Brownes can now be found on two sides of Sandymount Green. There's the original Cafe, and now there's Brownes' Brasserie on the opposite side of the green. In France, a brasserie is less formal than a restaurant, but more formal than a bistro. The name 'brasserie' means 'brewery' in French, and typically a brasserie will serve a selection of beers as well as wine. That's exactly what you'll find here, a comfortable interior, decor that somehow makes you think of France and about as many beers on the drinks list as there are wines.
As you walk in, there's a counter on your left and tables to your right with banquette seating. Further on in the room, there's the open-plan kitchen on your right and a line of booths to your left. Gerard Carthy and myself took up a booth and got stuck into the menu. The deal here is a starter and a main course for €20, so having seen that, I thought that the menu would be filled with fairly basic dishes. I was wrong.
A classic French onion soup, seared mackerel with truffled asparagus pate, mussels a la Normande, seared king scallops with braised ox cheek (€3 supplement), confit duck leg, goats' cheese mousse and a crab and smoked salmon salad were the starters. Frankly, I could have eaten any one of them, but it was the mussels that eventually got my order. Gerard ordered the salmon and crab salad, then for main courses he chose poached hake Basque style, with mussels and chorizo.
Like the starters, the main courses read well on the menu. A supreme of Irish free-range chicken with ham hock and split pea, a plate of rare-breed suckling pig, organic salmon in a Japanese broth, ox cheek Bourgignon, a hamburger, the poached hake, the classic steak and frites with Bearnaise (€8 supplement), and, lastly, vegetarian ravioli. I chose the rare-breed suckling pig plate, which was belly, cheek croquette and crackling.
The wine list is quite short, but there were a couple of things that I liked about it. Firstly, there were a dozen wines that could be ordered by the glass, ranging from €5 for a balloon of house wine, to €9.15 for a Corbieres, and, secondly, roughly half the wines were under €30 and half over €30, which seems to me a good way to price a wine list. We didn't order any wines, as Gerard wasn't drinking, so I had a glass of Peroni, which they had on draught. There's a good list of bottled beers, ranging in size from 33cl up to 75cl.
Now, when you're paying €20 for two courses you don't really expect any extras. But the first thing that came to the table was an amuse bouche of a really tasty gazpacho, a soup that always reminds me of two things - summer and Spain.
This version had compressed watermelon in it, which I'm beginning to think is a good way to deal with watermelon. To my palate, it gives it a taste which in its natural state I tend not to find much of.
Our starters arrived: the seafood salad for Gerard and the mussels for me. The seafood salad was a very elegant plate and beautifully presented.
For once, the crab tasted like crab and the accompaniments of wasabi and ponzu went perfectly with both the crab and the smoked salmon. What differentiates mussels a la Normande from the more common Meuniere is garlic and chorizo, both ingredients that I like. I got a good-sized bowl of mussels, more than enough to share with Gerard.
Like the starters, the main courses looked really well on the plate. Gerard's hake came in a large, plain white bowl, and my suckling pig dish came on a large, square, white plate. I thought the hake was a terrific dish, the fish cooked perfectly and the accompanying flavours very well judged. "Probably the best bit of hake I've ever eaten," was Gerard's analysis.
My dish was good too, but pork belly is becoming a bit of a cliche these days. It was well executed and I liked the idea of cooking the crackling separately, so it was perfectly crispy. The best thing on the plate was the croquette of cheek meat.
We had a dessert between us, the chocolate and cherry fondant, which came with a vanilla and kirsch semifreddo. If you enjoy dessert wines, there are six available by the glass, all under €10.
An espresso for me and an Americano for Gerard finished what I thought was a remarkable meal for the price - €66.10. This is a kitchen that punches well above its weight, serving up dishes that elsewhere would cost you a great deal more.