Festive flavours

THE Shelbourne Hotel is an institution at any time of year.

At Christmas, however, Dublin’s grand dame really comes into its own. Standing beneath the wiry winter branches of Stephen’s Green, I take a moment to admire the elegant old Georgian facade before crossing the road, catching the doorman’s nod, and pushing the brass handle of its old revolving door.

Inside, I’ve arranged to meet a colleague, PF, for Christmas lunch. There’s a real festive fizzle to the hotel. Well-heeled guests are laden with shopping bags, a photo shoot is underway for a glossy magazine, and Johnny Sexton is chatting on his mobile in the Lord Mayor’s lounge. In the No 27 Bar, Christmas cocktails are doing a Thursday trade that might just save the euro.

This aura, this dyed-in-the-wool luxury, is titillating. The Shelbourne has had its wobbles, but the Marriott Renaissance makeover seems to have gotten it onto a firmer footing. But you can still feel the old hotel in which Princess Grace was once a guest and Peter O’Toole famously bathed in champagne (alas, not at the same time).

At the Saddle Room, the hostess stands at a wooden podium, and we are shown to a table by a timeworn leather banquette. Not that it’s fusty — a line-up of stools stands invitingly by a glitzy oyster bar, and the restaurant’s open-kitchen juts right out into the low-ceilinged rooms, where a chef finishes dishes under the glow of copper heat lamps.

Christmas lunch is priced at two courses for €36 or three for €40, and two small mince pies come with coffee after we have sated ourselves. The menus are enormous, A3-sized affairs featuring festive motifs and presented in sturdy, leather cases. The wine list is a book.

As you’d expect, the dishes are wintry, gamey, weighed down with root-veg. There’s a roast breast of wild Irish pheasant, a Charleville rib-eye, a risotto of roasted butternut squash and, of course, turkey and ham with all the trimmings. Sides can be added at €5 a pop, and several red, white and dessert wines are listed by the glass down the left hand side.

PF starts with a cream of celeriac soup, served with a drizzle of truffle oil. He is very satisfied, and a parsnippy tone adds a lovely comfort to the delicacy of flavour. My west Cork scallops are seared tangily on the tops and tails, though the crispy bacon — always a good foil for a scallop — is too hard, breaking up into pointy shards rather than good, gristly nuggets.

I follow with the butternut squash risotto, a thick and creamy dish with wilted rocket leaves and yummily-cooked butternut squash padding out the rice. PF orders the turkey and ham, which are served together in a sort of pouch-like arrangement cosseting a wad of herby stuffing. Both are juicy without exactly wowing, and a very sweet cranberry sauce is largely left behind.

We skip the sides, which is just as well, because a cast-iron dish of superbly cooked roast potatoes and carrots comes with the mains. Not only that, but we’ve made short work of a crusty loaf of bread delivered on a chopping board, complete with a knife sticking up out of the wood.

Afterwards, PF declares himself defeated, and resists the temptation of dessert.

I forge on, browsing through the sticky toffee pudding, warm chocolate tart and Christmas pudding on the menu, before settling on the Pavlova, served with lime cream and strawberries marinated in Balsamic vinegar. The meringue is lovely, its outer shell cracking to reveal creamy and sugary insides that stick delectably to the fork, but the strawberries are all balsamic and no sparky succulence. I wonder about serving them at this time of year.

We waddle out of the Saddle Room well and truly stuffed. Was it worth €40? For the food alone, probably not. But then food is just one element to Christmas lunch at the Shelbourne. If you fancy basking in elegant old Dublin, supping from shining glassware and eating your turkey in one of the most sumptuous rooms on the Green, you might even find it a bargain.

Wherever, and however you eat, Merry Christmas!

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