French with Japanese and Asian influences? I’ll have to be honest, it sounded like culinary harakiri to me. When I want to eat Japanese food, I go to London and the thoughts of an Irish chef trained in the French classics letting loose with his Santoku knife just sounded dubious. But that’s what Conor Dempsey, the former head chef at Dax restaurant is doing in Amuse on Dawson Street which opened towards the end of last year.
The minute you walk through the door of Amuse you realise that these guys have aspirations. The room is comfortable, the staff are French and the atmosphere is relaxed; but ultimately you know, it’s going to be all about the food. The set lunch and dinner menus are particularly good value at €29 and €35 respectively for three courses, but it’s primarily a tasting menu format. There’s a five course dinner menu for €55 and a seven-course menu for €76, so we opted for the latter with matching wines for €50.
Predictably, our meal started with a little array of amuse bouche – salmon maki toped with salmon roe; crispy chicken skin with a decisive kick of kimchi, the famous Korean fermented cabbage; a squid ink cracker and a little pot with a savoury foam that had coconut notes to start and a nice hit of miso at the bottom. So you get the picture? A bit of fusion, a bit of molecular gastronomy and so far, plenty of taste.
For our first course, three pacific oysters were served out of their shell on a square glass plate. I would have expected native oysters, which are similar to the French belon oysters, to be served at this time of year, but, that said, they were very good. The plate was dotted with tasty morsels, a dashi gel that had a sweet note of mirin, tiny, perfectly diced apple in a quenelle shaped mound, a seaweed gel and a disc of miso. This was a skilfully balanced dish that had the restraint and subtlety associated with Japanese food. We followed with another very restrained dish of sashimi style tuna in a cucumber broth, then two beautifully seared scallops with a light aerated sauce.
Punchy Vietnamese influence
The next dish moved away from the subtlety of Japan and kicked up the flavours a notch. A beautifully presented piece of hake was topped with a quenelle of satay and our waiter poured a Vietnamese broth over the dish at the table, a ritual that is surely on page one of Michelin-by-numbers at this stage. The bigger flavours in this dish were managed very well, and it served as a nice crescendo in the meal.
Moving on to the first meat course, which was poussin and foie gras, I was disappointed to discover that the foie gras was a mere swipe down the side of the bowl. The poussin was delicately cooked, I’d imagine in a water bath, and once again we had the pouring ritual, this time is was the addition of a beautiful red fermented cabbage broth. This had a wonderful flavour, the only fault being, it masked the flavour of the hazelnut mousse, so not a fully resolved dish. The pairing of a youthful red Burgundy wine worked very well.
A game of two halves
The venison dish that followed had us divided – the caveman loved it and I felt that the meat, which appeared to have been cooked in a water bath was just a bit flaccid and needed more charring on the outside. To finish, there’s a choice of cheese, which is a well kept Roquefort, or dessert which was served on a particularly beautiful plate. A lime mousse and frothy lime marshmallow were accompanied by a strong kick from black sesame seed and in a separate glass, was a delicate matcha and pistachio ice cream, which was delicious.
Japanese chefs in French restaurants have become a trend in Paris over the past few years, but Conor Dempsey’s influences are broader than Japan. The style of cooking here reminds me very much of the dishes Michelin starred chef Jason Atherton was cooking when he started the whole small plates, big flavour craze in Maze restaurant in London nine years ago. In Amuse, not everything is perfect, but without a doubt, the chef shows real talent in his ability to manage subtle flavours, which is no small feat. This is not a cheap restaurant, but it certainly holds its own in the fine dining category and if you’re looking for somewhere special to go, this is definitely one to try.
Amuse, 22 Dawson St, Dublin 2. Tel: 01 639 4889