“The progress here has been unbelievable in the past 15 years. Then the city had a few Italian restaurants and a couple of Chinese.” Guillaume Lebrun, chef and partner at Dublin’s Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, is talking about the revolution in the Irish food industry.
Lebrun left the renowned Lenôtre cookery school in Paris for life in Ireland, coming via a job advertisement in his home country’s L’Hôtellerie trade newspaper to join fellow Frenchman Patrick Guilbaud. “We spoke on the phone and he sounded like a nice guy, and I thought Ireland would be different. So here I am!”
Casting back to his first days in the Emerald Isle, he recalls: “We were starting at the bottom. Food then was all about volume. We wanted to create something simple and of quality. It took about five years to get the message across. I don’t want to say we were educating people – we weren’t. But Dublin has become much more cosmopolitan since and Irish people travel abroad a lot more now.”
Converting a former back-street garage in 1981 into what he and Guilbaud envisaged should become “a temple of food” was itself ambitious. A whitewashed, minimalist effect with hanging baskets of plants and twinkling, sparkle lights is what emerged. And in 1989 it was recognised by becoming Ireland’s first Michelin-starred establishment.
Lebrun recalls with amazement how he had to import most produce in those days. Today he has access to what he thinks is some of the world’s best seafood right on his doorstep.
“Now there are lots of suppliers. We get the very best produce. One chef even left here to set up his own import/export business. The quality of Irish scallops from Bantry Bay is fantastic. And the Dublin Bay prawns are huge, absolutely massive!”
He lists other top-quality home-produce such as the foie gras, turbot, John Dory, and Irish lamb. Then there’s the beef. “There’s no BSE problem in Ireland but, unfortunately, public perception has become confused because of the British situation.”
The star-struck Irish?
Accolades are all very well, but it seems that canny Irish folk aren’t quite as star-struck with awards as elsewhere. Dublin’s Commons restaurant has one Michelin star, but ask the discerning Dublin public where they go to eat and both Patrick Guilbaudand the Commons might receive mention but only alongside a list of other recommended places to eat.
What Michelin stars do not do here is provide a licence to hike the prices. Lebrun explains: “Restaurant prices here are much lower than in London, but then the demand is much less. We have to watch what we charge. We can get away with IR£35 per head for dinner but that’s it. No higher. Otherwise we would have to close.
“Vegetables are expensive, but fish and seafood are good value. Lobster, for example, is only IR£4.50 per lb. Some 15 years ago, I could buy John Dory for 40p per lb. It was unbelievable!”
Consistency over a long period is why the mostly French team at Patrick Guilbaud believe they gained their second Michelin star. They cannot point to any magic formula that won them the prestigious award.
“The finest in-season quality food and ingredients, cooked simply and served classically” is how Guilbaud describes the cuisine in his opening welcome in the restaurant’s stylish brochure.
Commanding a brigade of 11, Lebrun describes the style as “classical with a touch of modern”. This could be traditional dishes such as filletof Irish beef, wine sauce and marrowbone from the table d’hôte menu (IR£14 for a main course and coffee) or roast squab pigeon in an almond and Bunratty mead sauce (IR£21) from the à la carte.
Lebrun’s policy is to cook what he likes to eat and if the punter rejects it, he’ll remove it. His favourite foods are salmon and scallops and indeed fish and seafood are conspicuous throughout the menu.
A selection of Irish cheeses – Abbey Blue, Cashel Blue and Ardrahan – sit alongside about six French varieties.
An impressive choice of 500 wines see a 70% bias in favour of French, with the rest coming mostly from New World vineyards.
Clientele at the 60-seat restaurant (plus private room for 20) is up to 80% Irish with a 60:40 ratio of private and corporate at dinner. The job of looking after guests falls to restaurant manager and partner Stephane Robin, another ex-Lenôtre Frenchman. He is responsible for the eight front of house staff who pamper guests.
Closely involved with the success of the restaurant since he arrived in 1988, Robin is the resident sage on wines and cheese, and is clearly at home with the Irish mode de vie.
He admits to eating raw deer on his day off and to sometimes collecting buckets of elderberries from trees along Dublin’s River Dodder for the restaurant’s wild duck dish.
Mirroring Lebrun’s awe at how awareness of top food in Ireland has burgeoned in the past decade, he says: “We rely on lots of small suppliers around the country. They’re quite expensive but of the very best quality. We’ve had fantastic support from the Irish food market over the years. Now you can find everything here. There’s been a huge change in Ireland’s food scene. There’s a real desire for finer tastes. Even pub food here is fantastic. The variety is amazing.”
Originally from the Loire region, Robin’s attachment to Ireland seems complete. “Dublin is a friendly and sociable city. I love the Irish lifestyle. The main drawback is the high taxation and the basic living costs are much steeper than in France. But the quality of life is superior. It’s very relaxed and there is relatively little crime.”
Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, 46 James Place, Dublin 2, Tel: 00 353 1 676 4192