I’m late for lunch at Locks with my friend, who’s already been seated at our table. ‘Don’t worry,’ she texts. ‘It’s nice to be here, looking out rather than looking in.’
For those of you who spent your 20s hanging around in the flat-lands of Rathmines and Portobello surviving on chickpea stews and (very) cheap red wine, Locks might have a similar emotional pull for you as it does for me. It was a place I longed to have the money to go to; to sit it in its beautiful front room and be spoiled.
Ten years later, I’ve gone through a number of transformations, as has this restaurant. Back when I was outside looking in, its owners were Claire and Richard Douglas, and had been since the ’80s. Sébastien Masi and his partner Kirsten Batt took over in 2010 and rebranded as Locks Brasserie. In 2013, Head Chef Rory Carville helped steer the team towards receiving a Michelin Star.
Carville left the restaurant in the summer of 2013 and the Brasserie lost the star in 2014. That incarnation of the restaurant closed its doors in July 2015. Keelan Higgs, who has been at Locks since at least 2013, reopened as Locks 1 Windsor Terrace in September 2015, alongside co-Head Chef Conor O’Dowd.
The new Locks is smart-casual; the charming maître d’/waiter is decked out in jeans and a subtly crisp shirt. It’s a simple way to quickly set the tone; this is a more of a relaxed neighbourhood bistro than a Michelin-starred fine dining experience. There’s a lot of dude bros in this restaurant; I spot at least one man-bun in the kitchen.
The food is a beautiful mix of unfussy and intricate, delivered via a pleasingly precise menu. Three courses are €28, with substantial supplements for the specials. The starter special of plump mackerel (an additional €6) is grilled until blistered and blackened, with charred cucumber, crab meat and blobs of avocado sauce. It’s delicate without being up its own arse. From the regular menu, baby beetroots are served salt-baked with their lovely long roots attached, sprinkled with matchsticks of apple and blobs of soft goat cheese. There are micro-greens and circular discs of sauce prettying up the plate. It looks really beautiful and, even though I’ve eaten a variation of this dish a million times before, this one tastes fresh and perfectly of the season.
We can’t resist the chateaubriand sharing board special (€15 extra per person and it’s worth it). We get plates of slowly braised short rib and then a board of pink slices of the tenderloin fillet (aka the chateaubriand), topped with onion rings and golden, fluffy chips on the side. It’s truly divine. The meat is so exquisitely seasoned and delicious, that it demands all of my attention and focus. All of the week’s stresses melt away, much like the short rib. And isn’t the goal of all nurturing cooks to make food so absorbingly delicious and comforting that the eater forgets their worries, even temporarily?
An apple tart on a crispy circle of puff pastry with salt caramel and praline ice cream stays true to its origins while delivering a flair of finesse. The elements in the chocolate tart with stout ice cream and a condensed plum sauce (adding another €4 to the menu) are too intense on their own but work really well as a mouthful. Our bill, which includes two bottles of still water and two macchiatos, comes to €104, excluding tip.
This restaurant may have gone through a lot but it’s still a beautiful room over-looking the canal, with really lovely food and service. It doesn’t appear that this team is chasing a Michelin star. Nonetheless, it’s certainly still a treat to eat there.
*Locks 1 Windsor Terrace launch their Christmas lunch menu on Wednesday 2nd December.*
Locks 1 Windsor Terrace
1 Windsor Terrace, Portobello, Dublin 8
Words: Aoife McElwain
Photos: Mark Duggan