“We’re humble in what we do,” says Eric Matthews, the chef de cuisine under chef-owner Ross Lewis at Chapter One in central Dublin. “We’re not trying to be flashy.” Then, as if to deflect attention from his craft, he declares Irish dining’s best asset to be “hospitality.”
Chapter One excels at warm reception. From the moment you descend the iron stairs to the Georgian-style basement entrance, fringed with ivy, you feel as if you’re a long-lost friend of the staff. A smiling receptionist passes you off to a host who asks if you’d like to ease in with a drink before dinner. Before you know it, you’re in a cozy lounge where the bartender proposes an “Irish kir” made with a native blackberry wine (yes, please) and a companion opts for a drink inspired by the restaurant’s pastry chef. Gin, cucumber juice, dill syrup, lime and a cap of egg white take the tongue on a buzzy garden tour.
A flotilla of snacks appears. First, a coin-size, saffron-tinted biscuit made with carrot powder and sporting a dab of whipped ricotta and a drizzle of apple syrup and balsamic. A gougère, stuffed with fondue-soft Coolea Farmhouse Cheese and tricked out with shaved white truffles, melts on the tongue like cotton candy. A finger of pickled herring, hinting of allspice and bay leaf, comes with a see-through sheath of kohlrabi, soft yet crisp. We haven’t seen a menu yet, but the first few moments in the bar prime us for something special in the chic dining room.
Born in Bishopstown, a suburb of Cork, Lewis came to a then-modest Chapter One, linked to the Dublin Writers Museum, 26 years ago. He brought with him a background that included time on a family dairy farm; a stint as a baggage handler at JFK Airport in New York, where he figured out he wanted to pursue cooking; and restaurant jobs in London and Geneva before returning home. His longtime promotion of his country’s products made him a pioneer of contemporary Irish cooking.
Chapter One received its first Michelin star, designating “a very good restaurant,” in 2007, an accolade the restaurant went on to maintain every year since, along with a slew of national honors. Lewis’s lush cookbook, “Chapter One, An Irish Food Story” (Gill Books, 2013), weighs five pounds, relies on paper from wood pulp of managed forests and comes with recipes that remind you that chefs have brigades of support in the kitchen — and you don’t. I’d buy it for inspiration alone, however, and for the long list of sources for the restaurant’s choice staples.
Lucky are the patrons who land at Table 15. Positioned in front of “End of the Night,” a painting of a luminous if weary ballgoer, the perch comes with a view of the kitchen, dashing in green marble. No matter where you sit, however, the woven wool chairs hug you. The output of Irish artisans graces the walls of the restaurant, which could pass for a gallery save for the cooking fragrances. The way Lewis sees it, “decor and food are intertwined.”
Chapter One gives customers several ways to sample its cooking, via pre-theater, a la carte and tasting menus, making it accessible to a larger audience. Four courses seems like a good strategy, and parsley soup is what my jet-lagged body craves. The emerald-green puree arrives in a glass bowl set in a round wooden frame. Loose little islands of tangy buttermilk float on the surface; a spoon pulls up an emulsion of carrots cooked in brown butter, as well as hints of garlic and tarragon. The only fillip the appetizer requires is parked nearby: brown soda bread with dreamy Irish butter.
Scallops marinated in elderflower vinegar and mussel juice show how open the Irish attitude is regarding food, says Matthews, the chef de cuisine. Not that long ago, he jokes, the sight of raw seafood would have been met with an order from its recipient: “Stick that back in the pan, will ya?” The bracing scallops from the North Coast benefit from diced green apple, chopped oysters and buttermilk sharpened with horseradish.
Lewis, 55 this month, says he doesn’t want Chapter One to be thought of as a good Irish restaurant, but rather, “an Irish restaurant with international standards.” He and his team deliver in spades. “Would you like to kick back a little?” an attendant asks after our appetizers have been cleared. “Pause?” Life is rushed. Your entree deserves some contemplation, particularly if it’s house-cured salmon that’s smoked nearby and arrives on its plate with tufts of smoked salmon mousse and crab “pancakes” shaped from potatoes, eggs and creme fraiche. The frill eats like a seafood souffle. Ruddy venison is another success story, presented atop sticky, port-sweetened red cabbage and an inky sauce fueled in part by chocolate butter.
The top chef didn’t bring it up himself, so allow me: Lewis was tasked to cook for Queen Elizabeth II on her 2011 visit to Ireland, the first trip to the republic by a reigning British monarch since 1911. The state dinner highlighted wild salmon, filet of beef, and strawberries and cream for 170 guests, and couldn’t go longer than 110 minutes. The restrictions were few: no shellfish (the hosts didn’t want to take any risks) and easy on the spices. Her Majesty, it seems, isn’t keen on kicks in her food.
Something tells me she would have loved “Flavours and textures of Irish milk and honey,” an understated celebration of some of the Emerald Isle’s finest products. The composition brings together smooth ice cream, crisp milk wafer, bruleed milk skin, yogurt foam and pedigreed Lannleire honey. If angels made nursery food, this is what it would taste like.
Chapter One has spoiled me for anyone else’s Irish coffee, an essential part of the dining experience here. The drink comes to life with the help of a server who parks a trolley next to your table and proceeds to pour a syrup spiced with mace and nutmeg into a hot pan, caramelizing the sweetener. Brazilian coffee and Jameson Caskmates whiskey, finished in beer barrels, follow. The finishing touch is a cool cloud of whipped Irish cream.
Suffice it to say, it’s hard to push away from the table and return to reality.
“We’re not looking to be in the World’s Top 50,” says Matthews. The chef is perfectly content to hear from fans, “Chapter One! I love that place!”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the year Chapter One chef-owner Ross Lewis cooked for Queen Elizabeth II. This version has been corrected.
Chapter One 18-19 Parnell Sq., Dublin. 353-1-873-2266. chapteronerestaurant.com.
Prices: Four-course dinner around $90.