Dublin the 3rd most popular weekend destination in Europe with many roaming stag and Hen parties in evidence. Yamamori is a popular Japanese restaurant located a stone’s throw from some of Dublin’s trendier pubs such as the Globe and Hogan’s. It’s a bright, airy and well-decorated affair, with large windows looking out onto South Great Georges Street. The food is hardly adventurous given Japanese standards, but always reliable, and with sushi, teriyaki and a variety of Japanese beers on the menu, it’s an ideal spot for an early dinner. Yamamori also has a lunch menu with a range of noodle dishes that are certainly good value for money.
Yamamori Noodles is one of the most established Japanese noodle restaurants in Dublin and South Great George’s Street has over the years transformed itself from a retail graveyard to a hopping restaurant and nightlife area. Experts in Japanese cuisine and sushi, this Dublin restaurant offers a thorough Japanese menu. The atmosphere is very authentic and service is always fast. Well-known to be one of Dublin’s busiest restaurants, Yamamori Noodles popularity is due to the quality and selection of food available. The menu contains enormous variety from Sushi and Sashimi to Teppanyaki to Tempura and Ramen. The side dishes are include authentic popular Japanese snacks including delicious Ebi Gyoza which is a finely chopped king prawn dumpling combined with pak choi, leek, spring onion, garlic and ginger, oyster sauce, dipping sauce.
Lunch is served at Yamamori from 12.30am onwards seven days a week. Dinner begins at 5.30pm and runs through until 11.30pm. The restaurant is pleasantly decorated in traditional Japanese style. Hanging lanterns, white pillared walls and large solid tables inlaid with tiles enhance the authentic atmosphere.
We arrived late with one of our party having rejected Wagamama’s due to its clinical décor. As we needed a table for six we had to wait a while as this was full restaurant but we were quickly given drinks from the bar until a table was free. Food was slow coming and it occurred to me that this was very different from the normal UK Noodle Bar operation with a far longer menu incorporating Bento and Sushi dishes as well as the usual noodle and rice dishes. Whilst a commendable choice is offered the flip side is slow service when the kitchen is under pressure. However when the food came it was a cut above the usual with excellent ingredients and execution and generous portions. My vegan friend pronounced the tofu starter the best he has had for a long time and my Chilli Chicken really hit the spot. Yamamori also offers authentic Japanese deserts including green tea ice cream. There was no rush and it was over 1 O’clock in the morning when we left happily. For six people with deserts and several drinks the bill was 181 euros.
The Saddle Room at the Shelbourne Hotel
The resurgent and expensively refurbished Old Lady of St Stephen’s Green has got the restaurant it long deserved, serving modern 5 star hotel fare of the highest order. This historical hotel has been a landmark in Dublin city for generations, going back as far as 1824. History was made here when the Irish Constitution was drafted in 1922 under the chairmanship of Michael Collins. It has seen countless famous names from throughout the globe coming through its doors, and for Dubliners it has been their favourite hotel for decades. I used to meet friends in the popular Horseshoe Bar, and also enjoyed occasional afternoon tea in the Lord Mayor’s Lounge for a treat. We loved the new look Shelbourne Hotel – same address on St Stephen’s Green, but when you walk through the revolving door there is a new sense of space and light, sparkling chandeliers and decorative stained glass. Gone is the central elevator giving way to the original grand sweeping staircase, and The Horseshoe Bar, The Lord Mayor’s Lounge and The Constitution Room have all been restored while the new restaurant, The Saddle Room and No. 27 Bar & Lounge have been added.
Instead of being tucked away in a corner like its predecessor, the new Saddle Room is rightly given pride of place in the entrance foyer of the hotel, right opposite the front door. It presents a dramatic façade, as just beyond the entrance bar is a dramatic marbled Seafood Bar which leads to the dark-mahogany panelled main dining room with rows of lavishly furnished banquettes along the walls framing the open plan kitchen where you can watch Executive Chef and his team strutting their stuff as they prepare your meal. This was a special occasion being the other Mr. C’s 79th birthday and the saddle Room offers pizzazz by the bucket load for special occasions, and at an exceptionally reasonable price for the quality of the location, service and above all food.
The Saddle Room keeps the cooking simple, using only a handful of ingredients and relying on the freshness and quality of the raw materials to make the dishes sing. Beautifully cooked, tender and flavour-filled steaks and sparklingly fresh fish are staples here, and the service is expert and discreet. When full, the Saddle Room has the really buzzy atmosphere of a gentlemen’s club, but with Premier League food instead of the nursery pap usually favoured by clubbable gentlemen. As it was their 185th Birthday they were offering an Early Bird Menu of two courses for 18.50 euros and three courses for 24.50.
|Happy 79th Birthday!|
When I enquired earlier I was made very welcome and was booked into a luxurious banquette in gold leather which would be accessible to my parents. Unprompted they also said they would bring out a plate of homemade sweets after the meal to celebrate my Dad’s 79th. We were warmly welcomed when we arrived having first treated ourselves to a pre-prandial libation in the famous Horseshoe Bar. I can honestly say the service, presentation and food was of the highest order and more than met my special occasion expectations.
