‘But wait till I tell you, he said. Delahunt of Camden Street had the catering and yours truly was chief bottle washer. Bloom and the wife were there. Lashings of stuff we put up: port wine and sherry and curacao to which we did ample justice. Fast and furious it was. After liquids came solids. Cold joints galore and mince pies…’
So goes the passage in Ulysses about Delahunt of Camden Street. It was still a grocer’s that fueled locals with bites and libations when Joyce wrote about it in the 1920s. You probably remember it as Jack Carvill’s Off Licence, with its dusty shelves brimming with craft beer before that was even really a thing. After an 18-month refurbishment project, owner and manager Darren Free reopened Delahunt as a restaurant and bar in November of last year.
The food is an impressive marriage of a simplistic approach to ingredients and a complex attention to taste, thanks to head chef Dermot Staunton, formerly sous chef of Locks Brasserie. ‘Our menus are influenced by traditional and often overlooked cookery techniques, in keeping with the building’s Victorian origins,’ Free explains. ‘Home curing and smoking, slow cooked braises, savoury puddings and pies, pickles, preserves, traditional desserts and bread-making are some of our specialities.’ Our desserts are a great example of this contemporary traditional approach; a glass of boozy rhubarb trifle (€8) is filled with deliriously billowy cream and dehydrated raspberries, while the warm chocolate pudding (€9) is paired with almond praline and amaretto ice-cream.
The menu is short yet inspiring; four starters, four mains and four desserts that change every six weeks. The snack of crispy pig’s ear (€4) that starts us off must have been slow-cooked for days; a soft and silky interior is covered with crisp Panko crumbs. They’re beyond delicious.
There’s more pork in our main courses, with rolled pieces of pheasant wrapped in smoky bacon surrounded by slivers of crisped sprout shells (€25). There are honeyed, mashed swedes underneath and the whole dish is surrounded by the most flavourful (and no doubt meticulously made) brown sauce ever. The venison haunch (€26) is exquisite; pink pieces of delicately sliced meat with dark, treacle cured edges sat amongst celery with a bone marrow crust, soured cabbage and fermented walnut and juniper. A dish of mange tout and green beans with flaked almonds (€3.50) are our chosen side; so buttery and crunchy are these that we have no issues with finishing our greens.
We get off to a bit of a wobbly start with the service, though it is generally charming and friendly. We arrive for our supper at 8.30pm, just at that chaotic time of turning tables, and it meant that the first half hour of our visit was a little disrupted due to a flustered team. Our meal didn’t find its flow until after we were halfway through our starters.
Speaking of starters, who knew soup could taste so good? A bowl of cinnamon-spiced celeriac and pear soup (€9 and what a clever flavour combination) appeared with a miniature game sausage roll on the side for dunking. Meanwhile, the oxtail bone marrow (€10) was a gloriously sticky mix of slow-braised oxtail meat and marrow, served with dainty slivers of toasted sourdough.
Early on in the evening, I ask our waitress to see if the bartender can rustle up a good non-alcoholic cocktail. There was a hold-up behind the bar (this was during the initial flustered period of our visit) and so, instead of keeping me waiting, she went behind the bar and whipped up a temporary solution of some juice and 7up for me. Truly, I don’t think any waitress has ever gone to so much trouble to make sure I was happy. After some time, the apologetic bartender arrived to swap it with a clever little ginger beer, lime and mint spritz (€8) that was most certainly worth the wait. Our bill, which included a bottle of sparkling water (€4) and a glass of Portuguese Quadrifolia red (€7.75) came to €114.25.
The restoration project on the space has uncovered and repurposed trinkets, small and large, from this building’s past; cubby holes that were once used to store tea leaves sold (presumably by the ounce), and the original cash office of the grocers now houses a private dining table for six to eight people – a sort of a snug for food lovers. The original shop sign was discovered gathering dust in the basement. It was polished and now adorns the wall of this beautifully refurbished space that tastefully acknowledges its past.
So much of this dining room has retained the building’s history. Imagine all of the people who have come through its doors and tread on its wooden floors, breathing in the scent of polished wood. It’s the best kind of development; one that is respectful to stories of the past as it creates vibrant space for the creation of new stories.
39 Camden Street Lower, Dublin 2
Words: Aoife McElwain // Photography: Mark Duggan