Chapter One By Mickael Viljanen: You Deserve This €65 Lunch
Lisa Cope - 28th September 2021
What’s the story?
Mickael Viljanen is one of only four chefs in Ireland (ever) to be awarded two Michelin stars, in 2019 when he was head chef at The Greenhouse on Dawson Street (now closed, with the building apparently in the hands of a large hospitality group). It felt like a very long road to get there (but if it was easy to get it wouldn't mean as much), with critics and food writers declaring the food to be at that level long before Michelin made it official, and protesting that if The Greenhouse was in London or Paris it would have been elevated earlier.
At the ceremony in London, Viljanen almost collapsed with relief, years of tension and back-breaking work flooding out of his body as he flung his arms around chef Raymond Blanc, lifting him into the air, before they both fell over mid-jubilation. The entire room was immersed in the joy unfolding on stage, and everyone holding an Irish passport felt their heart swell and their cheeks burst from smiling. His achievement felt like our achievement, our little island moving up the global culinary ranks.
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The Greenhouse was badly affected by the pandemic. They had no outdoor seating, and this level of food does not lend itself to finish at home meal kits. So there was nothing to do but lay everyone off, and hope they would hang around and wait for indoor dining to be allowed again, but they didn't. In May of this year, news erupted that Viljanen had resigned from The Greenhouse and was taking over the kitchen at one-Michelin starred Chapter One as Chef-Patron, forming a partnership with Ross Lewis, who was hanging up his apron (he's since put it back on to cook at Osteria Lucio, his other restaurant near Grand Canal Dock). The majority of the kitchen team came with him, leaving The Greenhouse defunct.
Some thought this was a genius by the Finnish chef, reasoning that one star plus two stars equals three (not quite sure Michelin maths works like that but we'll see). Some wondered why the chef hadn't just gone it alone with his own, brand new vision. Almost everyone cheered the fact that he would finally have the dining room his food deserved (The Greenhouse's split a lot of people), and absolutely everyone was thrilled at the thought of what was to come. In August, Chapter One by Mickael Viljanen welcomed its first guests, and a month in we gave their €65, three-course lunch menu a once over.
Where should we sit?
The main dining areas feel lighter and more spacious than they did at the old Chapter One, and our favourite tables are by the window (both for light and for ventilation in covid-times). Tables are well spaced, so private conversations shouldn't be an issue, and there are cosy booths if you prefer a velvet couch to a velvet chair (both equally lovely places for your derrière). There are also seats at the chef's table which seats groups of four - six (€150 for the tasting menu and the dream meal as far as we're concerned) as well as a private dining room for up 10, and another private dining area for six.
What's the food like?
We were here to try the €65 lunch menu, which sounded too good to be true from a value perspective, particularly compared to some other menu prices around town where the food isn't in the same universe as this. You can do a tasting menu at lunch for €120 but last orders are at 13:30, so you'd want to be sitting down by 13:15. The set lunch is a three-course menu with snacks, bread and petit fours, and one choice for each course, so the ideal way to do it is with a friend/partner/family member who doesn't mind swapping plates half way through. Then the only decisions you'll have to make will involve what you're going to drink. There is a suggested wine pairing for each dish (when we were there prices varied from around €8 - €25), but they're happy to recommend others too.
First out are the snacks. These change frequently but expect a miniature tart of some type containing Flaggy Shore oysters or Irish Angus bavette, maybe a bite of comté with truffle, and hopefully you'll get to try what's bound to become a restaurant signature - chilled borscht with smetana (like sour cream) and caviar. It's in a cocoa butter shell so it melts and pops in your mouth, releasing the borscht in one of the most magical mouthfuls of your meal.
Then comes bread. Fresh, crunchy, chewy sourdough, with rich, yellow, perfectly salted butter.
The dishes seem to change every day, so you may or may not have any of these as options when you visit, but there wasn't one dish that was even a mild disappointment, so just go with it. We had a steamed comté mousseline with Vin Jaune and truffle (paired with Lustau's amontillado sherry), and this is another dish we can see becoming a signature (and regaining the chef those two stars). It came with a side of perfectly dressed leaves, and while they seemed superfluous, it was salad to savour.
Our other starter was Wicklow sika deer tartare (the chef loves game, and many think Autumn is the best season to eat his food), with smoked pike roe, horseradish and watercress. This also appeared at The Greenhouse, and is the kind of dish you want to nibble very slowly, possibly shedding a tear when the last forkful is gone, leaving you in no doubt as to why the Michelin guide think Viljanen's food is "worth a detour". It's worth a detour from France.