I had King Crab Risotto as a starter which was just right whilst her indoors enjoyed a well considered Parma Ham with fresh figs and a port sauce. The elder Mr. C ordered a warm salad of Chicken Liver with smoked bacon and a poached egg and the absence of left overs was most eloquent.
For mains my Confit of Duck on a Cassolette of white Coco Beans with garlic sausage was superb and her indoors pronounced the pan fried fillet of sea Bass on fettuccine with brown shrimp, cucumber and a white wine veloute was to die for. The elder lemons were equally happy with their mains of Seared Organic Salmon and Braised Irish Beef. When the elder Mrs. C saw her desert of Pavlova with Lime Mascarpone with balsamic and peppered strawberries her eyes lit up and for me the warm bread and butter pudding with pear puree and Crème Anglaise was just so! Then the coup de theatre as the plate of hand made sweets was served with coffees with “Happy 79th Birthday” piped in chocolate on the rim. Great venue, great service and top food at a reasonable price – With wine coffees and water the bill was a highly reasonable 137 euros for a five star experience for four people.
Buswells has been operating since 1882 and is an elegant 3 star hotel with special character in the heart of Dublin 2. A charming 67-bedroom Georgian hotel, it is ideally located in the centre of Dublin city a short stroll from St. Stephen’s Green, Trinity College, Grafton Street and many other visitor attractions and near to the DART at Westland Row and the LUAS (Tram) terminal at St. Stephen’s Green.
Strangely, whilst I have long recommended it to friends and whilst the present wife and her sister have stayed there this was my first time there as a resident. That is not to say that the place is unknown to me. The bar had Adam style plaster swags painted blue and white and used to be known as the “Wedgwood Bar.” Many years ago in the company of a leading Irish feminist I had bumped into the Northern Ireland poet Michael Longley and his poetess wife Edna who were staying in the hotel. Michael had just won the GPA poetry prize and with the winners cheque in his pocket was in expansive and generous form, from what I could vaguely recall the next day! The bar and restaurant are today called Truman’s after an adjoining print and drawing instrument shop which I was a customer of as a young architectural student. When it closed down in 1975 Buswell’s bought the property and incorporated it into the hotel and as Secretary of the Student Union at Bolton Street I bought most of their stock for our Student Shop.
Being across from the Irish Parliament it had an erstwhile reputation as a late night drinking den for politicos leading to the story about a conversation between a policeman who raided the premises at 3 in the morning and encountered the then Minister for Justice (and later Prime Minister) Charles J Haughey “What will it be for you Guard, a pint of Guinness or a transfer to Donegal?”
This is a good hotel in a great location, very close to Grafton Street, Trinity College and the National Museums. Our room was spacious with high ceilings and throughout the décor and furnishings were of a good quality and fresh. The Bathroom and shower were excellent if compact. The bar was good with helpful and obliging service but here and in the lounge you could just sit and relax with no pressure to order anything. We only had breakfast on the last morning (when my parents stayed and this is taken in the rather splendidly upholstered Truman’s Restaurant. It was as good as I’ve seen anywhere with a really excellent selection of juices, cereals, breads (including Irish soda bread) meats and cheeses from a buffet counter with the hot Irish Breakfast, toast and generous pots of tea and coffee served at the linen covered table.
Last year when my wife and sister in law wanted to stay Buswell’s quoted 245 euros a night. Well this is far too much (you could stay in the Shelbourne for this) but what a difference a year makes as I got the rooms on their site on the internet for 89 to 99 euros a night. Don’t pay extra when booking for breakfast because they price this separately at 20 euros a night (A Mercure Hotel in Paris charges 15 euros!) but we were offered “any breakfast” at the desk at a more reasonable 10 euros. The hotel needs to get its pricing realistic and consistent. The other thing to remember is that as this hotel incorporates four different Georgian buildings so room sizes vary and the dovetailing of bathrooms into the structure doesn’t always make for good sound insulation. Also, being in the centre street noise is unavoidable but we found by closing the windows, including the secondary glazing, the room was quiet. Also as these are Georgian buildings don’t expect aircon, but really you don’t need this in Dublin.
This is a well managed property with well trained and friendly staff who really make a difference and I would single out Mary on reception and Clive the Concierge but most of the staff have been here a while and this continuity makes a difference. If you want a personal hotel with a country house athmosphere in a great location Buswell’s is a good deal. Or as the elder Mr C put it as he was reading the complimentary newspaper in his adopted armchair in the relaxing lounge “I could get used to this.”
17 Railway Road, Dalkey, Co. Dublin, Ireland Phone: +353 (0)1 285-9055
71/72, South Great George’s Street, Dublin, 2, Ireland Phone: +353 (0)1 475-5001
The Saddle Room, The Shelbourne Hotel,
27, St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin, 2, Ireland Phone: +353 (0)1 663-4500
26 Molesworth St, Dublin 2, Ireland Phone; +353 (0)1 614 6500
|A scene in front of Buswell’s|