A Legend, Not A Myth – The Unicorn Restaurant, Dublin 2 – Review
I am most envious of the Italian culture. They really are the experts at creating a convivial atmosphere and making every meal feel like a celebratory occasion. This is especially true when it comes to the staff at The Unicorn, on Dublin’s Merrion Court. Since 1938 The Unicorn has been feeding hungry diners and although it may have changed hands in the years that have passed since its debut, the ethos here remains the same.
I visited The Unicorn many times during its Celtic Tiger heyday and have fond memories of each occasion. The revelry, the company and the all-round electric atmosphere was hard to replicate. The food was always good, but it wasn’t the food that drew patrons back again and again.
Friday lunches at The Unicorn were legendary, with a who’s who of Irish society converging on this Dublin institution. On my recent visit, I was excited to return and see if much had changed. And boy has it changed, but only for the better. The warm and inviting atmosphere is still intact but on this visit, the food surpassed my expectations, making a visit to The Unicorn in 2020 a must for food lovers of every persuasion.
We arrived on a blustery Monday evening, lucky to secure an early table after being told that they were booked out, unheard of on a Monday night in January.
The restaurant was quiet when we arrived but that soon changed and one would be forgiven for thinking it was a pre-Christmas Saturday with the hordes of guests that descended into the restaurant over the course of the evening. The space itself is comfortable and upscale without feeling off putting. There is very much an atmosphere of a classical restaurant, and that is something that I enjoy tremendously. Once seated, we began with an expertly made Whiskey Sour (€13) and a Unicorn Gin & Tonic (€12), replete with plump raspberries and fresh mint.
The menu has an excellent selection of dishes throughout to satisfy both seafood lovers and meat eaters alike. Vegetarians are also considered with classic Italian options such as Insalata di Bietole, a salad of Candied Irish Beetroot with Goat Cheese Foam, Pickled Cucumber, Watermelon, Thyme Oil Dressing and Candied Walnuts (€13) or Risotto al Parmigiano & Tartufo with Carnaroli Risotto, Aged Parmesan, White Truffle Oil and Black Truffles (€25).
Being committed carnivores we chose to start with the Carpaccio di Bresaola with Lemon, Pickled Celery, Aged Balsamic, and Rocket with Aged Parmesan (€14).
There were no regrets here, and despite being very apathetic when it comes to celery, the pickled variation added a surprisingly gratifying element to this dish. Happily, the Carpaccio was plentiful (as opposed to the rocket which can often be the case) and the Aged Balsamic was almost syrupy in consistency. This was a dish that was both light but substantial at the same time, a perfect start to our meal.
Our second starter was the Gamberoni Alla N`Duja which consisted of Atlantic Gambas and N`duja Sausage with Garlic Butter, Chilli and Lemon served with Grilled Crostini Bread (€17).
This is one of the most expensive starters on the menu but it was worth every penny. Four plump Gambas akin in size to mini Lobsters appeared, sliding from their shell with such ease that I almost went to the kitchen to thank the thoughtful chef who decided this would be a good idea. As much as I adore shellfish, I do not adore the struggle of releasing them from their protective shells. The crunchy Crostini made short work of the puddle of spicy broth that lay beneath the Prawns and we were all in agreement that this dish was another triumph.
We enjoyed our starters with a bottle of Alísia Pinot Grigio (€28) which was recommended by our charming Sicilian waiter Gerardo, who was a fountain of helpful information over the course of the evening. Slightly fruity yet dry with a velvety finish, Alísia is bottled in Murano Glass, the famous glassware from Venice. Fun fact for those interested in such things – or is that just me?
After a sufficient pause to digest our starters, we move on to main courses. My dining companion chose the Risotto ai Frutti di Mare (fantastic value at €25) while I chose the daily special of Dover Sole, a dish I can rarely resist when I see it on a menu (€39). For research purposes we ordered a side of Parmesan Truffle Fries (€5) in my bid to find the best in the city.
The Risotto was laden with Prawns, Calamari and Clams in a Seafood Bisque with Fresh Basil and Datterini Tomatoes. This had all qualities one would hope for in a perfectly executed Risotto, with the rice retaining the perfect bite and the consistency being adequately viscous without wandering into soupy territory. This was a luscious dish and again, the seafood quota was generous to say the least. And then came the Sole, a fish so meaty and lavish it could easily have fed two. On this occasion, it fed me, and it fed me very well. The buttery sauce and the Capers were the perfect finish for this dish, and even the glossy Tenderstem Broccoli & Roasted Potatoes that came with it were notable. Despite the generous portion, I had no qualms about consuming every morsel. It was in all honesty a perfect example of how a Dover Sole should be. The Parmesan and Truffle fries barely got a look in but we had no complaints about them either.
Following an acceptable hiatus, we perused the Dessert Menu and agreed that a shared Cheeseboard (€14) was the way to go. It happens to be my favourite way to end a meal, allowing ample time to sit and soak up the atmosphere.
Our Cheeseboard came with a selection of Irish and Italian Cheeses including a firm Sardinian Pecorino, a wonderfully mellow Taleggio and an unnamed Irish Blue, along with Salted Almonds and Grapes. There were not one but two Chutneys to choose from and the homemade crackers were a delight, being both strong enough to hold the cheese and yet thin enough to avoid a mealy mouthful. Simple, yet effective. This was a generous Cheeseboard and perfectly ample for two after such a delicious meal. On the advice of our waiter we enjoyed two glasses of Muffata Della Salla, a Dessert Wine from Umbria (€10) with our cheese, a deviation for me as I usually prefer a Tawny Port but with its delightful honey undertones it was a nice change. The wine list is extensive with prices from €28 so there is something for every palate and every budget.
We left the restaurant shortly after 8pm, having been told previously that we would be required to return our table by 7pm, however we had lost track of time and unusually, the staff had not hounded us as is so common nowadays. The verdict? The Unicorn is a very special dining establishment where the food unashamedly matches the excellent service ensuring a memorable meal. I will be returning very soon, there happens to be a Veal Chop with Marsala Wine that I’m told is the house special. Shhhh, don’t tell anyone.