Locke’s Brasserie, 1 Windsor Terrace, Portobello, Dublin 8, Tel: (01) 420 0555
Some chefs are scrutinised far more than others and Keelin Higgs is one of those chefs. As a finalist in the Eurotoque Young Chef of the Year he regularly wowed the judges but was always pipped at the post by somebody else. Then he took up the role of head chef at Locke’s, one of Dublin’s oldest and much-loved restaurants, whoever took the reigns here was going to be under the microscope.
I pitched up on a busy Saturday night to find a restaurant as beautiful as I remembered. By night the huge windows overlooking the canal add a certain romance to the space. The décor is modern but comfortably elegant in tones of ochre and biscuit, but even more comforting is that the fit-out is of Irish origin.
I was with an old foodie companion, and former colleague, who is not scared of food and regularly brought in Dublin coddle for her lunch. So it was no surprise she went for the hearty game pastie with bone marrow nuggets, celeriac puree and Tropea onions (€12). The dish was a quirky marriage of work-a-day pie, shrunk to a more stylish size, the pastry giving a wonderful contrast of texture and flavour. I’m a little uncomfortable with onions all the way from Tropea in Italy, lemons yes, but I’m sure there is somebody in Ireland growing hipster onions. A superb dish nonetheless.
My smoked starter of beetroot and goats cheese mousse with pickled and raw vegetables, carrot and saffron aioli with a truffle and hazelnut dressing (€12) was a little bit magic. It’s a seasonal staple but the touches of nut, truffle and saffron added real style.
For the main course I had the plaice with gnocchi, chanterelles, langoustine, parsnip truffle puree and acidulated onion dressing (€28). The plaice was perhaps a tad beyond à point and there was very little textural contrast but the gathering of flavours kept me occupied.
The pan roasted venison came with confit of carrots and beetroot cooked four ways: smoked, pickled, pureed and roasted (€27). It got the thumbs up, though perhaps a little rarer, please. The fashion for a chorus of vegetables cooked differently will pass and of course it is understandable why it’s so popular – besides the taste factor it is a very clear message to the diner that it would take them a brigade of chefs to replicate at home. More subtle, but no less labour intensive, techniques do this PR job less well but it is probably chefs like Keelin Higgs who will break new boundaries here.
Desserts included an interesting sounding apple and gin trifle with gingerbread, custard and crème Chantilly (€8.50). I settled on the plainer sounding steamed golden syrup pudding with buttermilk ice cream, honey and lime sauce (€10). I loved the bitter sweetness but I know others will not.
We also ordered a cheese board of six cheeses (€15), though a choice of four was available for (€12). This was quite the disappointment for a number of reasons. Firstly, the cheese had been very badly stored so it was dry and crumbly. Secondly, with just one Irish cheese on the board it is a poor show of support for Irish produce. While I accept that Locke’s draws its inspiration from the French tradition and we certainly can’t compete with French wine, our cheeses now have a worldwide reputation. I am not saying we should remove all the French cheese, but at least tip the balance in our favour. And of course even a French cheese deserves to be lovingly stored.
The human palate is a various thing which explains the offering of sugar with tea: it works for some and not for others. This is true of the palate of a chef and some will have a propensity to the sweet, as Neven Maguire has, or the sour /umami as Ross Lewis has, but Keelin Higgs and my palate shift towards the bitter/umami. A good thing for me but it may not suit the majority of diners. I for one will be back, for the location as much as the food.