Restaurant review: Paolo Tullio at Downstairs, Gilbert & Wrights, Dublin 3
It seems to me that there's something of a gastronomic renaissance happening on Dublin's north side. Last year, I ate very well in Moloughney's of Clontarf and McHugh's in Raheny.
A couple of weeks ago, I had another interesting meal in Clontarf's 'Bay' restaurant, and this week I was back again to try the food in Downstairs, just off The Old Howth Road.
What these places have in common is well-prepared food that's thoughtfully sourced and competitively priced.
Across the city, there seems to be a new baseline for evening meals. Give or take a euro, it's €22 for two courses or €26 for three.
Just in case you've forgotten, that translates to just over £20 in old punts for three courses. I've been looking back over past reviews and that was the going price in 2004.
Before I get on to Downstairs, I'll tell you that, last week, we had a family meal in my mother's favourite restaurant, Tribes in Glasthule. It produces pretty good food at reasonable prices, coupled with attentive service.
Six of us ate well and we got a bill of less than €200 -- not bad at all. What I didn't know then, but know now, is that Tribes is a sister restaurant of Downstairs, in that they're both owned by the same people. And there's a third restaurant in the stable -- Valparaiso in Monkstown.
What I did know about Downstairs was that the chef is called Brian Walsh, and that he had worked with Dylan McGrath in Mint.
Now, a pedigree like that suggests that there would be interesting things on the menu, the sort of things that would appeal to passionate foodies.
There are few people more passionate and knowledgeable than Caitriona McBride, the series producer for the last season of 'The Restaurant', and I was delighted to have her company for the review meal.
Downstairs is, just as its name suggests, underneath Gilbert & Wright's bar. A wide, well-lit staircase leads down to a split-level basement, where the tables are so well-spaced that there's an airy feel to the room.
The menu we were handed had all the dishes priced individually, but the 'Downstairs Deal' meant that two courses were €22.95 and three were €26.95. Only the Maurice Kettyle fillet of beef carried a supplement of €8.
The menu certainly read well: starters included ham hock and Savoy-cabbage ballotine, sesame-crusted salmon with egg noodles, a goat's cheese salad, Clonakilty black pudding with sunchoke crush, and mackerel fillet with a dill salad and olive tapenade.
There was also a daily special of duck-liver paté.
Apart from the fillet steak, main courses were pan-fried hake, a confit duck leg, pork belly, chicken breast, fish pie and a cauliflower risotto.
We decided on the black pudding followed by the hake for Caitriona, and the duck-liver paté followed by the fish pie for me.
I handed Caitriona the wine list, and from it she picked the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Huia, for us. All but a few wines are in the €20-€40 range.
As someone who tends to drink a lot of water with my meals, I was happy to find that Downstairs has its own brand of sparkling water, charged at a modest €1.50 a bottle.
Our starters arrived and our interest was piqued by the sunchoke crush, which looked like a sheet of vegetable lasagne and was wrapped around the black pudding, like a cape.
It didn't taste of very much, but it did look interesting.
My starter of duck-liver paté came in a small Mason jar, on a slate mounted on a board with toasted sourdough bread, exactly as the same dish had arrived at the table in Tribes.
The black pudding had a soft, crumbly texture and a good flavour, with a roast artichoke purée making an excellent addition to the dish. My duck-liver paté was a generous portion, rather more than I could eat, and was well made.
Our main courses were also good. Caitriona's pan-fried hake was very well done; it's a firm-fleshed fish and, if it's not overcooked, retains that firmness.
It was cooked just right, and the smoked paprika and chorizo gave it a flavour redolent of Spain.
We'd also ordered a side dish of courgettes, which arrived crumbed and golden in colour. But what pleased me best about the fish pie I'd ordered was that it was filled with a good mix of fish, both smoked and unsmoked, as well as shellfish.
Like my starter, this was a large portion that could have fed two not very hungry people. Just like my starter, it was that little bit too much for me. And in my view, that's so much better than finishing a main course and remaining hungry.
These generous portions meant that neither of us felt like a dessert.
Instead, Caitriona decided on a French coffee and I got tempted by an Austrian dessert wine called Kracher -- a blend of Riesling and Chardonnay. Very nice it was too.
A couple of espressos finished the meal, which brought our bill to €106.80.
Tel: 01 833 8883
On a budget
The menu has been designed for the budget-minded. The ‘Downstairs Deal’, which allows you to have two courses for €22.95 or three for €26.95. This menu is available all week, from 5.30pm onwards.
On a blowout
The only option on the menu for a blowout is the fillet steak from Maurice Kettyle, which costs €26.95. Determined big spenders will need to choose from the ‘Reserve selection’ of the wine list, where a Puligny- Montrachet and an Amarone are listed at €75.