Cooking outside the box

Serial restaurateur Eamonn O’Reilly’s new venture in Stepaside is “the real thing”, writes CATHERINE CLEARY

Serial restaurateur Eamonn O'Reilly's new venture in Stepaside is "the real thing", writes CATHERINE CLEARY

IF IDEAS CAN be tarnished by events then the “mixed-use development” is definitely on the list. These are the blocks of apartments and offices over shops that seemed to spring up in every village and town. The shop spaces stayed empty, the plate glass windows grew grimy, and what seemed like a good idea became monuments to failure and a blot on the streetscape.

It’s one of the reasons that Eamonn O’Reilly’s new restaurant in Stepaside in south Co Dublin is a cheering sight. The Box Tree and its sister pub The Wild Boar are in a new build that curves down the line of the steep hill in this aptly-named place. Step aside pedestrians – traffic never sleeps in this village.

I’m surprised it’s still as busy as I remember it from my commuting days, before the N11 was finished. Back then I was battling morning sickness in the passenger seat, bracing myself for every twist and turn in the road.

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The windows are sparkling here and have the name of the restaurant etched on them, along with the words, “by Eamonn O’Reilly”. A restaurant “by” someone, like a novel or a play, is always a little cringey and more usually associated with a TV face. It’s forgivable if the food is good. In this case, the author is a chef who has quietly built a small empire, starting at One Pico on Molesworth Place, Dublin, the short-lived but much-lauded Pacific, then Bleu Bistro on Dawson Street, and now here with The Box Tree and its gastropub next door.

Inside, the place is box fresh, with a spanking new fit-out, wool tartan cushions and seats, muted duck-egg greens and browns. It’s also empty, but we are early for Saturday lunch at 12.30pm. My friend Ali plans to run 16 miles later in the day. I have plans to go to a four-year-old’s birthday party and try not to eat 16 Rice Krispie buns.

First impressions are very good. A waiter who catches your eye when the music is turned up and asks, “too loud?” deserves to be cherished by the boss. It is too loud. He tweaks it down and all is good.

The economics of a restaurant in the outer suburbs are different. Rent is lower but many of your customers are drivers, so profitable wine sales flow less freely. The price of €16.95 for two courses puts it nearly in a pub lunch price bracket. Between the austerity drive and the new, slightly soulless building, there’s a danger that mediocrity might be the end result. But that hasn’t happened here.

My starter of ham hock terrine with chutney is delicious; a dense pink slab of tasty ham that’s been sliced from a loaf-shaped terrine cloaked in crinkly cabbage leaves, giving the perfect marriage of bacon and cabbage. There’s a simple apple chutney alongside and a mayonnaise that’s supposed to have gherkins and capers in it. A small wrinkle here in that I can find none but someone has put puy lentils in instead (a touch of “they’re small, they’re green, who’ll notice”?) and sprinkled a little lettuce over the top as if to hide the hiccup. I’d like a gherkin tang with this but it’s no tragedy.

Ali’s Castletownbere crab comes in an elegant tian shape with a yellow lid of curry crème fraiche on top. She finds the smear of sweet pepper purée a “bit over-generous” and the dense, dark brown Guinness bread a little heavy for the delicious crab. But again these are small quibbles. Her main course of pan-fried cod with a potato mousseline, Vermouth cream peas and black bacon is intensely flavoursome. The fresh peas dotted in the gorgeous buttery sauce are bright punctuations and the fish is a “proper decent size” and perfectly cooked.

My mushroom and truffle risotto with a crisp hen’s egg is a generous serving in a beautiful (and hot) large white bowl. There are plenty of mushrooms, generous shavings of Parmesan, and the egg, which is softly done, breaks on the top to add an extra layer of flavour. And, crucially, they’ve taken it easy on the salt.

By now the place has filled with other diners, including families with children. The desserts of apple and blackberry crumble (€5.95) and a lemon rice pudding (€5.95) fall heavily on the sweet side of the scale, but are good. The crumble is served in a flan dish with lashings of purple fruit syrup oozing out from under a light dusting of crumble. The lemon rice pudding is more vanilla-infused than lemony, but nice, with a slightly too-sweet jam spooned on top. I’d order it again with the jam on the side.

Outside the plate glass window I notice a box tree cut into a globe that is so perfect I suspect it may be fake. Outside I take a closer look and it isn’t. It’s real, like the ingredients and cooking in this new venture. Authenticity is everything now and while it might look too good to be true, The Box Tree is the real thing.

Lunch for two with desserts, soft drinks and coffees came to €56.75.

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