There was a time, a dozen years ago, when the only place you'd find a decent meal in Dublin was in a hotel. You could traipse through Grafton Street, Dame Street, O'Connell Street and their lateral offshoots, looking in vain for an eating house that wasn't part of a burger chain. Now, after more than a decade in the jaws of the Celtic Tiger economy, the Irish capital has been transformed by oodles of cash, imagination and confidence. Around St Stephen's Green, along the quays, even on the still-grotty north side off Parnell Street, classy restaurants are busting out all over.
The Town Bar and Grill has got itself a reputation as one of the grooviest. This is the place, everyone tells you, where Bono and The Edge from U2 took Bruce Springsteen for supper after a gig. The Irish Parliament is across the road, and this is where Irish TDs take each other to scheme and connive in the semi-darkness. Its owners, Temple Garner and Ronan Ryan, have converted the cellar of Mitchell's the wine merchant's into a dining-room, whose crepuscular gloom may be the last word in Dublin chic but is a little lowering to the spirits. The walls are all exposed brickwork or whitewashed, the banquettes dark grey, the ambient lighting is spartan, and the overhead lamp is the Stasi Interrogation model.
But after a minute or two, none of this mattered a row of buttons. The service in Town is wholly disarming. The front-of-house lady, Fiona, was chatty and amazingly beautiful. Our sweet Australian waitress, Emily, collapsed in giggles when trying to recommend the Alpha Zeta Garganega white wine in her Melbourne accent. The wine list is mainly Italian and rather pricey. The food is "Contemporary Italian cooking, NY style" but, apart from the cannelloni and a zuppa di pesce, it seemed to feature mostly Irish ingredients (Connemara salmon, Galway crab, Slaney Valley kidneys) cooked with small admixtures of ravioli, pappardelle, gnocchi and tortellini.
My ham hock soup was so beltingly hammy, and so gorgeously crammed with beans, carrots, celery and herbs, it fair took my breath away. It was a very Springsteen-y dish: the soup for a working man, tuckered out after a long day in the recording studio. My date's crab salad combined a meaty crab claw and white crabmeat, alongside baby beets with avocado and a Bloody Mary sorbet. It was delicious, "though I don't think you're supposed to put crab and sorbet in your mouth at the same time". The salad was so infantile – a tiny lettuce leaf, a smear of avocado and the baby beets – it was practically in rompers. Something crispy was needed to balance the crab, I thought. Bruce wouldn't have cared tuppence. He was born to run. He's not the kinda guy to order crab salad.
Emily-from-Melbourne brought a mid-courses raspberry sorbet. It was too creamy to be a refreshing palate-cleanser. "If I eat all this," observed my companion, "I'll have to go straight to the coffee." She had a point. And we'd have been mad to miss the main courses, their combination of generosity, style and flavour. The halibut was stunning. Four gigantic tranches, each as fat as a Frette pillow, surrounded by an adoring chorus of tiny shallots, green beans, sugar snaps and red pepper. The fish was so light it could have been whipped out of the sea half an hour earlier; what Dublin fishwives used to call "leppin' fresh".
My roast Slaney Valley rack of lamb with sun-dried-tomato-stuffed shoulder, pan-fried sweetbreads and baby carrots in a mint jus, was a delirium of sheepish bliss, cooked three ways. The two racks of lamb had such a delicate texture, it hardly seemed possible they'd been subjected to anything as vulgar as flames. The roundel of sliced lamb shoulder, stuffed with tomato, was a pungent country cousin, while a lump of pan-fried sweetbread offered a further contrast in texture. This was an inspired dish, into which a lot of creative thinking had gone.
We were too stuffed to eat another thing, but ordered a preserved-ginger crème brûlée for the hell of it. It came with almond biscotti and a lump of crystallised ginger and was yummy, the ginger bringing a touch of exotic to an over-familiar pudding.
Not everything is right about Town: the cellar is glum, the exposed wires off-putting and the sorbet needs a rethink. But I left feeling nothing but admiration for Mssrs Garner and Ryan. I expect Mr Springsteen is writing a song about them ("Eating in the Dark"?) even as I speak.
Town Bar and Grill, 21 Kildare Street, Dublin, Republic of Ireland (00 353 1 662 4724)
About €150 (£120) for two, with wine
"Service charge is 12.5 per cent for tables of 5 people and over; for tables of 4 and under there is no service charge. 100 per cent of the service charge and tips go to the staff"
Side orders: Dublin delights
By Madeleine Lim
Expect to have to queue at this fashionable French bistro; main courses include chargrilled cornfed chicken, with shallot tarte tatin, rocket and Parmesan (€18.50).
No 1 Fade Street, South Dublin Centre (00 353 1 675 3708)
The Saddle Room
The Irish-American chef John Mooney serves impeccable steaks alongside oyster and seafood platters at the luxurious and now newly refurbished Shelbourne Hotel.
27 St Stephen's Green (00 353 1 663 4500)
The Winding Stair
This bookshop and café recently won a Michelin Bib Gourmand for good value; main courses include corned beef with crispy cabbage, horseradish mash and mustard sauce (costs €21.95).
40 Ormond Quay (00 353 1 872 7320)
Bentley's Town House
Try a glass of champagne with a tempura of oysters in honey and black pepper at the acclaimed chef Richard Corrigan's new brasserie in a Georgian terrace.
22 St Stephen's Green (00 353 1 638 3939)Reuse content