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The Saddle Room Restaurant, Dublin


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Before the new restaurant opened in the Shelbourne, there were all sorts of rumours around town.

Nobu was coming, no he wasn’t, yes, maybe… and in the end, an unknown known was announced which was possibly wise. Lessons learned from the rare sighted Jean Cristophe Novelli in La Stampa perhaps, or maybe just a quick break-even tot which confirmed that big names + big money = big risk, and may be just on the wrong side of the popularity curve anyway. Particularly in sceptical Dublin. That said, everyone expects Ramsay’s new place in Wicklow (due to open in September), to be the exception to this rule.

John Mooney is the executive chef of the new Saddle Room, an American with an Irish bloodline. He has headed the kitchen in New York’s ‘W’ Hotel, opened India’s only Organic Restaurant in the Taj Hotel, and was named ‘Best Hotel Chef’ in the USA by The James Beard Foundation, so has quite a few culinary notches on his belt.

His concept for the new Saddle Room restaurant is tight and focused. It’s basically seafood and steaks. All I needed was a reservation. “We’re booked up for the next two months,” I was told on the phone by the front desk. And he was emphatic. Every single dinner and lunch was completely booked out. Even the oyster bar. So he agreed to put me on the waiting list for a cancellation. Later that afternoon, I got a call from one of the Saddle Room staff, and it appeared that there was plenty of availability and a date was set. Just about every review I've read on the restaurant charted a similar story, so obviously a serious teething problem which I presume has been well ironed out by now.

The entrance to the restaurant is to the side of the sweeping staircase in the foyer, an attractive gatekeeper checks reservations and the first thing you see is an impressive marble oyster bar and an open kitchen at the back. It looks good, with crisp chequerboard tiles on the floor and some barstools at the counter.

We turn left and pass the padded-cell stretch, a number of semi-private dining booths cocooned in gold quilting which wouldn’t look out of place in Dubai. Then we are through to what used to be the Side Door restaurant. And it works. It feels much more comfortable with its printed wallpaper and swirly-patterned carpets. There’s a bit of a gentlemen’s club air to it. The view onto Kildare Street probably helps.

The white-linen-clad tables are a generous size and well spaced; the chairs are comfortable and the lounge music blends nicely. Service is friendly, and bread is quickly brought to the table (nice and warm, with a good crust) and we embark on the easiest piece of single page menu reading for some time. It’s concise and to the point; an American-styled menu (appetisers and entrees) with the Irish palate firmly in mind.

Starters on the dinner menu range from €9 for a green salad to €19 for pan-seared foie gras. Nothing jumps out as being particular inventive, but the seafood chowder for €10 and crab cakes for €12 sound good. And there are four choices of oyster: Clare, Galway, Carlingford and French Claire at €2.50 per bi-valve.

The wine list is unusual but comprehensive, with a commendable number of wines by the glass starting at €8, half bottles starting at €14 and for deeper pockets, two vertical options, and a 1949 Petrus for €6000. The list is sectioned into styles, eg light bodied, fruity, deep bodied, which is interesting, but is not an easy price-point read. Apparently it was compiled in the States.

After about 20 minutes, our starters arrive. The oysters are good (one of each type plus two more Galway's), served on the half-shell on crushed ice with a little bowl of Mignonette sauce. So, well sourced, and nicely presented. Two crab cakes are served with a nice little salad, lifted by fine strips of roasted pepper. They are tasty, un-bulked by potato, but not quite as good as you can get for less in the Mermaid, and the tame aioli could have done with a bit more oomph.

Main courses “From the Grill” start with a 12oz sirloin for €32 and rise to a 10oz tenderloin for €36 and an18oz T-bone for €37. If you think swordfish steak is worth eating, it’s €26 and tiger prawns are €33. There is a choice of sauces for the steak, but if you want anything else - fundamentals like chips or vegetables for instance - add €5 per side order. Roast rack of Wicklow lamb with potato gratin is €41 and the roasted organic chicken comes with mash and braised greens for €27. Further fish options (no sides) include pan-seared sea bass (farmed) for €35; “Gin & Tonic” grilled salmon (farmed) for €34 and grilled black sole for €39.

