Psssst! want a sneak peek at the Wikio Top Gastronomy Blog rankings for August 2011? Click here!
Sometimes when you go to a restaurant or pub, it seems the name was randomly chosen from a hat and bears no relation to reality. I can guarantee you that there are no happy clams at all in The Happy Clam; that there is a distinct lack of chatty birds in the Sociable Plover pub; and even fewer incandescent mules at the Donkey on Fire pub. But the reason behind the Winding Stair in Dublin’s name is really not hard to see – you exerience said remarkably winding stair as soon as you arrive and automatically make a mental note (soon to be disregarded!) not to drink too much before having to negotiate the stairs again. On the night after the Bloom show in Dublin, when I visited along with Tess of Foodmatters, Ailbhe of Simply Splendiferous, Andrew of Spittoon and Janine of Olive magazine, we made our way up the winding stair, only to be confronted by a room already packed with people and no table available (despite having made a reservation). Some negotiation ensued, after which… we were led upstairs to yet another floor where there were plenty of tables and a distinctly calmer air. Problem solved!
The Winding Stair Bookshop & Café was a famous Dublin landmark in the 70’s and a popular meeting place for writers, musicians and artists. Sadly, it closed in 2005 but was bought by the Thomas Read Group in 2006 and re-opened the restaurant. It’s a lovely, serene, light-filled room full of dark wood but with large windows overlooking the river. The menu is relatively brief but supplemented by specials on a chalkboard. Menu descriptions were brimming with locally sourced ingredients and contained enough tempting dishes to send us all into an agony of indecision. Andrew was in charge of the wine list so I did not pay too much heed to it, but I do remember that at least two of our wine choices were not available, which was surprising and a little annoying. Very smiley and charming service went a long way to smoothing that over though.
After much debate, I started with the potted Dingle Bay crab with toasted soda bread and organic leaves (€11.95). This was textbook potted crab – sweet-fleshed and buttery and the bread was outstanding. Andrew had the O’Doherty’s black pudding, fried with Gubeen chorizo, and Wexford baby potatoes with sourdough toast and salad (€11.95) – I developed immediate menu envy the moment his plate was put down, which did not improve when I sampled the sublime combination of earthy black pudding and spicy chorizo. Outstanding. Elsewhere, people had the Burren smokery, Ummera smokehouse and John Rogan’s smoked fish plate with our Dillisk bread, crème fraîche, pickled cucumbers and caper-berries (€13.95). This comprised a selection of gravadlax, salmon, mackerel, trout and eel, and I would be hard pressed to tell you which one was the nicest as all were gorgeous (the gravadlax possibly had the edge!). But I think we all voted the winner to be something off the specials menu: smoked haddock in a pastry case with asparagus and creamy mature cheddar sauce. I think this was a testimony to the difference that outstanding ingredients can make – subtly, beautifully smoked fish; properly tangy cheddar and crisp asparagus. Poor Tess could not keep us away from her plate!
Main courses, sadly, were less stellar. Andrew and I both chose rhubarb-stuffed Black Pig pork fillet with roasted cubed potatoes, warm mixed bean and spinach salad and pear soured cream (€24.95). I don’t know why I have never thought to stuff a pork loin with rhubarb before as it’s a great combination. But the meat was a little dry and the warm salad seemed like a disparate collection of things rather than a single dish – somehow less than the sum of its parts. The pear soured cream, though, was absolutely addictive. Elsewhere at the table was a McLoughlin’s leg of spring lamb chop with hasselback spud, crispy onions and smashed parsnip and sage (€23.95). The meat was outstanding – succulent and flavoursome – but the accompaniments were a let-down. The hasselback spud was not the crispy, buttery affair it was meant to be, and the parsnip was claggy – and why serve two stodgy vegetables to accompany one dish? The winner for me was the Kilkeel hake with herby tomato, mussel and clam stew €23.95 – not only beautiful to look at but singing with fresh, fishy flavours and a robust tomato sauce that would not be out of place on the French Riviera.
Andrew selected our wines for the evening: an Italian Terre di Tufi Bianco di Toscana, Teruzzi & Puthod 2006 Vernaccia/Chardonnay/Malvasia Tuscany Italy (€51); a Spanish Albarino (Dona Rosa 2009 Albariño Rías Baixas Spain – €38); and a Firesteed 2008 Pinot Noir Oregon, USA (€40). Clearly they went down really well (!) because soon we were enthralled by Ailbhe’s never-ending tale of a campervan trip that was unexpectedly held up in a lay-by near Aberystwyth for a few days; the importance of carrying a supply of port in your when you travel to dish out to locals when you need help; and Andrew’s uncanny resemblance to actor Michael Sheen (!). We finished up with a Sticky pear and ginger cake (€6.95) with ice-cream for Andrew (not pictured) and an excellent Irish Cheese board with homemade crackers and plum chutney (€10.50) for the rest of us, washed down respectively with a glass of 2005 Cauhape Jurancon (€8.50) for Andrew and a glass of excellent Baráo de Vilar LBV port (€7.60) for me.
It was one of the nicest and most relaxed dinners I’ve had this year, helped along by the stellar company, no doubt, but also by the relaxed, competent and friendly service; the lovely airy space; and good, unfussy food. Although mains were not as inspired as starters, the menu was a pleasure to read through and we had no cause for complaints – it’s easy to see why the place was packed. I really loved their support for locally sourced Irish ingredients and my only regret is that I do not live closer to Dublin to enable frequent return visits.
Liked: the superb selection of starters, the lovely room, the friendly & knowledgeable staff
Disliked: The unavaiability of our first 2 wine choices
The Winding Stair
40, Ormond Quay
Tel: (+ 353) 1 8727320
Don’t forget to check out my and Michelle’s London restaurant reviewing and photography workshop coming up in August!
And if you miss that, you can catch me speaking on writing style and voice at Bite ‘n Writein Birmingham in November!