Hosanna in the highest, Hosanna from the deepest depths. For I am no longer reviewing the contents of a box that comes with instructions and a YouTube link. As I write, I am free to dine outside, freed of the contortions of pedantry required to get meal-kit reviews to the vicinity of a thousand words. *Not that free perhaps. Whatever, in dining terms we are free to be slightly less confined. Now this may not be the stuff of our near neighbours’ Freedom Day®, but I am of the sincere belief that this could mean that the beginning of our freedom to achieve a freedom day of our own, albeit an ersatz, off-brand one, is at hand. Dining sur terrace can be a very lovely thing. In the minus column however we all now free again to fall under the spell of the lying, cheating bastard that is the Irish Summer. Oh sure, he says it will be dryer this time, that he’s changed. It was a slip, just a shower, it won’t happen again. Don’t believe a word of it.
We feared the worst on a recent Friday as we walked to Tara Street to catch a train, under a concrete sky, but watched in some amazement as the clouds dissipated, almost station to station. We stepped out onto Howth’s main drag blinking into the midday sunlight. I had travelled here almost a year ago to the day to review the click and collect menu, when we enjoyed some superb food in sideways rain balanced on the lip of a hatch-back. This would be different. Our guests Denise and Brine were already seated at the smart street-side setup and setting out our stall we begin to dispatch bottles of Picpoul with a vengeance.
We ranged freely, and with no little sense of abandon, across a menu that feels exactly as concise as it should be, with four ‘grazing’ options, four small plates and four mains. The signature ‘Cod Chip’ (which I’ve written about here before) was eighty-sixed due to a dearth of cod’s roe that day but it went unmissed. The whipped chicken butter with the bread service might sound like no way to treat an animal but it’s the sort of thing that signals intent on a menu – we’re not afraid of a little fun, or a lot of flavour. Seawolf (known variously as devil fish and wolf-eel) has long been relegated to by-catch status for Irish fishermen, but, tempura’d and served here with a pistachio-hued tarragon mayo, it eats beautifully. Order two for the table, however many you are. In another review of another place I would give more space to the delicate Smoked Eel Tartlets, sharp with lemon ricotta, or the mouthier, perfectly executed Ox Tongue and Taleggio croquettes, but they wouldn’t be on the menu in another place (at least not here in Dublin) and there are even better things to talk about here.
It’s a measure of the diverting nature of every dish that we only now begin to notice the intrusion of the elements, or element. Although diners have long been known to experience wind at restaurants, the kitchen in this instance is blameless. We have heard of the harassing and humid Scirocco, bearing Saharan sands across the Mediterranean or perhaps the chill Mistral of Southern France, beloved of Provençal vignerons, but known to draught the scanty cullottes of les juenes filles on their evening promenades. Whatever, of those exotic gusts, I can now testify that Howth has a wind of its own, an ill wind whose gelid breath would shiver the timbers of the saltiest sea-dog. After 45 minutes of remorseless exposure to the nameless gale, my left side was palsied to such extent that I could scarcely raise a glass to my face. I tested that out with a tonic measure of Champagne Pol Roger and willed the blood back into my extremities. I’m still struggling to understand my decision to refuse the (immediately effective) blankets proffered and I’m sure they’ve worked out the windbreak by now. Be not afraid, I go before you always.
Service from Jess D’Arcy (front of house and partner) is effortless, warm and knowledgeable – hearing that those Cockles Portuguese (coriander and lime) were served at her own wedding to chef-patron Killian Durkin just underscores the personal and personable approach that these veterans of the Dublin scene take. The place is just comfortable in its own skin and that shows again with pastas. The kitchen feels no need to affect an Italian accent, but it can dip into dialect with admirable ease. Linguine, bound up in the richest russet sauce of Balscaddan lobster, tastes of the best bisque you’ve ever had, brightened with preserved lemon and grounded with the gentle heat of espelette pepper it is a dish designed to seduce with swarthy charm. It duly has its way with every one of us. Strozzopreti – (literally ‘priest-stranglers’) brings a bowl of pinkie-length twists with a deeply savoury rabbit ragu and is equally impressive. It paired very nicely with a glass of bone-dry Sardinian Rosé. Too good an end for many of the rheum-eyed clergy, I think.
You could have the (now obligatory) Higgins Cote de Boeuf for two but I would urge you not to, not when this kitchen shows such assurance, flair and respect around fish and shellfish. The proximity is a clue, also. If the chicken gave its soul to that butter, it also gave the shirt off its back for a Halibut dish with shards of crisp skin bringing moments of salty contrast to a beautifully poached fillet, set off with a deeply verdant nettle velouté. A handful of tumid mussels provide a bass-note of shellfish. From a succession of superb, pause-to-look-at-the-guy-next-to-you dishes, this is a standout and a beautifully composed dish. I’ve taken to looking at a photo of it on my phone when I need a lift. I guess I can allow you to imagine how good dessert might be from a kitchen like this. This quite simply is why we go to restaurants, to have the front and back of house delight us with what they can do, whether we sit inside or out.
Words: Conor Stevens
Harbour House, Harbour Road