I have long since ceased to regard the term urbane as derogatory. I don’t apologise for being a metropolitan type. I live in the city because that’s where things happen. Some of these things are more welcome than others, but nevertheless, I like the action. This may have been a motivating factor for my editor to suggest that I file copy on a new (to hell with good intentions) restaurant that is to all extents and purposes, in Louth. A mildly hilarious seafood-out-of-water scenario would doubtless ensue. Uh huh. Chef Cathal Leonard (ex Chapter One/Forest Avenue) and partner Sarah Ryan have taken on the space that formerly housed The Redbank in the pleasant seaside village of Skerries. He’s a Rush native so this is a sort of homecoming. For many of us, it’s an hour-long road trip from Dublin, with all that entails. My editor, in the back of the car, works his way through a family-sized bag of Rancheros for the duration.
We arrive on a dank, dour June evening to find a charming, wisteria-crowned, portico and a warm welcome. Having declined a drink in the handsome little reception room (in which a fire is burning) we proceed to our table with dry throats and moderately high spirits. Something happens within me when I walk into a carpeted dining room. It feels like tension, a vague anxiety. I’m eating in a (fictive) dowager great-aunt’s house and I’ve been warned by my mother not to spill anything. (I will later soil the napery with a glass of wine that took fifteen minutes to arrive). Our table is the youngest by some degree although none of our party is on the right side of forty. The couple at the table next to us seem not to have spoken to one another since the second Vatican council and the thick sage-green walls conjure grim shades of the monastery that adjoined my school. I can almost smell the stale biscuits and hear the sinister whisper of soutanes swishing. That’s on me.
I read from various sources (well, commie, failing sources like the Guardian and The New York Times) that young folks are actually drinking less (and rutting less frequently) and bully for them. Theirs is the so-called ‘cautious generation’. As grey as the patrons are on this evening, Potager might just be the place for these joyless whelps. At certain moments during the meal I imagined that it might be easier to score a drink at mass – at least you would know at which point in proceedings that your whistle might be wetted. Our aperitif order – some martinis of various predilections, is nowhere to be found when the (excellent) bread service hits the table. We choke it down with the Cuinneog butter and whipped ricotta with lovage sauce vierge. Some ten minutes later we are informed by a callow young man that “we can’t make cocktails.” The gins and tonics that are to fill the void arrive after the amuses. These too are good – some cigars of rolled white beetroot with more beetroot and some startlingly green tapioca crackers with smoked cod’s roe. I would have enjoyed a glass of wine at this point. I can’t help but feel that the DNA of Chapter One is all over the place, from the plating to the shagpile, but the service here wouldn’t fly back on Parnell Square, not with the Michelin star pendant heavy around the neck. A diminutive cuplet of potato soup (a potage) with bacon pulls me back from full blown crankiness. It is something that you would want to feed to somebody who loves you unconditionally, regardless of how you feel about them.
The name of the restaurant may not be pronounced in the French manner (potajay), but there is a pronounced French feel to many of the dishes, none more so than a dish of lightly cured red mullet in a sauce of its own making, fêted with shavings of frozen buttermilk. Ms Ryan has a background in the wholesale fish business and she seems to have retained her connections. This is top drawer stuff. A mousse of Cashel blue cheese over a celery and apple jelly divides the table but I know better. An octopus dish has clean ozone tang but also the telltale woolly texture that comes from sous-viding. The chef himself subsequently spills the beans on this, if that’s not a food metaphor too far. Or even if it is. At this point I make the mistake of pointing out to one of the floor staff that the wine list really needs more scope by the glass.
At least ten minutes after mains have been delivered, I’m forced to cut short the tableside conversation. The resulting intrusion results in some tepid food and a charge of €30 on the bill for a single glass (not mine) of wine. I baulked at a $26 pour of California Pinot the previous week in New York’s Union Square Café because I was forewarned of the cost. I’m told that a sommelier (hire) is imminent. He or she cannot arrive quickly enough. The food here is haute couture, the rest of it seriously off the peg. Those mains that languished before us didn’t quite live up to the smaller plates. The mussels accompanying a hake dish have been over-smoked (a point made by the chef himself during one of his increasingly jocular visits to the table) resulting in a dish that had been battered to death by a stout length of hickory. I have no doubt that the error will be amended. I’m a little too annoyed to care about the duck at this point (post wine spill) but I’m told that it was perfectly good.
Desserts were well received but I don’t have a lot of space here. Suffice to say that one of them included the best (strawberry) sorbet I’ve ever been around. With this kind of food, palate fatigue begins to insinuate itself quite early on, the barrage of relentless refinement becomes wearing. The profusion of gels and foams often serve to distance one from their essences – the taste buds are at second remove. Tomato water, for example in the mullet dish, is jellified for no other reason than it is possible to do so. That €55 menu buys you a lot of flavour and a lot of technique from a kitchen that excels at producing fussed-over, highly finessed, food but it is for me a restaurant that engenders respect rather than affection. The name of the place refers to a kitchen garden, but a formal Victorian garden is more appropriate, with nature bent to the prissy will of the designer. Right now, I’d prefer to wander through an unkempt meadow of wildflowers, or just hunker down in my concrete jungle.
Words Conor Stevens
Photos Killian Broderick
7 Church St
(01) 802 9486