The Restaurant at Brown Thomas
Phone: 01 605 6666
Irish Daily Mail
12 March 2016
The first restaurant review I ever wrote was of Cooke’s Café, just after it had opened at the dawn of the 1990s. It was never published but was done as a kind of sample for my editor, I being confined to wine writing and news in those days.
The review is lost in the labyrinth of irretrievable AppleWorks files (I resisted Microsoft to the bitter end) and this is probably a blessing. I and Jonnie and my companion on that occasion had all been at school together. My companion commented, somewhat sourly, that to judge by his food, Mr Cooke had acquired a remarkable sense of subtlety since sixth year. Well, haven’t we all?
I distinctly recall that Johnnie, recently home from the West Coast of the USA, blew into Dublin like a hurricane of fresh air. His Cal-Ital cooking (as it was called back in our salad days, so to speak) was a little ray of sunshine in a city that, in those days, was genuinely provincial. I mean, Conrad Gallagher didn’t arrive until 1995 in what was the original L’Ecrivain (having worked, at first, with Alan O’Reilly in Morels of Glasthule). We were excited by sun-dried tomatoes. I greeted one of Johnnie’s parsley salads with raptures.
Cooke’s Café lasted for sixteen years and closed only because of the downturn and the squeeze on mid-priced restaurants (although, to be fair, it had been highish-priced before the competition stiffened) and Johnnie spent many years in private catering before opening a rather splendid deli deep in yummy mummy territory opposite Monkstown church.
Now he returns to Dublin 2 and the to ladies who once lunched at Cooke’s Café – now with their daughters – as he takes the reins at Brown Thomas’s restaurant.
Previous incumbents here include Alan O’Reilly and the Kemp sisters, followed by an operation that included John Healy of The Restaurant fame. Johnnie succeeds Kylemore (whose flow-wrapped muffin image is not really dispelled by an association with Patrick Guilbaud) and they were there for less than two years.
It’s time that the restaurant at Brown Thomas settled down.
When I last reviewed it, I commented that it was obliged to be all things to all people. That seems to remain the case. The menu reads well but no boundaries are being pushed. It’s safe and just about fashionable enough.
There are some pleasant memories for people who used to eat in the old Cooke’s Café. Johnnie was doing crisp calamari before virtually anyone else in town and his spicy tomato sauce, a dark terracotta affair involving a lot of roast garlic, was one of my favourites. I was glad to be reunited with both.
I think the chilli content has increased, incidentally, and the calamari may have become a little less crisp but I’m willing to believe that the latter may be down to a power-cut that hit the restaurant just before lunch service.
A bowl of minestrone was good, perfectly decent, properly seasoned but not the stuff of dreams. It doesn’t need to be.
A rare breed pork chop (and yes, you can taste the difference) was encased in a not very crisp coating of breadcrumbs – a kind of nod to vitello alla Milanese – but I ate every scrap. I left the vegetable element of the sauce that included chunks of red pepper and baby onions on the basis that they were raw. I was told that they were, in fact, al dente.
Yeah, right. They were al dentist. Let’s put it down to the power cut. If the kitchen thought this was acceptable, I worry about it.
Spatchcocked, marinated grilled quail came with deeply fashionable freekeh and barberries, pomegranate seeds and warm North African spices: a generous dish for lunchtime and really very good. Freekeh, incidentally, is a kind of roasted wheat grain and it’s going to be very big very soon.
Coffee is excellent and from Dublin roastery, Two Spots. Their blends are named after old Dublin characters such as Bang Bang, Johnny Fort Coats, Skin The Goat and Decaff. Actually, that last one is not an old Dublin character, which seems a shame.
At the suggestion of our charming waitress, we had an espresso of Bang Bang and Skin The Goat and they were deliciously complex and very different.
So, overall, how was it for us, a month after opening? Dentally challenging raw veg aside and a few quibbles, we greatly enjoyed the Johnnie Cooke reprise at Brown Thomas and we would happily go back.
The bill with two bottles of mineral water, two coffees, one glass of prosecco and two glasses of Rioja came to €94.95.