The ideal underground escape from 2020
North City Centre
18-19 Parnell Square North, Rotunda, Dublin, Ireland
What’s the story?
Chapter One is one of the real success stories of Dublin's dining scene. Open since 1992, they were awarded a Michelin star in 2007, and have hung onto it easily (from the outside looking in anyway) ever since. They've been in and out of vogue over the years, but for the past few it's fair to say they've been riding high, thanks to an impressive kitchen team, some revamped branding and a stunning dining room.
Chef/proprietor Ross Lewis runs the kitchen along with head chef Eric Matthews (he of Instagram's 'Cabin Fever Classics'), and with dessert dynamo Darren Hogarty turning out jaw-dropping cakes, tarts and petit fours day after day (and causing much sugar envy via his Instagram account), the kitchen seems like it's never been in a better place. Chapter One is so many people's 'special restaurant', used for birthdays, anniversaries, and all manor of celebrations, so if ever there was a time to see how it's faring up, a global pandemic, general air of crippling anxiety, and impending second lockdown felt as good a time as any for a treat.
Where should we sit?
This is one of the most beautiful restaurants in the city - you may find yourself gasping if it's your first visit. There's a main dining room, a cave like space just off it with another five tables, and multiple private dining areas if you're out with a group (and you should really find a group just so you have an excuse to book one). There's also a lovely bar area for a pre-dinner drink - if you're going to do it, do it right. We were sat in the smaller cave-like space and loved the intimacy of it, but if you're a four or a six the main dining area is probably a better shout.
(c) Chapter One
What's the food like?
Packed full of the best Irish growers, producers and suppliers, and entirely reflective of the seasons. For dinner you have the choice of the four-course menu for €85 or the premium for €120. When we were there the premium menu only had one extra course and no choice (but the same dishes on both menus - it seemed odd that it was termed 'premium'), so we stuck to the four-course, which had two-three choices per course. (FYI - The three-course lunch menu is only €50 and features a lot of the same dishes.)
Like all good meals it started with bread, in this case a country style sourdough with creamy, salty butter, followed by snacks of a mushroom-filled cone (got to love a cone), and two savoury biscuits, one topped with ricotta and caramelised onion, the other with a Hegarty's cheddar mousse. All were utterly perfect palate teasers, and if you needed any reassurance about what was to come, snacks like these will do it.
For the first course there was a choice of baby gem lettuce with Irish peas, white onion and Cáis na Tíre, or Irish sunstream tomato and cherry salad with basil, aerated yoghurt and pistachio. We had both and it would be difficult to pick a winner. This is definitely in the running for the tastiest lettuce dish in the country (although Cáis na Tíre would make an old tyre taste good), and tomatoes and cherries are the red-carpet couple we never knew existed. The basil, yoghurt and pistachios were a stunning supporting cast, and it was a clever Irish take on a Mediterranean-feeling dish.
For the second course we struggled not to just order two of the crab pancake with smoked eel, yuzu, pickled seaweed dressing and cod roe cream, but it turned out that the mille feuille of Sean Ring chicken with black truffle and spruce vinegar was even better. Making what's usually a dessert pastry into something so powerfully savoury was another very clever take. The crab pancake was light, fresh, fluffy and fishy (in the best way), but we would have liked a bit more crab in the centre.
Next up were the more classic main courses. Pink, tender saddle of lamb came with pickled garlic scape, smoked buttermilk potato (which could have been more smoky) and a full carrot with sweetbread stuffing, which alone would have been a knockout dish in itself. Stuffed rabbit was delivered with broad beans, Hen of the wood mushrooms, a smoked Shepherd's Store cheese sauce and parsley dumplings - a savoury, meaty, creamy, cheesey plate of perfectness.
For dessert we couldn't sidestep the elderflower and gooseberry vacherin with lemon shortbread that we'd seen on Darren Hogarty's Instagram, but were slightly disappointed at how teeny it was in real life. Luckily it was a case of good things coming in small packages, but we would have liked one twice the size. The other dessert of Irish strawberries, baked honey custard, meringue, organic milk ice cream and sheep's yoghurt felt like a riff on their famous "textures of milk and honey" dessert, and had us clashing spoons to get the end of it.
We ended with exceptionally good petit fours of cherry and white chocolate macarons, hazelnut and milk chocolate ganache truffles (serious swoon), ale choux buns with malt crunch and confit lemon cream, and one of the best decafs coffees we've had in a very long time.
What about the drinks?
The bottle list is extensive and impressive, so it was surprising to see a by the glass list playing it so safe. There was nothing we wanted to drink on it so asked if anything else was open, to which we were given the Coravin list, which was considerably better (and pricier, just FYI). Le Grappin's 2014 Saint-Aubin (€20) was drinking very well, and a delicate, floral 2017 Givry 1er Cru from Domaine Parize (€16.75) was a perfect pairing for the saddle of lamb and the rabbit. If you have money to spend and want to dive into their mainly European selection you'll have fun browsing the many bottles available.
And the service?
Delightful and completely charming from the minute we walked through the door, with smiles from everyone we passed - not the easiest of tasks when masked and keeping your distance. There's also a fancy iPad style temperature checker on arrival - green means go. Staff here cannot do enough to ensure your evening is everything you wanted it to be, and it's Irish hospitality at its finest. Our only gripe was the speed that the first few courses came at - we'd had bread, snacks and the first two courses within 30 minutes of sitting down - but once we asked them to slow down things came at a much nicer pace.
We can think of few better places to escape 2020 right now than Chapter One's cavernous, underground dining room. Yes the food is more classic than cutting edge, but as Michelin-starred meals go this is an experience that will leave you feeling warm and satisfied. Let someone else bear the brunt of life for a few hours and forget everything that's happening outside those doors - your only task is to sit back, relax and let yourself be wrapped up and taken care of. It might not be one for every week, but we couldn't recommend it more for your next treat, and it's very obvious why it's the special occasion go-to for so many.
18-19 Parnell Square North, Dublin 1 www.chapteronerestaurant.com