12b Merrion Court, Merrion Row, Dublin 2
Chef: Lorcan Cribben
Our French neighbours have a phrase: plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, which is a rather pessimistic view of the world. It suggests that, no matter how much things seem to change, they really remain the same.
This came to mind when I stepped into the Unicorn on Merrion Row. Famed during the Celtic Tiger years as the place to lunch and do a bit of celeb-spotting, it has a long history with the Stokes family.
Wealthy mums and dads dined in the Unicorn and their moneyed offspring ate in Bang Cafe, just around the corner. In its heyday, Bang was led by the dashing identical twins Christian and Simon Stokes, and chef Lorcan Cribbin.
They delivered flawless service and creative food, and now they’re back together again in the Unicorn. But have they all grown up?
I made a visit with two grandee sisters of the food world who previously ran their own restaurant. The urbane Christian Stokes met us at the door (or was it Simon?), took our coats, and ushered us to our table by the window with practised pleasant patter and smiles. It felt good to be back.
The staff were cheery, which is not the same as either efficient or knowledgeable, as we soon discovered: sadly, the place had already lost revenue by their failure to offer a drink while we were looking through the menu.
The food offering here is modern European with Italian influences, a nod to the restaurant’s long association with that great gastronomic country. We ordered the pan-fried scallops, mousseline potato and pancetta with garlic butter (€13.95). No messing here, just a simple flavour-frame for superb ingredients.
I had the white crab salad with avocado, rocket and grapefruit (€11.50), which was a gentle gathering of flavours. Young bucks will attempt to gild the lily here, but the mature hand of Cribben knows when to add and when to take away. Another beguilingly simple but flawless dish, made all the more delicious with a glass of Albarino.
At this stage, people probably think I own land in Rias Baixas, but as I was egged on by the foodie grandees, I just had to order the Albarino, Condes de Albarei from Rias Baixas (€37). A lip-smackingly good drop tasting of savoury sea spray and lemon.
For the main course, we had a good spread of dishes. I had the pumpkin risotto, toasted hazelnuts and goat’s curd, fennel and rocket salad (€17.95). Throw a handful of ingredients at a chef with style and this is the sort of magic you get – besides a few gripes about the ubiquitous rocket, I adored every last morsel of this texture and flavour combination.
We also had the fried fillet of cod with long stem broccoli, shrimp and caper butter sauce (kindly charged as part of the two course pre-theatre menu at €21.50). I don’t hate cod, but I don’t really get why so many others love it. Now I do. This was a classic gathering of big flavours, an ideal match for the meaty cod.
The wild seabass with Mediterranean vegetables, crushed potatoes with lemon and herb dressing (€29.95) also got the thumbs up. The fish was beautifully cooked, and the ratatouille-lite’ accompaniment just about converted two haters of ratatouille.
For dessert, we shared vanilla panna cotta with blood orange and candied nuts (€7.50). I’m pretty sure it was pink grapefruit, and not blood orange. Hardly an issue, you might think, as it was delicious. However, on the obscure list of foods to avoid when you have gout, you’ll find pink grapefruit. So I suppose I’d have to describe this dish as delicious with a wash of big toe pain.
We also had the chocolate and hazelnut tart with stout ice cream (€7.50), an adventurous dish which worked well, in my view – though the word tart’ didn’t really match what arrived, the delectable chocolate being more like a parfait, as there was no pastry base.
The Unicorn is now a sort of hybrid of Bang Cafe and the old Unicorn. A short menu and short wine list hint at more chastened times but, after many years of restaurant service between all concerned, it seems extraordinary that basic service systems and staff knowledge are missing.
The food, however, is an un-muddied delight created by a chef who knows when to take a step back and when to add a flourish. Welcome back, plus ca change!
Breaking the bank
Starter: pan-fried scallops, mousseline potato, pancetta with garlic butter €13.95
Main course: grilled 10oz fillet of Irish beef, sauté wild mushrooms, mash and pepper sauce €32.50
Dessert: selection of Irish and Italian cheeses €11.95
Wine: Chateau Leoville Barton, Saint Julien, France 2008, €195
Total for two: €265.35
Watching the pennies
Starter: selection of mixed marinated olives €4.95
Main course: penne, semi-dried tomato, courgette, pancetta, rocket and aged Parmesan €16.25
Dessert: vanilla creme brulee, pistachio and orange biscuit €7.25
Wine: Sauvignon Blanc, Val de Loire, Gibault, France 2012 €26
Total for two: €82.90