THE CELLAR RESTAURANT
The Merrion Hotel
Upper Merrion Street
Phone: 01 603 0600
One of Dublin’s secret restaurants, The Cellar is tucked away below ground level in the excellent Merrion Hotel (the best in Dublin, in my view). It also shares an address with Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud which is the kind of place that overshadows. Ed Cooney’s restaurant has fabulous cooking and great value.
It's a generalisation, of course but perhaps not an entirely wild one. I'm talking about the advice that hotels are for staying in but not for eating in. Yes, I know there are plenty of exceptions and indeed there seem to be more of them every month or so but there is a perfectly sound reason as to why you are better advised to head out and find a restaurant rather than stay on the premises.
There is an unholy alliance between the big food-service companies and many of the hotel groups; indeed there is a growing tendency to de-skill hotel kitchens by using preprepared dishes that simply need to be reheated, plated up and sent out to the customer. It's all about saving money, despite the fact that the cooking from scratch, done by people who know what they're doing, is a very economical business model.
Just as there is an international bland norm about so many hotels, hotel restaurants try to be all things to all people. In most of them there is very little sense of where on earth you are.
I have long believed that The Merrion Hotel is Dublin's best. The series of delightful Georgian Drawing rooms, each with its open fire, provides one of the most pleasant spaces city centre to meet over tea or coffee. The downstairs bar is quirky and cosmopolitan with plenty of nooks and crannies for discrete rendezvous and the restaurant is one of the city's best kept secrets. It certainly doesn't flaunt itself, possibly because it shares a premises with Ireland's only 2 Michelin star establishment; and you can't do much flaunting when hidden away deep in the basement.
True, the restaurant space itself suffers from a low ceiling and the lack of natural light. You could argue that there is a touch of gloom about it but I prefer to see it as understated, a case of beauty seeking shade. The beauty lies in the cooking not in the décor which is perfectly pleasant. The kitchen under the baton of Ed Cooney is the star.
If I have to put my finger precisely on what I like about the cooking here, it's the combination of simplicity with just the right amount of what in other hounds might be regarded as fiddly complexity. For example, a starter of lightly smoked salmon, sourced from McConnell’s because their process doesn't smother the character of the fish, came with crisp filaments of sweet fennel, a sharp yoghurt dressing spiked with just enough dill and a very fashionable ingredient at the moment: compressed cucumber.
A terrine of free-range chicken and duck leg is classic: well lubricated meat, densely packed and given a sharp foil of apricot jelly, served with crisp and slightly bitter frisee salad. Pickled walnuts add another pleasantly sharp touch and a degree of earthiness.
Canelloni of silky pasta (genuinely impressive stuff; pasta made in-house is often rather leathery in this part of the world) is filled simply with tangy ricotta and served with a vibrant, tart tomato sauce that cut the richness like a scalpel.
A little smoked rack of pork was reminiscent of kassler but perhaps smokier and sweeter, and was served with crunchy cabbage enriched with slivers of pancetta; a saffron aiöli provided a pleasantly acidic foil to the richness of the meat.
And the lunch described here (lunch offers exceptional value) was consumed in the presence to two further occupied tables. It's quiet.