Michael Bolster, head chef at the Commons restaurant, Dublin, gives another gravelly laugh then talks about the parsnip soup. It is on the à la carte menu as “cream of parsnip and turmeric soup with chive cream” (£5.50).
“It went on one lunchtime on the set £17.50 menu and went out the door!” he says. “I put it on the next week to see if it was a fluke, but the same thing happened, it was so popular.” So it found its way on to the à la carte. The same thing happened with his chicken veloute. “The Irish like their soups,” confirms Bolster.
Restaurant manager Virginia Fortune strides in wearing stilettos and a mini school uniform. “It’s a joke,” she laughs. The staff are lively, and the restaurant’s repartee is relaxed.
The Michelin star earned from previous head chef, Gerry Kirwan, was the second for Dublin. Bolster, then sous chef, says while he would like to hang on to it, he’s not really bothered. “We never set out for Michelin stars, Kirwan was more surprised than anybody when we got it.”
The à la carte menu changes four times a year, the present menu began life in mid October and will change in early January.
Bolster also offers a daily changing lunch and dinner menu, the latter priced at £29. Though average spend is £50 including wine.
For this you get a salivating morsel of, say, smoked chicken with hazelnuts, followed by a starter such as roast breast of teal with corn salad and a walnut jus. A palate refiner of consommé of duck with Madeira and then a mouth cleanser of red wine granita. The main course is from a choice of two dishes. For instance, roast breast of pheasant served with a creamy herb risotto and a raisin jus. Or steamed sea bass with lentils and coriander butter sauce. Dessert is a current customer favourite that crops up regularly – a fig and prune parfait with caramelised fruits and Armagnac Anglaise, priced at £6.50 on the à la carte menu.
The à la carte menu introduces Bolster and his style of cooking: “He offers modern food with classical references, using speciality Irish ingredients enhanced by traditional French produce.”
Bolster’s biggest influence was Ian McAndrew when he was chef at County Limerick’s Adare Manor. “But I’m trying to develop a style of my own without being too whacky.”
His brigade of eight, including sous chef Joe Ryan, help with ideas and they are constantly experimenting. “We have to. We have many regulars, a lot of people come in three times a week.” Most are businesses entertaining. The head waiter keeps a file on them so that he knows their likes and dislikes.
Foie gras and in fact anything Bolster wants comes from his suppliers in the city, Fitzpatrick’s. “But I have six fish suppliers, they’ve got to be on the ball – fish makes up 70% of orders.”
Black pudding, from a supplier near Cork, is one of the most popular starters, served with two slices of foie gras and a pear dressing (£12.50) – “not too bloody, lightly spiced – beautiful”.
The restaurant is spacious. There are 12 tables and a maximum of 42 covers (for lunch and dinner). Owner Michael Fitzgerald is adamant it stays that way. And anyway, Bolster can only dress five plates at a time, “and it intimidates other people if there are too many at one table”.
Stunning function rooms are available upstairs. The restaurant is housed in the basement of Newman House, original home of University College Dublin, packed with history and some incredible stucco work. James Joyce studied here, so did poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Expensive artwork adorns the restaurant walls. Fitzgerald commissioned Irish artists to portray aspects of Joyce’s novels.
Moira Carrie is responsible for the wine list. “She’s a real star,” says Bolster, “the hardest working person ever.” Of jovial head waiter Michael Andrews, Bolster says, “the best we’ve had. Very relaxed – can’t have pomposity here”.
THE COMMONS RESTAURANT
Newman House,85-86 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2. 010 353 1 475 2597
“I’m sure that man is an inspector,” whispers Mary Bowe, owner of Marlfield House hotel, Gorey, County Wexford. The diner sitting alone in the corner is scribbling notes, but he’s smiling at the crème brûlée.
Bowe skips off to tend to another table. Executive chef, chief wine pourer, interior designer and owner, Bowe is rightly proud. Her Regency mansion dates back to the 1820s, although six palatial suites were added to the existing 19 bedrooms six years ago. Standing in beautiful countryside, the house also supports a “Crystal Palace” of a conservatory, decorated by Bowe, that makes up most of the restaurant space.
Average covers are 45, however, when Bowe was cooking (she stopped about 10 years ago) Marlfield was really turning the tables. “About 100 a night! Can you believe it? I had eight with me in the kitchen then. You see the area was starved of good restaurants.”
A table of Frenchmen nod enthusiastically at the roast loin of lamb on a bed of ratatouille and a thyme jus. Lamb is always a favourite on the menu. So is beef fillet. Bowe’s husband “works in the meat business” so produce is in peak condition.
But it is fish that is the all-time favourite, scallops in particular. Mussels and oysters, definitely. “They are local Bannow Bay oysters [15 miles away], big and beautiful. We serve them hot and cold.” For dinner they were served gently warmed through by the creamed leeks and herb veloute.
Kevin Arundel is Marlfield’s head chef, under Bowe’s direction. His CV leaves a trail of Michelin accolades: chef tournant at the Michelin-starred Kinnaird House Hotel; a spell as sous chef at Caterer’s adopted business the Well House, Liskeard in Cornwall, which has a Red M; and then Marlfield which also has a Red M.
Arundel has his favourite ingredients. He works with, “game, offal, fish – in that order,” he says. Dishes that keep the members of the three-strong brigade on their toes are the popular duck breasts with grilled potatoes (blanched, then chargrilled with their skins) and wild mushroom essence and wild salmon, served with a herb crust, confit of shallots and a tomato butter sauce.
Puds in demand are the hot chocolate soufflé with a white chocolate sauce and the caramelised apple tart with caramelised cream.
The menu changes daily depending on what is available, but popular dishes make reappearances. “We keep it reasonably short,” says Bowe, “we can put more effort into each course then”.
Average spend is about £40 a head for dinner, this includes wine – the price is set at £28 for four courses, plus a sorbet refresher. A daily set lunch is offered at £17.50, “but people really come for dinner”, admits Bowe.
The restaurant manager takes responsibility for wine service, with Bowe topping up the glasses. The kitchen brigade is boosted by three more staff in the busier summer months. “At least we’ve got a big kitchen,” says Arundel.
The vegetable and herb garden is spread over a large chunk of the 14 hectares of woodlands and landscaped gardens. Arundel frequently bumps into admiring guests wanting to chat about the 40 different types of herb as he dashes out during prep. “We’ve got everything from salad burnet to borage – and six different types of thyme,” he says.
In season, their own artichokes appear on the menu. Do you make a feature of this on the menu? “How could we?” responds Arundel. “In summer, half the menu is from our garden, anyway I think customers know it is grown here – most of them wander through the gardens before dinner.”
MARLFIELD HOUSE Gorey, County Wexford. 010 353 55 21124