WHEN MORE TURNS OUT TO BE LESS:
I AM UNDERWHELMED BY HUGO'S
6 Merrion Row
Irish Daily Mail
28 October 2017
“St Tola goat’s cheese curd on brioche toast with charred poached pear, fermented walnut and truffle honey.” I suppose I should have been wary but the fermented walnut had me intrigued.
It was a damp Dublin evening and I was sitting with a very distinguished wine writer in the front window of Hugo’s. I should perhaps have been prepared for the sweetness. Pears are rarely poached in water but in syrup. Truffle honey, for all the possible truffle character, is still honey.
But I wasn’t prepared for what appeared to a rather rich dessert. And, I should stress, we’re talking about a starter.
Why was I in Hugo’s in the first place? Well, it was convenient and I have long ago given up my ban on reading other people’s reviews. I had seen a rave notice in one of the national newspapers recently and thought I’d better have a look. In the event, we had a very different meal in rather different surroundings (we were upstairs, the other critic downstairs); even the menu was completely different.
Anyway, back to this starter. The only relief was the mildly salty tang of the goat’s curd (think fresh goat’s cheese but rather lighter in texture). The fermented walnuts looked and tasted like pickled walnuts to me (and, to be fair, that’s what fermentation does) while the truffle honey must have been there somewhere because I could taste honey. And little else. There were dollops of sweet brown stuff that I couldn’t identify. Even the brioche was tasting of pain perdu with caramel on top.
It was awful, unbalanced, ill-conceived, unattractive to look at, unpleasant to eat. So I stopped and left most on the plate. There was no reduction on the bill.
Our other starter was, well, fine. Worth writing home about? Oh, maybe a short post card. There were three golf-ball sized beignets of ham hock and pork cheek, well flavoured and moist, the shredded meat contained in shells of crisp breadcrumbs
Fashionably pickled vegetables – beets in various shades, radishes, cucumber – provided a good, sharp foil while a sauce gribiche needed a lot more work. It’s not meant to resemble tartare sauce of out a jar and this one, however they managed it, did.
Some restaurants use pâté de foie gras on their tournedos Rossini but Hugo’s, much to their credit, top their fillet steak with a slice of actual foie gras, pinkly seared on the pan and placed on a little circular croute. They even added a madeira jus, in the classical style but skipped the slices of black truffle – which is understandable, even at €33. With buttery spinach, this was a perfectly decent version of an old classic from the canon of grand French cooking. The chunky chips even had a touch of truffle oil (not the same thing, of course, but in terms of taste, not a bad approximation).
A pithivier was as pretty as a picture, right down to the lines drawn, in a spiral from the top to the edge, with the point of a knife. It’s essentially two discs of pastry with a filling – in this case a combination of courgette and semi-sundried tomatoes – sandwiched between. This was served with a salad of heritage tomatoes (the ones that actually taste of tomato) in a pesto-esque basil dressing. There were also dollops of creamy ricotta to provide protein and balance.
Rice pudding, deconstructed in the sense that it had not been baked with a skin (which a lot of people hate, to be fair), was creamy and rich and fortified with crisp apple and hazelnut. The addition of ice cream was perhaps a step too far but it was no hardship.
Apart from the extraordinary aberration in the starter that wanted to be a pudding when it grows up, the food we ate at Hugo’s amounted to decent, confident cooking. Perhaps there’s a bit of an identity question in terms of what kind of food Hugo’s is about. It’s in a busy spot where rents are sky high and there’s an imperative of sorts to be all things to all punters.
Our bill, with a bottle of Rioja, came to €131.45.