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Restaurant review: Fallon & Byrne

11 Exchequer Street Dublin 2 Tel: 00 353 1 472 1000

By Joris Minne

Belfast and Dublin's restaurant portfolios differ radically. They reveal a character in both cities distinctive from each other, yet mutually very attractive. Belfast may be much smaller and grittier than grand old Dublin, but its restaurants have, perhaps, a broader appeal. Also, it costs less to eat well in Belfast than it does in Dublin.

Lately, though, there have been developments. A good deal of cross-border cross-hatching, a restaurant entente cordiale has emerged. Belfast's Boojum opened within the last few months on Mespil Road in Dublin and Dublin's Camile and Umi Falafel opened in Belfast last year.

Dublin and Belfast prices are evening out and Dublin, despite the unfavourable sterling-to-euro exchange rate, can deliver good value. Take Fallon & Byrne, a sprawling Dublin city centre institution, which offers a food hall deli, a basement cafe and wine cellar and an elegant brasserie on the first floor.

Further upstairs is a hall where weddings and other events are hosted. It is much loved by Dubliners and has become the go-to restaurant for the unsure, bewildered and inexperienced visitor, certain of one thing, that nobody gets it wrong by getting a table in F&B.

Regular visitors to Dublin from Belfast and the rest of the north frequently ask me for equivalents of, say, James Street South, Deane's Love Fish and Meat Locker, Muddler's Club, Mourne Seafood Bar, OX and so on. The Mourne Seafood Bar equivalent is easy, as there is one there near the Bord Gais Theatre by the Grand Canal. But, frankly, there are few, if any, equivalents. That's how different we are.

There are fabulous places, like l'Ecrivain and Chapter One, Patrick Guilbaud's, One Pico and Restaurant Forty One, but these are more geared towards those with expense accounts. Even our Michelin star offers of Eipic and OX are affordable.

A family outing, or a shopping trip, requires something financially less challenging and this is the sector into which Dublin restaurateurs have made many inroads.

Etto, a quality little Italian on Merrion Row, which serves up complex and interesting pasta dishes featuring slow-cooked game and braised beef, or the Pig's Ear, which produces innovative modern Irish dishes in its democratic dining rooms on Nassau Street providing sanctuary from the nearby Grafton Street hordes, or Fade Street Social and its bustling, restaurant and gastro bar - these are excellent and will appeal to the northern visitor, who will find the vibe familiar and reassuringly unfussy yet new and exciting.

The king of these cool restaurants is Fallon & Byrne with its Irish produce, Parisian environment and city-slick service. The menu is a classic list of broad-based favourites, which won't scare anybody: starters include Carlingford oysters, gin-cured salmon and carpaccio of beef, among others. Mains of Killarney venison, hake, Skeaghanore duck and various beef cuts are prevalent during the days between Christmas and the new year, showing a good sense of seasonality. A decent vegan and vegetarian set of options are offered verbally.

Service at this time of the year will always be a challenge for restaurateurs. Restaurant workers are tired by now, having survived the December onslaught of back-to-back office parties, family dinners and masses of young and inexperienced drinkers.

Getting a simple cocktail (a sidecar) which doesn't appear on the F&B list turns into a mildly irritating stand-off ("It's not on the list, so the barman won't make it"); food is cooler than it should be; the normal blasts of sparkling Dublin charm and wit are reduced to a gentle breeze. Yet we still enjoy it. We're together en famille, the restaurant is not packed, but has a nice crowd in and there's ambience.

Oysters, at €15 for half a dozen, are excellent, clear, plump and as chilled as the lough itself. Venison rump, generous in proportion and presented pink-to-medium, was also excellent, if a bit on the cool side. Similarly cool was the adviser's ribeye and one teen's hake and the other's beef fillet. They were very good quality, plenty of flavour and texture, but, at room temperature, distinctly Spanish-style.

Other than that and the mildly surly opening cocktail engagement, the ensuing service, despite the collective tiredness, is as warm and friendly, smart and attentive as can be wished for.

It's the dining room that makes the place. All that subtle reference to a Parisian, post-belle epoque Brasserie Drouot-style restaurant is hard to resist. It's the kind of place you'd want to linger in all afternoon with loads of wine for company.

We'll be back soon to see what it's like when it's firing on all cylinders.

The bill

6 Oysters (x2)......................................€30

Gin salmon.....................................€10.95

Ribeye.................................................€28

Fillet of beef ......................................€34

Venison...........................................€26.95

Hake................................................€23.95

Chocolate cake................................€7.95

Sparkling water (x2)......................€9.50

Bellini (x2)...........................................€24

Sidecar................................................€12

Bottle Albarino...................................€39

Total..............................................€236.80

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