Among the elegant Georgian buildings that line St Stephen’s Green in our city centre, there are only a handful that operate an open door policy. Since discovering its upstairs cocktail bar as a hidden gem for a quiet well-concocted drink over-looking the Park, I’ve had a soft spot for The Cliff Townhouse. Its staff have always impressed me with their ability to create a genuinely warm welcome, even to those just popping in for a drink.
The Cliff Townhouse is part of the Cliff portfolio owned by Cork businessman Barry O’Callaghan. O’Callaghan opened the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore, County Waterford in May 2008, an ill-timed venture that could have been a disaster given the economic climate. Yet, thanks in part to a Michelin star restaurant led by Dutch Head Chef Martijn Kajuiter, the Cliff House has weathered a tough economic storm.
Last year, O’Callaghan added to his portfolio by buying The Village at Lyons in Kildare for a reported €6 million, rebranding it as Cliff at Lyons. The Cliff Townhouse in Dublin’s city centre opened in 2010, with Kajuiter as Executive Chef and Seam Smith as Head Chef.
The city centre home for O’Callaghan’s hospitality suite has added to its friendly open door policy with the arrival of a basement seafood bar called Urchin, which opened earlier this year.
Executive Chef Kajuiter worked with Head Chef Smith to develop the small plates menu at Urchin, and it’s Smith himself who cooks for us when we dip in for a mid-week visit. We order most of the small menu and everything we eat is sensational.
A sobrasada (€4) is a delicious two-bite burger, a soft yet crispy bun smeared with ricotta and Sriracha paste, topped with a soft-yolk quail’s egg. Four Flaggy Shore oysters (€8), sourced from The Burren in County Clare, are lightly steamed in a delicious ponzu sauce, are served in bamboo boxes. We knock ourselves out on Dundalk razor clams (€4 per clam), served with a seaweed salad and a subtle lemon emulsion. The West Cork Scallops (€15) is a dish of six fat scallops, pickled with ginger, tonic and lime, almost like fat piece of sashimi. It’s actually my least favourite dish but it is a treat to enjoy scallops closer to their original form.
There are a few land-lubber options, too. We are so into the Irish pork belly wrapped in a crisp lettuce leaf alongside tiny mushrooms, a yogurt sauce and a seafood crunch made of fried shrimp (€8) that we order a second portion before finishing the first.
An Old Rumble cocktail (€15.50) doesn’t quite match up to its price tag. “It’s missing depth,” says my dinner date, a bit underwhelmed. The potentially over-powering sweetness of a non-alcoholic Mango Smash (€6.50) is softened with mint and lemon, and a booze-free Elderflower and Cucumber Collins (€6.50) is nicely refreshing. Our well-informed waiter, who answers all of our food question in reassuring detail, also makes a pleasantly accommodating bartender.
There’s no sign of the token system I had read about online, and we order from the short food and the long drinks menu, paying our bill at the end. Including those pricy cocktails, a glass of Syrah (€12) and a large bottle of sparkling water (€4.95), our total bill comes to €86.45. It’s a significant price tag for a speedy supper but it’s worth it to see such creativity being applied to our seafood.
Its marble topped tables make for an instagrammable backdrop to the outstanding small plates that almost take us by surprise, before we remember that we are in the Cliff Townhouse. Exceptional food and stellar service is second nature here.
St Stephen’s Green
Words: Aoife McElwain
Images: Killian Broderick