Fallon and Byrne
Paolo Tullio's Review
The quest for the perfect meal is a never ending one. Every new restaurant that opens is a ray of hope, a grail that might just have that elusive quality of perfection. A new restaurant is like a magnet, it pulls in the foodies, the fashionistas, the style journos and the smart young women of the PR world. Launch your restaurant right and a white noise of chatter will soon clutter the ether.
Sadly I'm not always at the cutting edge of this chatter. About a month ago someone asked me What do you think of Fallon and Byrne?' Nice paint', I answered, I love their Georgian colours.' It's tragic what time does to your memory. Anyway, I'm up to speed now and no longer confuse restaurants with paint-makers. Curiously, though, having now visited Fallon and Byrne's food emporium in Exchequer Street, I suspect that the people who buy fancy paints and those who visit this food emporium might well be the same people.
There are three floors in this temple of food. There's a wine bar downstairs where you can sip wine, buy wine to take home, or buy wine that you can drink in the upstairs restaurant for a fixed corkage charge. The ground floor is a cross between a delicatessen and a supermarket. There's an astonishing range of foods on display; everyday vegetables, gourmet tit-bits in expensive jars and tins, fine cheeses, an impressive meat counter where aged sirloins caught my eyes, pastas of all types and qualities including my personal favourite rigatoni, breads and lots of olive oils ranging from the very expensive to a 5 litre can of extra virgin oil for 30.
After wandering around the food hall for a while I went upstairs to the restaurant to meet Arabella Annesley, who'd booked us a table. It's a large dining room, seating maybe 120 people and it boasts a high ceiling. One wall is made up of windows overlooking the street, another glass wall divides the staircase from the dining room, and a counter makes up the opposite wall. The back wall and a wooden floor ensure that all the surfaces are sound reflective, making for a very noisy room. Trying to hear Arabella, who sat opposite me at a small table, was very difficult. But I'll tell you now, the noise was the only part of the meal with which I had I problem. A faultless meal is a very rare thing. That's also partly because as a meal approaches perfection you start to get pickier. You begin to notice tiny faults because there are no big ones to occupy your thoughts. But try as I might, this meal turned out to be impeccable.
Before I tell you about it in detail, it's worth describing the menu, which reads really well. Firstly there's a set menu at 45 which doesn't stint on quality ingredients. Starters include oysters and smoked salmon as well as a goats' cheese tart and onion soup. Main courses offer free-range chicken, monkfish, an aged fillet steak and a variety of burgers, then a choice of four deserts and tea or coffee. That's twice that I've mentioned an aged' steak, so I'll define it. Beef improves in texture and flavour as it's left to hang in a coldroom. Butchers don't as rule like doing this for long because as meat hangs it loses moisture and hence weight, which means less money. That's why you'll find so much vacuum-packed meat on supermarket shelves: it can't lose any weight when vacuum-packed. It's generally accepted that aged' ought to mean 21 days, by which time beef becomes tender and flavourful - a huge improvement on fresher cuts.
The dinner menu is quite extensive. Starters run up to 10 and include a langoustine ravioli, a coquelet, a tian of crab and a confit of chicken. Oysters are offered in a variety of ways and gourmands can choose between Sevruga caviar at 65 an ounce or Beluga at 130. There are four salads to choose from in main course and starter size, and the main courses list a slow-cooked leg of lamb, rabbit, sea bream, monkfish, free-range chicken and fish pie - a good mixture of old favourites with some novel twists.
The wine list is pretty impressive. It's long and there are some very good wines on it. Not only that, but it came with an excellent sommelier, a man who really knew his list well. Sadly that's not as common as it should be. It's such a delight to talk through possible choices with someone who knows what he's talking about. The result of the chat was to choose the Albariño from Rias Baixas 2004, a really crisp and elegant wine from Galicia in north-west Spain. There was a special on that night, a starter of foie gras, and the sommelier suggested a glass of an Australian late harvest Riesling to accompany it and a very good suggestion it was too, it turned out.
Arabella started with an excellent crab tian, which had just enough crème fraiche to moisten it and a hint of cumin to flavour it - superb. I had the foie gras which was just as fine, and we followed these with a truly excellent fish pie for Arabella and the aged sirloin for me. Both of these dishes were faultless and the Béarnaise that accompanied the steak was exceptional. I'll say no more about the meal other than to repeat it was as perfect a meal as any I've eaten.
With that pleasurable glow that comes from having eaten extraordinarily well, we finished off our wine and then ordered a tea for Arabella and an espresso for me. Even at this point it was perfect - I got an expertly made espresso as ristretto as it should be, instead of the more common watery offering. A bill for 97.50 seemed remarkable value for such an excellent meal.