Onto mains and expect more potentially tear-inducing dishes to arrive, like our wild sea-bream with fennel sitting in the most outrageously complex bouillabaisse sauce, with a side of lobster saffron rice that deserves its own restaurant. Just bowls of this. We will literally pay any money to make this happen. This is one of those taste memories you'll have for years after eating it, and if it's not on the menu when you visit we sincerely apologise for telling you about it.
The other main on the day we visited was a Viljanen classic - Anjou pigeon 'en crépinette', with confit cèpe and date vinegar sauce. The description alone probably has you smacking your lips together, and it was even better than you're imagining. The meat wasn't gamey or strongly flavoured, it was delicate and subtle, with the cèpes, date vinegar and baby pickled onions ticking every box on the flavour wheel - savoury, salty, sharp, sweet, with no one taste over-powering the others. We went for broke with the wine pairing of 2011 Chateau Tayac Margaux at €25 a glass, and as pairings goes this one is a 10/10 (even if Bordeaux isn't usually your bag).
Ever wondered why your mash isn't as good as the ones in certain high end (usually French) restaurants? It's because you wouldn't dare to put that much butter in it at home. Continue to live the lie that they just have a better technique for boiling potatoes than you do while you spoon the last scraping of this from the side of its silver bowl.
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For dessert expect another Viljanen signature - the part art, part dessert, swirl of deliciousness. Ours was Tuscan-made Amedei chocolate with white miso and honey vinegar, and a salted milk sorbet on the side. Does chocolate get any better than when it's laced with umami miso and a flicker of sweet vinegar? We've yet to be convinced.
Our other dessert was more of a Chapter One classic, the soufflé, this one a Piedmonte hazelnut version with hazelnut sauce and citrus sorbet. The theatre of this is when they bring it to the table, cut into it and pour in the sauce - get those cameras ready millennials. It's perfect, like everything else.
You'll finish with beautiful petit fours - our included brioche Tropezienne (brioche filled with orange cream) and clementine pâte de fruit with batak pepper and lemon thyme, and if you don't order an Irish coffee at this point from the famed Chapter One trolley we can't be friends.
What about the drinks?
The wine list at Chapter One has always been more classic than trend-chasing, and this still feels like Chapter One's wine list. You won't find much of the New California, Georgian skin contact numbers, or Pet Nats around these parts, and it's more Grand Marques than grower Champagne (although there are a few), but you will find several pages of Burgundy and Bordeaux, and some of the world's best producers among them. The wine pairings for lunch were well thought out and worked nicely with the dishes, but with a few exceptions we generally felt the food outshone the wine.
And the service?
The service is still very much Chapter One too, which will come as a sigh of relief to anyone who's experienced it. From the minute you walk in it's smile after compliment after joke, and you're immediately put at ease despite the starched tablecloths and somewhat hushed tones. It's not often you'll find food at this level of dining with such friendly, informal service, and it feels like a very Irish way to do a two-starred Michelin experience, one that we should be proud to see international visitors experience.
And the damage?
If you do the three course lunch with all three wine pairings you're looking at around €100 a head (depending on what's on that day). Add on an Irish coffee and service and you'll be more like €120, but in our book it's worth every cent, and you can always get a bottle if you want to bring the cost down.
We don't use this word often but this food is "thrilling". Thrilling because of the art-like beauty of the dishes, thrilling because they taste even better than they look every single time, thrilling because you know you're experiencing some of the most exciting cooking on the island, a chef and kitchen team pushing to be the best, that will be part of Ireland's culinary history in years to come. We're going to have to wait another few months (date TBC) to see whether Michelin give Viljanen back his stars, elevating Chapter One from it's current one to two, but we really can't see a situation where this doesn't happen.
Blending two different restaurants together must have its challenges. Two kitchen teams, sommeliers, service staff, owners, all with their own ideas about how to do things, all bound to clash at times over the right way. If this is the case you wouldn't know it from our meal, which was practically flawless, but we can imagine over time you might see subtle changes as two become one.
The €65 lunch at Chapter One is one of the best ways to spend your money in Dublin right now, and you don't just need to experience it, you deserve to experience it. It's been a shocking 18 months for a lot of people, the restaurant industry in particular, but if anything will give you hope for what's to come for "Irish Food" and put goosebumps on the back of your arms, this is it.