A temple of tradition
What’s the story?
Dax was opened by Frenchman Olivier Meisonnave in 2004, who wanted to bring a piece of his hometown Dax in Southwest France to a Georgian basement in Dublin. They've had various head chefs over the years, many of whom have gone off to open their own successful restaurants, but Dax got a new lease of life in 2017 when Graham Neville took up the mantle (formerly of Restaurant 41 in the ill-fated Residence private members club on St. Stephen's Green), and after a quick refurb the latest incarnation of Dax had flung open its doors.
Since then we've heard it described as the best non-starred restaurant in Dublin (or the country) countless times, by critics and diners alike, and it's a clear favourite amongst industry folk who seem to choose it for their own special occasions, so all of that was enough to convince us to earmark it for a visit.
Where should we go for a drink first?
If it's a nice evening you could head to the terrace in House on Leeson Street, otherwise the conservatory area in The Grayson (below) is ideal if you want that outside feel without freezing your extremities off. Baggot Street has plenty of good pubs like Toner's and Doheny & Nesbitt's, and if you're after a good glass of wine Ely Wine Bar on Ely Place has just reopened after a makeover.
Where should we sit?
We liked the luxe feel of the main room where most of the tables are, but there's a narrow corridor-type area behind it if you're looking for more privacy or to engage in more intimate conversation, pulling out an engagement ring, that kind of thing. We really liked the enveloping, cave-like feel of the room, and can imagine it as a fine dining haven on a wet, winter's evening.
What's good to eat?
There's a choice of à la carte or a five course, no choice menu for €80, which is probably the best way to experience Dax, and what we went for. You can tell them however if there's anything you really don't want from the à la carte, and they'll make sure not to bring it out. It started with really excellent bread and butter, not a scrap of which was left behind, and two amuse-bouches of a parmesan gougère and a St Tola goat's cheese tart - both great but we could have eaten 10 of those tiny, perfectly crisp, ultra-cheesy tarts.
Our first course was a Graham Neville (and now Dax) classic, and we can see why. Annagassan salmon from Louth came with Clogherhead crab, apple, capers, Goatsbridge trout caviar, and teenily diced egg white, egg yolk and red onion. As perfect balanced and flavoured a dish as we've had this year, and almost a shame to eat and ruin such a beautiful plate of food.
Next came scallops, so precisely cooked, with peas and a lemongrass and ginger emulsion. The Asian flavours, which came as a very happy surprise, were subtle enough to not take over the dish, and the sauce was 'subtly' finished off by spooning it straight into our mouths.
The next course was one of the high points of the night - hake in a muscat grape sauce with prawns, cockles and mussels. The fruity, tanginess of the sauce was the perfect counterpoint to the meaty fish cooked in butter, and it was a really stand out, somewhat unusual dish.
The penultimate course was Wicklow beef with various vegetables including turnip, beetroot and asparagus. There was no questioning the quality of the beef, which was perfectly cooked and seasoned, but it felt slightly dull based on what had come before, particularly as the final savoury dish. But this is horses for courses, if you're someone who appreciates some quality time with a hunk of meat you'll love it.
We don't often say this but the highlight of the meal was probably the last course, which felt like something out of a Parisian salon dedicated to dessert. A base of biscuit was topped with strawberries and vanilla parfait, and encased in a silky white chocolate that the server told us they make with olive oil. It was topped with cream, strawberry, blood orange and meringue, and gratings of an incredibly fragrant citrus fruit, that filled the whole area around the table as soon as the plates were put down. Our server wasn't sure what it was, but some investigation the next day threw up that it was kaffir lime, which doesn't have much juice but a very flavoursome rind. It took a few minutes before we could even bring ourselves to cut into it and ruin such a pretty picture. Death row dessert stuff.
We finished with super light strawberries and cream petit fours, and an espresso that we thought was decent until the bill came and saw it was €4.90 for a single shot. In for a penny in for a pound...
And the drinks?
The wine list is thoughtful and classic with nothing to scare the Bordeaux brigade - this probably isn't somewhere you'll find the stuff of Parisian natural wine bars, but as classic lists go it's excellent. They do a wine pairing for the 5 course menu for €40, which one of us did, and added another couple of glasses. All were very good matches for the dishes, with the sweet Jurançon particularly spell-binding with the dessert (a bit obsessed okay), doing that thing that all great wine pairings do - make the food taste better with it than without it. As extra glasses go their vintage Franciacorta at €13.50 a glass was a brilliant alternative to a) uninteresting prosecco and b) eye-wateringly priced Champagne, and another extra glass of red Burgundy was faultless too.
And the service?
Celebrity maître d Fred Siriex says you should have had five smiles by the time you sit down in a restaurant, and as soon as we walked in the door we were met with at least three beaming, welcoming faces. Great start. They've managed to strike an impeccable balance of fine dining service without the stuffiness, and staff were as deft at placing plates on the table from the right direction, as they were chatting about their favourite restaurants in the city. But the lingering memory is all of the smiles, and how welcome we were made feel from the moment we walked through the door until we were waved off again, leaving another round of smiling faces behind us. Such a simple thing, but so effective.
Dax is not somewhere you're going to find small plates, foraging or fermenting. This is classical, French fine dining with little touches of luxury throughout, and that's something they're doing very well. It's also relatively difficult to find this kind of high-end dining experience that also feels so warm and relaxed. This is a pricey night out for most people, comparable to other Michelin-starred prices in the city, so the next time you have an occasion you can justify splurging for, put this near the top of your radar. Alternatively, the next time your parents offer to treat to you dinner, or you have an expense account to lean on, you know where to call.
23 Pembroke Street Upper, Dublin 2 www.dax.ie