Gráinne O'Keeffe goes solo in Ballsbridge
17 Aug 2021
What’s the story?
Gráinne O'Keeffe is a human powerhouse. Not content with being head chef at Clanbrassil House for the past few years (where she and the team won a Michelin Bib Gourmand in 2018), she also took on the job of Culinary Director at Bujo, who make some of our favourite (and most feel-good) burgers, fried chicken sandwiches and deep-fried pickles. Bujo went on to achieve a three-star rating from the Sustainable Restaurants Association, while Clanbrassil House continued to climb the cool charts year after year, leading us back to the old adage - if you want something done, ask a busy person.
When she teasingly told Instagram followers in May that her first solo restaurant was imminent, people got a bit hyper. New openings on this level have been sparse since the start of Covid, so this was kinda a big deal. We knew it was going to be in Dublin 4, and soon people were sniffing around every empty venue, shuttered restaurant and residential dwelling with the builders in wondering if this could be it.
Eventually we were all put out of our misery at the end of July when she announced it was going to be above The French Paradox wine bar in Ballsbridge, as a sort of partnership. A surprising decision to some, but presumably the only way to open her own place in such a prime location without the need for outside investors. Bookings opened two weeks prior to opening and tables for the first three months went almost immediately, so we were glad we'd been ready and waiting to pounce.
Where should we sit?
It's a long, narrow room, and you won't be able to see the kitchen from the tables at the front near the window, but you will have good ventilation, so choose your poison. It's a mix of low tables and high, so again if that's something you have strong feelings on you might want to specify it before you arrive. Tables are well spaced and it felt comfortable, even in times of Covid.
What's the food like?
It's a tasting menu only round these parts, but there's a meat and a vegetarian option. It's €60 a head which includes, bread, three snacks, a starter, main and dessert, and you can add on a cheese course for a reasonable €5 supplement. You have a choice of mains, but everything else is decided for you.
If you have a strong/strange food aversion we're pretty sure they would do their best to adjust a dish and replace the offending item with something else, but we wouldn't expect a complete overhaul, so a no choice restaurant is probably not somewhere to bring that fussy with food friend/partner/parent. Saying that, it's not an overly edgy menu, for now anyway, so should please most people.
Bread comes first. It's currently a dense brown soda bread, which we found too heavy for the start of a meal, and purposely chose not to finish for fear of needing to be helped up at the end.
Next came the snacks, which were a finger of brioche with chicken liver and fig, a basque ham and gruyere croquette, and a beetroot, goats cheese and pickled walnut tart. They all had a nice mix of flavours and textures, but the beetroot tart was probably the most memorable.
Next was a bowl of Cáis na Tíre (one of our favourite cheeses) agnolotti with artichoke and leek. We love a bit of handmade pasta but would have preferred to do the smearing, scraping and dissecting on a plate. Regardless pasta plus cheese plus artichokes was a winner for us, and we could have eaten this as a main.
For mains we had a choice of cod or ribeye steak. While we never fully get the point of cod, unless deep-fried in batter and submerged in salt and vinegar, Mae's black garlic, beurre blanc and seaweed did a good job of taking the flavours from bland to brilliant, although we would have preferred them on a less watery fish, like hake or haddock.
The ribeye, from Higgins in Sutton, was topped with morels, celeriac and tarragon sauce, and was one of the most uniquely delicious takes on a steak we've had in a long time. Such an abundance of flavour on top of juicy, ultra savoury meat, but one steak had far too much fat on it (whilst being thick, plump and perfectly medium), and the second they brought in its place was very thin, and by virtue of this arrived well done. If you have a cooking preference outside of "chef knows best" it might be best to state it when ordering.
A side of layered potatoes with a cheesy crust was perfectly tender and chewy, and we liked the simplicity of a single side dish - is there anything worse than feeling too stuffed for dessert? And then throwing it in anyway? And then lying awake with heartburn/a sore stomach/diner's regret all night?
Somewhat unusually, dessert was the dish of the night. An apple tart tatin with salted caramel, Calvados and creme fraiche could not be faulted, managing to be both lavish and light, thanks to a graceful hand with the pastry making. We'd go back for this alone.
Is an optional cheese course ever really optional? No. Especially not when it's Co. Down's Young Buck, one of the country's favourite blues. It came with a pear chutney and seeded crackers, and Young Buck is always a good time.
What about the drinks?
The French Paradox has the kind of wine list that makes wine fanatics squirm in their seats. There are no en trend names, no iconic wines, pretty much nothing you've ever heard of. If you know your stuff this might make you uncomfortable, if your knowledge is hovering around entry level it won't bother you. We thought that both the cava (we didn't note the producer but there was only one) and the Champagne from Lacourte Godbillon were very good, but the (more expensive, €50 for four glasses) wine pairing missed a few tricks.
A red Burgundy did nothing to elevate the agnolotti, and all that was achieved by pairing a Condrieu (a dry white Viognier from the Rhone) with a very sweet tart tatin was ruining a very nice wine. The most interesting pairing was a white Bergerac with the cod, and the Pomerol with the ribeye also worked, but we didn't enjoy an overtly oaky white Rully from Burgundy, which was paired with the snacks.
How was the service?
The manager (ex-French Paradox) is hospitality personified, and was practically bouncing around the room with positive, welcoming energy, but all of the staff were warm and friendly. We had a few service issues, but it was only their first week and everything was handled with grace and profuse apologies.
One of the service highlights is getting to choose your steak knife, which are all made from different artisanal knife makers, each with its own story. It's something unique to Mae and was a clever addition, and probably the thing you're going to see most shared on social media.
And the damage?
Just over €102 a head for a tasting menu, a shared cheese course, a glass of sparkling wine each and one shared top tier wine pairing.
Mae is off to a solid start and will no doubt be thronged with the monied Ballsbridge brigade and those from further afield for the foreseeable future. We'd like to see the menu take a few more chances, and O'Keeffe develop a stronger signature style, as well as an opening up of the wine list, but it's early days. We just hope that tart tatin sticks around.
53 Shelbourne Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4 www.maerestaurant.ie