A quarter of a century after he made a decision to champion Irish ingredients and cuisine, Ross Lewis is witnessing the arrival of the type of admiration he has always hoped to see. Lewis is the executive chef and owner of Chapter One, a Michelin-starred restaurant that is among the establishments at the forefront of Dublin’s suddenly notable food scene.
The restaurant was a pioneer in the locavore movement that has helped other nations improve their reputations for culinary excellence. Now, Ireland is seeing appreciation for its restaurant industry arrive on its shores.
“We sit on some amazing primary product and that’s been the important thing. We took advantage of what we have and now you can see it — there’s a growing confidence in the Irish food scene. It’s absolutely unbelievable the change that’s occurred and what’s happening here now,” says Lewis, who worked at restaurants in Geneva, Switzerland before returning to his homeland and eventually opening Chapter One in 1993.
The restaurant’s name is inspired by its location beneath the Dublin Writers Museum. It is a fine-dining establishment, with elegantly appointed tables and eye-catching wall decor, but not overly decorative cuisine. Lewis steers away from trends such as molecular gastronomy and also reins in any temptation to plate dishes that are extravagantly artistic. His aim is to showcase Ireland’s richness of products — from some of the best dairy on the planet to sustainably raised meat and fish — and the result is exquisite. A set menu might start with a Japanese-inspired tapioca serving where Ballyhoura mushrooms and surprisingly sweet leeks are blended with the grain’s beads. It leaves the diner with a sensation of forms and tastes that will instantly introduce you to Lewis’s talent and intentions. A start like that needs to be balanced with an equally impressive finish and the dessert “Flavours and textures of Irish milk and honey” — a name that sounds like it could have come from a James Joyce phrase — is a delicious collection of treats. It includes creme brûlée, ice cream, panna cotta, and meringue.
As sweet as that is, what truly sets Chapter One apart is its service. Attentive without being distracting, friendly, and deeply knowledgeable, the staff matches Lewis’s skill in the kitchen with a high quality of service, an ingredient that is just as certain to make your time in Dublin memorable as a visit to any of its popular sites.
Like many chefs, Lewis’s inspiration comes from the producers and farmers with whom he works. In Ireland, many of those agricultural entrepreneurs are in the middle of the country, in the counties of Tipperary and Cork, where Lewis was raised. Their passion for their product, their land, and their nation is what gives the chef a feeling of community with them.
“I see similar emotion for what they do and what I do. That gives me a lot of passion and energy,” he says. “There’s an emotional exchange with them and it helps keep me going.”
His continuing efforts to bring notoriety to Ireland’s restaurants is helping to create more buzz than ever. Media attention is increasing and the nation’s reputation is blossoming. “I’d say in last four or five years I could see the momentum building and growing from the bottom up,” Lewis says. “A lot of stars have aligned. I think we will get more attention. I think the beauty of the country, the ruggedness and the purity of it, and the great primary produce is what defines what we have here in Ireland.”
Sip and Savour Art Tea in Dublin
Another dining experience not to miss is at the Merrion Hotel, a five-star property that is housed in four converted Georgian townhouses and is across from St. Stephen’s Green. Executive pastry chef Paul Kelly takes advantage of the hotel’s art holdings — the largest private collection in Ireland — to create a distinct and fun dining experience. The Merrion’s daily Art Tea features pastries designed with pieces of art in the collection in mind. In some cases, Kelly crafts a mini-replica of the painting that is his culinary muse; in other desserts, he takes inspiration from one facet of the artwork.
Coincidentally, Kelly was once an art student. His ability to make artwork out of his culinary talents seems fitting. To execute his creations, he uses a printer that can print edible paper and carefully crafts his subjects to represent the artist’s work without compromising his primary duties as a pastry chef — which is to deliver a scintillating taste experience.
“It’s very challenging. We spend a lot of time matching the colours of the art and at the same time we have to stay true to the classic disciplines of pastry making,” Kelly says.
More than 10 years ago, Kelly wanted to mingle his passions for art and pastry creations, so he went on a research project to New York, London, and Paris, investigating what other chefs were doing and trying to find inspiration for his own work at the Merrion. He returned with the idea to make full use of the hotel’s art collection. In doing so, he’s created one of the city’s more unique and spectacular dining highlights.
The tea is served in the Merrion’s Garden Room, which is pleasantly colourful and decorated with art that inspires Kelly’s creations. Once you’ve completed your tea, take a look around the hotel and its notable artwork. Like Chapter One, the Merrion is part of Ireland’s Blue Book, a collection of the nation’s leading restaurants and accommodations known for their distinctiveness and quality. The artwork is part of what makes the Merrion unique and charming, and the Art Tea underscores those attributes.
MORE ABOUT CHAPTER ONE
Location: 18-19 Parnell Square North, Rotunda, Dublin 1, Ireland (see map below)
Menu Price Range: The four-course dinner menu (60 euro; $70 USD) and seven-course tasting menu (110 euro; $130 USD) showcase the best of the restaurant’s options. The lunch offerings are excellent, too, with a two-course (35 euro; $42 USD) or three-course (42 euro; $50 USD) menu available as well as a wonderful tasting menu (60 euro; $70 USD).
MORE ABOUT ART TEA AT THE MERRION HOTEL
Location: Merrion Street Upper, Dublin 2, Ireland
Art Tea Cost: A selection of pastries created by executive pastry chef Paul Kelly costs 37 euro ($44 USD). Additional finger sandwiches and a-la-carte options are available from 12-15 euro ($14-$18 USD); teas cost 6 euro ($7 USD) each.