Almost a food fight; eating out

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The Independent Culture
THE LAST time I was in what is now Jacob's Ladder was during the Dublin Film Festival about three years ago. Then it was called something like The Runner Bean. It was vegetarian and cheap; a friendly, overcrowded place full of students and earnest young men talking about the short films they were going to shoot in the style of Goddard or Bergman.

No students tonight, however. The venue has moved with Dublin's times, which is to say that as this booming city attracts more and more visitors with more and more credit cards, the owners of a prime site like this aren't going to be long clearing the menu of vegetarian casseroles at a couple of punts a head and tarting it up with sauteed foie gras and fillet of turbot with roasted artichoke at considerably steeper prices.

Our party comprises Anthony, a Dublin publisher (Anglo-Irish); Lizzie (English), who is in town for the night; Geraldine, my (English) editor; and Michael, a (Dundalk-born) publicist and gourmet. Any divisions between us are, however, less to do with nationality than with nosh. Anthony and Lizzie, it turns out, are resolute partisans of plain food and make it very clear they do not like the look of the Jacob's Ladder menu. Anthony is particularly derisive about the sauteed lambs' kidneys and sweetbreads with vegetable spaghetti, raspberry and port.

Michael and I - more than willing to give the food a go - exchange a collusive glance. The atmosphere starts to get tense. To lighten it up, we talk about colonialism, problems of the Irish identity, and the British political and cultural presence. A few minutes of this and the Irish, the English, and those in between are getting on as though there had never been the slightest problem between our islands and peoples. Our creeping sense of mutual regard is helped along by the bread problem. There is an appetising basket of bread not six feet away but, for reasons best known to the waitress, it is being withheld.

When we ask for some we're told that we'll get it, but given no indication that it will necessarily be tonight. Some time later I get her attention again. "Any chance of some bread?" I ask, almost plaintively. "You want the wine list?" "No, bread." We get the wine list. By the time the bread finally arrives - a selection of corn, raisin and tomato (not stale but not oven-fresh either) - it's an us against them thing, the solidarity of dis- gruntled diners versus the obduracy of weary and put-upon staff. No doubt about it, the table is now getting along famously. The wine is also helping - the Sancerre is average, but the 1991 Nuit St George is wonderful. Light and oaky, I'm told. It goes down very well. And at Ipounds 45 (pounds 39), it should do.

Our fragile harmony dissolves, however, immediately we return to the menu. The most Anthony is prepared to hazard is a starter of shellfish coddle. Michael and Geraldine follow suit, and they all enjoy it. I go for the caramelized scallops. These are fat, juicy and delicious, and come on little beds of roast beetroot. A definite hit.

As for Lizzie's prawn cappuccino. Well, what can I say? If you can get past the idea of drinking a cup of dark brown liquid topped with creamy froth and it smelling of fish rather than coffee, this may well be for you. But in my book some things are not meant to be, and prawn cappuccino is definitely one of them. Lizzie pushes it to one side, returns to her gin and speculates on the difference between imperialism and colonialism. But by now it's too late to paper over the cracks - the frivolity of politics can only do so much to unite people who are divided over something as truly fundamental as food.

Only Michael and I are prepared to proceed to the main course - Geraldine, a neutral really, has been bludgeoned into the plain foodies' camp. She's hungry though, and when my curried roast monkfish arrives she grabs my fork and tucks in. Michael has gone for the roast breast of duck, honeyed and peppered, with pak choi and cassis sauce. He's moderately pleased with it, though he finds it a little too red near the bone. Both the duck and the monkfish are served in carefully sculpted mounds. It seems a shame to ruin the creation by mashing in my pearl barley risotto, but once I wrestle my fork from the starving Geraldine, this is what I do, with gusto. For me, fish and rice rarely fail. I like the combination plain, the way you find it in fishing villages everywhere from Mexico to Malawi, and I like it like this, rich and creamy.

Anthony's plain food propaganda stops abruptly with the arrival of desserts. Even Anthony has to acknowledge the delicacy of the pastry of the pear tarte tatin. Michael says his chocolate marquise is perfect, and I feel like ordering a second helping of brulee. At last, we gather our coats and bags and step out into Nassau Street. There may not yet be a diplomatic settlement of the food wars, but politically we're still doing pretty well. "This colonialism," Lizzie declares, "I mean it's really not on, is it?"

Jacob's Ladder

4 Nassau Street, Dublin 2,

00 353 1 670 3865.

Lunch Tues-Sat, 12.30pm-2.30pm. Dinner Tues-Thurs 6pm-10pm. Dinner Fri & Sat 6pm-10.30pm. Three-course dinner about Ipounds 28.50 (pounds 24.50).

All major credit cards accepted


Richard Ehrlich's selection

Domaine La Chevaliere Terret Vieilles Vignes, Ipounds 12 (pounds 10)

There are some imaginatively chosen items here, right down to the house selection from this big, reliable producer in the Languedoc. Terret, a local grape, can produce wines with real character, crisp but fleshy. At Ipounds 12, worth a punt

Bonny Doon Malvasia Bianca, 1997, Ipounds 18(pounds 15)

From one of the wildest, wackiest and most wonderful producers in California, a mouthful of Italianate tang. Good before or with food

Wolf Blass Cabernet Shiraz, Black Label,1994, Ipounds 45 (pounds 39)

If you feel like splashing out, this inky Australian makes one pool in which to do it. The price is high, but the wine should just about be approachable now