Derry Clarke opened Ecrivain ("the writer") in July 1989. Prior to this he was head chef of Le Bon Appetit for eight years, and cooked for four years at Le Coq Hardi prior to that. Ecrivain is situated just off a little courtyard not too far from St Stephens Green, near the Grand Canal. There was a downstairs bar, with the dining room up a flight of stairs. The room itself has a high ceiling, and there is a small elevated section, with a conservatory area for use in warm weather. The room is smartly decorated, with stained glass and also wood panelling. Tables were well spaced and laid with good linen, the lighting in the room however being rather murky. Jazz played quietly in the background, though since the room is carpeted the noise level was fine. At capacity the room can seat 88 diners, with a further dozen in a private dining room. The restaurant was doing good business on the night of my visit, with over 60 diners on a Monday night, being cooked for by eight chefs in the kitchen.
Three courses were priced at €65, with a tasting menu at €90 (€140 with wine pairing), which is what I opted for. The wine list had around 150 different wines on offer, with wines such as Prieur Brunet Le Foulot Santenay Cote De Beaune 2009 at €55 for a wine that would set you back €21 in the high street, Clos Menuts St Emilion Grand Cru Libournais 2006 at €80 for a wine that you can buy in the shops for €15, up to grander wines such as Chateau Palmer Margaux 1986 at €590 for a wine that you can find retail for €166. Further examples were Reserve de Leoville Barton 2007 at a steep €110 for a wine that retails at €25, while the lovely Etienne Sauzet Puligny Montrachet 2009 was a relative bargain at €145 for a wine that you can buy in a shop for €90. There were some prestige wines too, such as Chateau Margaux 1982 at €1200 for a wine that actually costs €953 retail. The female sommelier was excellent, and her wine pairings unusually thoughtful.
Bread was made from scratch, and served warm. There was quite a wide choice, including black olive roll, tomato roll, walnut and cranberry bread, fennel roll, poppy seed roll, sesame seed breed and even Guinness bread. These had generally good texture, though the fennel roll was a little dense (15/20 average). The meal began with a salted fillet of cod, shaved fennel and citrus aioli. I liked the aioli, which was reasonably subtle, but the fennel flavour was a little strong for the cod (14/20). John Dory and horseradish mousse was topped with poached langoustine and served with basil jelly, a little coriander and purée of courgettes. The langoustine was nicely cooked though it did not have great flavour, and indeed this comment could be applied to most of the elements, even the horseradish very subtle to the point of being subdued (15/20).
Citrus-cured monkfish was rolled in sumac spice and chervil, served with baby (French) asparagus, grapefruit jelly and watercress froth. The asparagus was cut so thin that its flavour was a little lost, and the monkfish, which is a reasonably robust fish, was overwhelmed by the sumac. The grapefruit jelly also had a somewhat grainy texture, so overall this dish did not feel to me to be very successful (13/20 at best).
This was followed by poached lobster, leek that that had been baked in turf, some sprouting broccoli, chorizo powder, crystallised seaweed and little pools of warm lobster bisque. The chorizo flavour was subtle to the point of invisibility and the broccoli did not seem to me to add much, but the lobster was nicely cooked and the bisque had quite good intensity; overall there seemed to me to be just too many garnishes vying for attention (14/20).
At this point in the meal a "palate cleanser" appeared in the form of a Granny Smith granita. I thought this idea had died out in the 1980s, but here it was, larger than life. The granita itself was nicely made, but the elderflower foam with it was a distraction. I find the notion of a cold granita in between savoury courses a rather jarring one, and although the granita itself was fine (14/20). I think this dish could have been successfully omitted.
The flow of dishes resumed with seared foie gras on toasted brioche, alongside cured foie gras with a little chicken stock, dried pepper and parsley, vanilla meringue and pistachio crumble. Although quite complex this dish worked very well, the foie gras smooth in texture and having deep flavour, with unannounced pineapple syrup giving just the right acidic balance to the richness of the liver. The pistachio crumble was also a nice touch, giving some textural variation. This was the best dish of the meal (17/20).
Next was rabbit in several forms. The loin was roasted, served with the rib of rabbit, along with the rabbit's kidneys and liver, confit of rabbit leg terrine coated in corn, with sweet corn purée and sweet corn beignet, with foie gras emulsion for good measure. I think this was a good illustration of how such a complex dish can be hard to deliver. The beignet was good and the kidney carefully cooked, but the loin was a little dry. With so many elements it is tough for the kitchen to deliver them all optimally (15/20).
The main course was roast fillet of beef. The beef was Hereford beef from Ireland, aged for 32 days, aged half on the bone and half off the bone, from a supplier in Bally Mahon. This was served with braised ox cheek, shredded tongue, shredded onion, celeriac and garlic mousseline, prune chutney, rosemary aioli and pickled cauliflower, radish and baby turnip, with bone marrow breadcrumb. The beef itself had good flavour, for me the cheek more interesting than the fillet, but again this dish seemed over complex (still 16/20).
At this point I was presented with a dish of Parmesan custard, a wholemeal tuile, a herb bread stick, celery salad with watercress, pickled walnuts and even a port and red wine reduction. The main question I asked myself was: "why?". This was neither fish or fowl as it were, not a pre-dessert, not a salad, not a savory dish, not cheese, but an unfortunate hybrid of the lot. The actual components were reasonable in themselves, but as an overall plate this seemed to me simply incoherent (12/20).
Dessert followed, a lemon and lime leaf parfait with basil custard brûlée, with lemon meringue, shortbread cheesecake with lemon curd. The elements hung together reasonably well, but again here were an awful lot of flavours competing for attention, and the dish would have been improved by omitting the basil (15/20). The meal finished with good coffee and a range of petit fours: a chocolate macaroon, chocolate and hazelnut tart, passion fruit jelly, raspberry marshmallows and peanut fudge (15/20).
Service was excellent throughout, and the bill came to €168. Overall this was an enjoyable experience, but I felt that the kitchen had slipped too often into the danger zone of over-complexity, always tempted to add just one more garnish, when in reality less is so often more.