Food & Drink: A chef now at home in his kitchen: After eight years cooking for Nico Ladenis, Paul Flynn is back in Ireland, and building on some basic strengths, says Emily Green

Emily Green
Friday 13 May 1994 23:02 BST

This is the story of Nico Ladenis and Paul Flynn. At 59, Mr Ladenis is famous, more so for his temper than his restaurants. This has the unfortunate effect of eclipsing his achievements. For the past 21 years, Mr Ladenis, his wife Dinah-Jane and their two daughters, Isabella and Natasha, have opened six restaurants. Of the three London establishments now run by the family, two are medium-priced, one is expensive and all are immaculate.

Only two things seem to have eluded Mr Ladenis: a third Michelin star for his Park Lane restaurant, Nico at Ninety, and a son. Paul Flynn might have been that son.

Mr Flynn is a 28-year-old from Co Waterford. Mr Ladenis is partial to the Irish: he used to advertise for staff in the Irish Independent. Mr Flynn worked for the Ladenis family for eight-and-a-half years, five of those as head chef and Nico's right hand. For some time, he stepped out with Isabella Ladenis and it seemed as if they might marry. Then, last October, this most loyal Ladenis employee returned to Ireland taking three colleagues with him.

Mr Ladenis was hurt, but it was bound to happen. We can entice the Irish to Britain, but we cannot expect to keep them. Gone are the days of the potato famine. The people who built Glasgow from stone and tunnelled the New York subway system through rock can now find work - and food - at home. Ireland's gain is Britain's loss.

Mr Ladenis is not alone in a special admiration for the Irish. Along with Sir Terence Conran, Justin de Blank and Stephen Bull, he basks in their sunny natures and will tell you that Ireland is a small agricultural country with, among other things, the best dairy produce, seafood, butchery and brewing in the English-speaking (and Gaelic-speaking) world. Its cooks, quite simply, know a fresh egg from a stale one.

Joining Mr Flynn in the trek home were fellow chefs Martin Lynch and Julian O'Neill, and restaurant manager Declan Maxwell. Mr Maxwell's departure will be felt most keenly by the punch-drunk ministers of our government. For its first five years, he managed Very Simply Nico, a bistro in Pimlico so handy to Parliament that it had a division bell. He knew that glasses had to sparkle, place-settings had to be straight; most important, he knew how to seat a split Cabinet.

However, before cabinet scandals could threaten to kill off ministerial appetites, the Irish defectors had already decamped to the Dublin brasserie, La Stampa. Quite why this place is named after an Italian newspaper is anybody's guess: its connection to things Italian extends only to some wild misspellings on the menu.

No, La Stampa is Irish. The management of this beautifully converted 19th-century guildhall means not merely to match London's jazziest restaurants, but to better them at knocking out sensational food for beautiful people at reasonable prices. It has a great room, great chef, great manager. In theory, it cannot go wrong.

But it can and it does. This much was obvious the instant I saw Mr Maxwell wearing a loud double-breasted jacket and a brassy name-badge. My bet is that Mr Ladenis would stare, bug-eyed, before demanding what his jaunty genius of a manager was doing in a Holiday Inn.

Nor did lukewarm American martinis made with bog-standard gin bode well. Whatever tone he might adopt, Nico would point out to the barman in the lurid waistcoat that, if a cocktail cannot be made properly (in this case, with frozen glasses, Tanqueray and a whisper of Noilly Prat shaken on ice), it should not be made at all.

Nico would not have noticed the kindly waiters eagerly pouring Gevrey-Chambertin to the rim of a wine glass. He would have been long gone.

We stayed, because it is worth navigating the terrible martinis and the odd bad idea for Mr Maxwell's cocky charm and Mr Flynn's food. The cooking is not up to Nico standards, but nor is the set-up: Mr Ladenis's kitchen might have 12 cooks serving 85 people. Mr Flynn's brigade of nine might feed 225.

Under Mr Ladenis, Mr Flynn was a fantastic fish cook. He remains one. The best thing we tasted was sea bream, lightly floured, the crust finished with a dash of seasame oil and baked. It came served in a sort of Oriental salsa - a light emulsion flavoured with tomato, pickled ginger and coriander. Only in Ireland would one find this dish served with potato puree: Flynn also flavours this with sesame oil.

Confit of duck, a Nico speciality, also receives an Oriental treatment, served with shredded cucumber and spring onions. Ken Hom, the Chinese cookery writer, popularised this dish, and it can be wonderful. We ordered it but were served, in error, a Greek-style salad involving roast red peppers, tomatoes and feta. This was good.

No restaurant in London serves better calf's liver than the one at Very Simply Nico. Mr Flynn's slices of meat are thinner and higher-tasting than the ones I remember from Nico, but still good, ingeniously presented not only with bacon but with a sweet leaf of cabbage. More (slightly glutinous) potato puree accompanies it, lavishly laced with olive oil.

Some of the dishes, such as pasta, asparagus and basil cream, confused me: they sound more like the off-key quick food one might see tested on a Sainsbury advertisement than something Mr Flynn might be tempted to serve.

The 'mixed plate of Irish seafood' was the sort of theme park of a dish that is meant to impress with variety: an oyster here, a couple of mussels there, a dollop of crab salad and slab of salmon. Some considerate soul even buttered the soda bread. A simple serving of any of them alone (especially the crab salad) would have been welcome; together they clashed.

Running beneath the vaulted dining-room of La Stampa is a cavernous cellar which has been converted to a nightclub where loud music plays. It is painted Hammer Horror red and attended by slinky blondes. It would not impress Nico.

La Stampa, 35 Dawson Street, Dublin 2 (010 353 1 677 8611). Open Mon-Fri and Sun lunch and dinner, Sat dinner. Vegetarian meals. Children welcome. Piped jazz music. Major credit cards.

(Photograph omitted)

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