Thursday 25 May 2017

Fish food at the Fish Shack Café

1 Martello Terrace, Sandycove, Co Dublin. (01) 284-4555

The Fish Shack Cafe in Sandycove
The Fish Shack Cafe in Sandycove

Katy McGuinness

As a resident of Dun Laoghaire, I've long been mystified by the absence from its seafront of the kind of cheap and cheerful seafood-focused restaurants that you find on just about every other coast in the world. I know it perplexes tourists too. I'm not talking about smart fish restaurants, but rather an Irish equivalent to the clam shacks of Cape Cod, the oyster huts of Whitstable or the Ile de Re, the places that you'll find selling Cromer crab along the Norfolk coast or sardines on the Algarve. Granted, Howth fares better, but we residents of SoCoDu are ill-served when it comes to the fruits of the sea.

Anyway, a couple of years ago, the people behind the popular Ouzos restaurants in Dalkey and Blackrock set up The Fish Shack on the East Pier. They are proud of their sourcing, and their website says that they work with fishermen from Dublin, Kilkeel and Dunmore East, and local fish purveyors, to source only the freshest seafood from local waters. The brown crab, lobster and brown shrimp come from their own boat which fishes out of Dalkey, travelling between Waterford to the south and Kilkeel to the north. It's a seasonal operation on the pier, and appears to do well, with a short menu of items designed to be eaten in-hand while strolling, particularly, of course, when the sun is shining. I've had the fish and chips and been impressed.

And now they have opened The Fish Shack Café, which I take to be a year-round enterprise. It's located in what was The Martello on the seafront in Sandycove, across from Newtownsmith and Scotsman's Bay. Outside there are a few tables with umbrellas, and inside it's all properly utilitarian and shack-like, without being in any way uncomfortable. There are functional tables and benches, hipster filament light bulb fittings, and a no-bookings policy, other than for large parties. We arrived early to beat the Saturday evening rush, having seen queues while driving past on previous occasions.

The staff are young and enthusiastic. They've clearly been trained to make good eye contact and engage in banter with the customers and they all seem to be on board with that, even if the chat feels a little forced at times.

There's a larger offering than on the pier but, as befits the 'shack' concept, there's no division of the menu into traditional starters and mains. We ordered a couple of plates from the 'snacks' section of the menu to share first, and then one dish each from the 'fried/grilled' section. With no pressure to order more than one course, it would be absolutely possible to come in and just have, for instance, a bowl of Scotsman's Bay Fish Soup for €7. Alternatively, throw caution to the winds and hit the lobster, which you can pick from FSC's own tank, priced at €6 per 100g. Please eat it rather than liberate it though.

Shrimp nachos came as a generous mound of crisp tortilla chips piled high with Boston shrimp, chorizo, and cheese topped with peppers and a creamy Tabasco dressing. Chorizo is one of those magic ingredients that makes everything taste wonderful and it did its job here; an unpretentious and flavourful dish with plenty of kick. Calamari was billed as spicy, which it wasn't, but it was piping hot and straight out of the fryer, although I'd have given it a few seconds longer. The sweet chilli marmalade is packed with ginger and very, very good - a world away from the tooth-rotting gloopy chilli sauce that we have all seen too much of in recent years. One quibble with this dish though: where were the tentacles? Every piece of squid was a uniform ring; we'd have enjoyed the more interesting texture of some wiggly bits.

The best of our main courses was the Scampi - Dublin Bay Prawns in light breadcrumb. Simple and perfect, with a good tartare sauce served in an oyster shell. Terrible crimes have been committed in the name of scampi, with all manner of other fish and fish bits masquerading as the real thing, but this was the real deal. The scampi were magnificent.

A hot and spicy sauce with cherry tomatoes and spring onions for Shrimp Piri Piri was monotone and unsubtle, so that the flavour of the shrimp was overwhelmed. Lobster Crab Mac & Cheese disappointed, despite it being our server's avowed favourite. ("Good choice!") This is a dish that has to go heavy on the seafood and light on the pasta to deliver on its seductive promise. Unfortunately, that's going to push the price up beyond a level that's sustainable in a shack. So what we got here was too much macaroni in a loose, over-liquid sauce, with too little of the promised lobster and fish, topped with an anaemic grilled cheddar topping. It wasn't a bad dish, and we finished it because we were hungry, but it was dull.

Chips were of the skin-on, chunky, variety and flaccid. They could have done with longer in the fryer.

There are no desserts, per se, but FSC stocks the excellent Featherbed Farm ice-cream from Co Wexford and we shared a three-scoop bowl of honeycomb, pistachio and a revelatory Kinder Bueno.

With a couple of carafes of the house sauvignon blanc (good, and good value at €15 for 500ml), one soft drink, three side salads, ice-cream and an insipid flat white, our bill for three came to €119 before service. FSC doesn't have much of a wine selection, but the list is sourced from On The Grapevine in Dalkey and is more than adequate for a shack. Let's have more of this kind of thing.

On a budget

The open crab sandwich with fresh crab and shrimp in a lime mayo on toasted sourdough, accompanied by a side of fries, is only €9, which sounds like a bargain.

On a blowout

If it's got to be lobster, prepare to spend €6 per 100g. The average size is 600g, which isn't huge. That's €36 each for lobster with salad or fries. Add a bottle of Chablis and you're talking €112 for two before starters or ice-cream.

The high point

Great scampi made with proper Dublin Bay Prawns.

The low point

Some of the portions are on the small side.

Rating

6/10 food

8/10 ambience

7/10 value for money

21/30

Whispers from the gastronomicon

While generic extra virgin olive oil is fine for cooking, you need something better for salads. Azouro is a PDO Extra Virgin Olive Oil from the Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro region of Portugal with an aroma of almonds, and a balance of sweet, green, bitter and spicy tastes. Produced by Irishman, Stephen Firth, who has restored a 200-year-old farmhouse in the Minho region, the label is inspired by Portuguese mosaic tiles and recently won a design award at the 2015 ICADs, making it an ideal gift for the design-conscious foodie in your life. €12.95/500ml, for stockists see azouro.com

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