12B Merrion Court
Phone: 01 662 4757
Irish Daily Mail
3rd September 2016
It used be said that few people ever went to the Trocadero sober, thanks to its post-theatre (or post-pub) service. And it’s a truth universally acknowledged that there was a time when few people left the Unicorn entirely compos mentis on Saturdays.
During what has gone down in history as the Haughey Era many of those who passed for the great and the good on this small island would flock there to start their weekend with a sense of being in the midst of the movers and shakers. Inevitably, a great deal of gin and tonic and an ocean of wine was involved.
It was not a pretty sight but it was a sociable affair.
As to why the Establishment chose the Unicorn for these shenanigans it’s hard to say. We must remind ourselves that Dublin was not exactly coming down with restaurants, decent or otherwise, in those days. And the Unicorn certainly had a buzz.
It was not always like that. In my teenage years I was taken there on occasion when the legendary Miss Dom conducted the dignified dining room with a firm but beneficent efficiency. (Many years later, when I had to write her obituary for another newspaper, I learned that it’s unwise to Google the words “Miss Dom”).
As to what the food was like in those days – we’re talking 1976 – I can’t remember and as I would cheerfully have eaten beans straight from the can at that stage I would not be a terribly reliable witness. I recall the wonders of cassata ice cream, that’s all; and I suspect it had been on the menu since 1938, when the Unicorn first opened, just around the corner. (It’s the oldest surviving restaurant in the city, although the Beaufield Mews, a mere stripling of 66, is still in its original premises).
By the time the Establishment chose the Unicorn for their weekly assembly, the food was just about OK. It was the only place in Dublin that did anything remotely resembling the kind of risotto you get in somewhere like Verona. But, by and large, it was pan-Italian for the Irish palate. The fact that the buffet of antipasti was the talk of the town circa 1995 tells you more about Dublin than about the Unicorn.
The restaurant went through very troubled times in recent years, of course, and has since changed hands.
When I took my eighteen-year-old godson there for lunch on a warm, sunny afternoon, it was rather fun to be greeted – in a pronounced Italian accent – with the words “How’ya lads?” Well, I mean at my age, being considered even an honorary member of the ragazzi, is a bonus.
Has the food improved? I think it has. It’s very straightforward, still with a trattoria accent but decent, well executed, unpretenious. It’s not worth a detour, but it hits the spot.
While godson demolished a plate of scamorza, the smoked version of mozzarella, served with ripe, juicy slices of peach and a drizzle of balsamic reduction, I had a fine, refreshing Aperol spritz while making occasional raids on his plate.
My risotto of Annagasan crab with tiny tomatoes was good, certainly as far as the seafood element was concerned; it was generously crabbed. But I wondered, as always, why we simply refuse to do brown crab meat, the best part, in this maritime country of ours. I would have liked the mineral tang of that in this dish.
I can’t remember if it’s Valentina Harris or Anna Del Conte who, along with the late Marcella Hazan, are my Italian culinary heroines, who said that risotto should be poised exactly between liquid and solid. My only real quibble was that my otherwise decent risotto was, perhaps, veering a little too much towards the solid.
My godson’s buccatini (a kind of heavy duty spaghetti) came with the appropriate degree of al dente chew, an intense tomato sauce with pancetta and, to be brutally frank, a sense that it’s the sort of thing you might knock up at home and eat in front of the television. But as we didn’t have to cook it, it was very pleasant.
We shared a big slice of Taleggio cheese to finish, rather under-ripe but full of bovine flavour, presented with slices of fresh fig.
An espresso was suitably ristretto, i.e. very, very short and not bad in terms of taste. Service was outstanding, cheerful, professional and the bill, with a few glasses of wine and plenty of mineral water, came to just over €100.