The Grayson: Go for the Chips, the Margaritas and the Marble Bathrooms
Lisa Cope - 19th September 2018
What’s the story?
Up until January of this year, the four-storey building at 41 St. Stephen's Green was home to former private member's club Residence and the upmarket (and suitably priced) Restaurant Forty One. When it was announced late one Friday evening that Press Up Entertainment had bought the building and it would close it immediately for refurbishment, there was a collective groan amongst much of the food and drink industry. Press Up (owned by Paddy McKillen Jnr, son of multi-million/billionaire developer Paddy McKillen) are commonly accused of being "all fur coat and no knickers" (based on their beautiful fit outs but generally average food), and independent restaurants say they can't compete with their deep pockets when vacant sites come available. Press Up disputes this, saying they rarely bid on properties, and on it rumbles. You can read more about that situation in this very good Irish Times article by Catherine Cleary and Una Mullally.
Whether you like them or not, it's hard to argue with the fact that when it comes to fit outs and design few people do it better, and they have undoubtedly brought something new to the Dublin dining and drinking scene - rooftop bars with panoramic views of the city, the ability to use a swing on a night out, and the plushest cinema in the country to name a few. We were very interested to see what they would do with 41 Stephen's Green, and the initial publicity photos were as impressive as always, but where Press Up sites tend to fall down is the food. With Roberta's in particular receiving less than glowing reviews from the critics last year after it opened, we were hoping this one might be the exception to the rule, but we are also acutely aware that we are in the middle of a major chef shortage, and we can't figure out how they're managing to staff so many sites.
Where should we go for a drink first?
If you're going here you should have the full experience, which means a pre-dinner drink in the atrium cocktail bar. It's a stunning space with seating at the bar and at high tables, and up the stairs at the end leads to a very plush smoking area with a retractable roof. The cocktails are well priced by city centre standards at €10 - €12.50, and of the ones we tried, our favourites were the excellent Second Floor Margarita with tequila, blood orange liquor, blood orange syrup and lemon, and the Prickly Honey, with pisco, pineapple liqueur, honey, lemon, egg white and soda water. We were less keen on the Angi, with lemon infused gin, white chocolate, lemon and egg whites, which was a bit too sweet for an aperitif. Staff couldn't have been nicer, and offered to make us any cocktail we could think of.
Where should we sit?
As well as main dining rooms on the ground, first and second floors, there are a few little private rooms off the stairways, which would be great for a small private event or if you're really trying to impress a date. Try to nab a table near the window on either floor for the great views out onto St Stephen's Green. We also thought the light on the first floor was slightly better if being able to read the menu/post pictures of your dinner on Instagram is something that's important to you.
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What's good to eat?
Frustratingly we didn't find any knockout dishes, but we did hear people talking about how much they enjoyed their meal, so if you're easier to please than us you might love it. Of the starters, the best were the roast pork belly with pulled pork croquette, puy lentils, orange and watercress salad (although it was very filling), and the whole king prawn with tempura prawn and baby prawn salad, bloody mary jelly and baby gem leaves.
The most disappointing dish was the sesame seared tuna with avocado and wasabi purée, watermelon and pink ginger, which couldn't have looked more different to the publicity shot, and which was really just a hot mess (without the hot part). The four tiny pieces of tuna tasted of nothing, and the wasabi purée improved things but there wasn't enough of it.
When it came to the mains, at first taste, both fish dishes we tried were good. Pan fried halibut was well cooked and came with crispy okra (which tasted of nothing but oiliness), nduja ratte potatoes, toasted sweetcorn and samphire sea herb (which we're pretty sure is just samphire), and at the start it felt like a flavour-packed combination, but once the initial punch wore off, we found the salt and fat overpowering. By the time we were halfway through our palates were jaded, and a good chunk of it went uneaten. It was a similar situation with the seabream with roasted artichokes (which tasted like the jarred variety), crab salad and vierge sauce. Too much salt. Not enough flavour. Not all eaten. We found the oversized, branded salt containers on each table (which seem to be in all of their venues) quite ironic.
Duck breast with confit leg meat, crushed sweet potato, charred broccoli and duck jus was another of the better choices and had good flavour (despite being slightly overcooked), but once again, after a few bites the salt became overpowering. Maybe the kitchen's on commission for how much of those branded salt containers they can get through.
Of the sides, a salad of bumble bee leaves, mixed beetroot, heirloom tomatoes, feta whip and smoked almonds tasted once again overpoweringly of salt - this time from the first bite. We have no idea how it's possible to over-salt salad leaves to this extent, unless you did it for a dare. Tempura courgettes were okay if needing work when it comes to the batter, but the crispy hand-cut skinny fries topped with nduja, chilli mayonnaise and parmesan were very good. Definitely one of the highlights of the meal.
Another highlight was dessert. Vanilla ice-cream with chocolate soil (groan), chocolate shards, chocolate and caramel sauce and house made honeycomb, came in the form of an ice-cream sundae and was a deliciously nostalgic way to end a meal, although it was extremely rich. The same goes for the chocolate delice, with hazelnut crunch, salted caramel sauce, milk chocolate chantilly and salted caramel ice cream. A skillfully made, beautifully presented dessert, but half would have been enough. Blueberry cheesecake was also very good, but apple tart tatin had unpleasant pastry and was completely solidified to the plate - not what we generally look for in food.
What about the drinks?
The cocktail list is great and most of what we tried was a cut above the average you'll find around town. Wines by the glass are limited and not particularly interesting, and Paddy McKillen's Château La Coste (from his vineyard in Provence) takes centre stage as the house wine, as it does in all of Press Up's sites. There are some nice options on the bottle list, but mark ups are high and you're looking at €40-45 a bottle for anything decent. If you have cash to splash there are some serious bottles on there but we're talking €60/70 plus. The staff who served us were not well-versed in the wine list so if you want to spend that much and you don't know what to go for ask for a sommelier.
And the service?
The initial welcome and the atrium bar staff couldn't be faulted. The restaurant staff were very pleasant but felt inexperienced. We were asked if we were ready to order three times before we actually were, staff reprimanded each other in front of us, and acknowledged that they didn't know anything about the wines. They were all very nice, but it wasn't quite a tightly-run ship. Teething problems we would hope.
If food is your first priority in life this probably isn't going to knock your socks off, but if you want an injection of gold-plated glam, good cocktails and marbled-decked bathrooms you will probably love it. We heard the table next to us, and another in the adjoining room saying how much they'd enjoyed their food, so maybe we need to go and join Marina O'Loughlin in Snobland, or maybe those other people are just more easily pleased.