After a lengthy wait, our T-bone steak and rack of lamb arrive, both presented on wooden boards inset with a black cast iron tray that you often hear sizzling in mid-priced American steakhouses. There is no sizzle, not even a watt of heat, just a solitary steak and a point I don’t get. A white plate would have been so much more appealing. The chips arrive, skins on (very TGI Friday, well this is a personal thing, I don’t really like skins on) not too crisp and over-salted and a dish of acceptable creamed spinach. The steak has not reached the right level of charring on the outside and is well past its medium-rare ordered status. Which is a shame, because it is an extremely good piece of meat. Well-aged and full of flavour. The lamb - a generous full rack of six - is another fine piece of meat, cooked medium as ordered but somehow a bit flaccid. Maybe it spent too long under the lights. The gratin, in its own little dish is tasty enough, but way too runny and is uncharacteristically bolstered with cheese on top. We battle to get attention to get our glasses of tap water refilled.

Desserts are €9.50 and take a bit of reading to get a feel for what they actually might be. They sound complicated, like a coffee and vanilla panacotta with a rhubarb compote, lemon sorbet and cracker filo brick. Just to put things to the test, we share the white chocolate truffle “sushi style” which unfortunately turns out to be every bit as suspect as it sounds. Three self-conscious cylinders of white truffle - the texture of plasticy cheese - are rolled in chopped pistachio, a smear of citrus yoghurt dressing is completely out of place but luckily a delicious mango sorbet saves the day. After a €4 double espresso and a few valiant attempts to get the bill, we finally leave, €188.50 plus a tip poorer and a nagging sense of mild disappointment.

A few days later, I give the Saddle Room a second chance, this time for lunch at the oyster bar. Nobody drops in to gorge themselves on oysters and in reality, the bar is just a focal point, a more casual place to sit, and most of the plates that are being served are of cooked prawns. But it’s pleasant all the same, and my friend experiences the same excited sense of anticipation as I had.

This soon deflates as a seriously over-cooked steak with insubstantial charring does a reprise (on the cold griddle in wood). They graciously cook another one but no-one remembers to offer an accompanying sauce. The chips, however, are crispy this time around and they’re not over salted.

The burger is a massive disappointment. It has a well-aged flavour, but no fat to lubricate and loosen the texture, so it’s dense and dry. The home-made bap is good but way too big for the burger, the garnishes are woeful and it’s just depressing. There seem to be quite a few things lacking at the Saddle Room, but the glaring one has to be the grill. The key to a good grill room is… a good grill and it seems that the one at the Shelbourne isn’t hot enough. This could be a bedding–down problem, but it’s also a very fundamental one and I would expect an American chef who I’m sure has eaten in some of the famous American steakhouses like Morton’s or Ruth’s Chris to know better.

So, a missed opportunity for the Shelbourne. In the absence of a Wolsey-type menu (when will someone start serving soufflés?), I had at least expected a great grill. But instead, all it does is uphold its tradition for mediocre food. In summary, the prices are what you’d expect from a luxury hotel, the food is what you’d expect from a hotel restaurant, and on the upside, every meal I’ve had since looks like a positive bargain in comparison.

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cracker filo brick. 

What's that then? As in 'that's a cracker. It's the way I tell 'em. Frank Carson etc' ?

Is it the done thing in Dublin to write reviews in the present tense? It confuses the hell out of at least one reader but then I've just had lunch.

S

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What, you mean there is a hotel restaurant in Dublin that is overpriced and poor quality.....Surely not :raz:

Why am I absolutely not suprised to read that the food on offer in the new Shelbourne is not good. Call me a pessimist but this is what I expect from this city......

BTW I thought it was a brilliant review Corinna in any tense :wink:

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cracker filo brick. 

What's that then? As in 'that's a cracker. It's the way I tell 'em. Frank Carson etc' ?

Is it the done thing in Dublin to write reviews in the present tense? It confuses the hell out of at least one reader but then I've just had lunch.

S

Perhaps it's just the "Dunne" thing... !

As for the cracker filo brick... it is probably horribly self-explanatory.

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Have nothing positive to contribute except on my last visit the sommelier told me that he was not responsible for the wine selection, they have centralised the wine buying and selection is made by a sommelier in the States. I'm glad he or she is far away as it is a shockingly poor excuse for a wine list. Very cross as I left the place feeling like a sucker. You are absolutely right Corinna a very good grill would been at the least expected. That restaurant wouldn't last through opening night in the States but apparently it's fine for Dublin. On a funnier note one of the names on the original list to take over the kitchen was Johnny Cook. :blink:

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