Restaurant review: Paolo Tullio at The Hen House, Co Dublin
It wasn't planned that way, but this week I was once again in a restaurant where chicken is a speciality. Last week I was in Crackbird, no longer a pop-up restaurant but now a permanent one, and this week found me in The Hen House in Dun Laoghaire. It's in the Pavilion Centre and it's housed where Roly's and, most recently, Oliveto used to be.
The interminable roadworks outside the row of restaurants in this part of the Centre have finally been completed, so there's now a wide walkway and continental-style tented seating areas outside, in readiness for any sunny day that might appear. I must admit, it all looks very good now.
Inside The Hen House you find a large dining room, which goes back a long way. It's been well divided, so it doesn't feel at all cavernous. I was there with chef Max Kenny. We took a table by the window and were handed two menus, an early bird and a dinner menu.
The first thing that I noticed was that, unlike Crackbird, The Hen House offers dishes other than chicken. And there were desserts as well, another difference. So we set about our choices.
The early-bird menu, rather quaintly called the 'early-chick menu', had a choice of four starters, four main courses and four desserts, costing €18.13 for two courses or €21.96 for three. These included a couple of good looking dishes, for example a smoked chicken salad with quails' eggs as a starter and a classic coq au vin as a main course.
But after briefly toying with this menu, we both decided to eat from the Ã la carte dinner menu.
The prices on the dinner menu were very reasonable -- nearly all the starters were €6.95 and the main courses ranged from less than €15 to €18.75 for a steak. After a little squabbling as to who would have what, we ended up with the chicken terrine followed by Moroccan chicken for Max, and the chicken liver salad followed by a spatchcocked chicken for me.
There is a modest, but quite nicely chosen, wine list and from it we chose a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet, a fresh and crisp white from the Languedoc, made from the Piquepoul blanc grape.
It's a wine whose supporters are always claiming its time has come, but for the moment it remains largely undiscovered.
The particular one we drank that night was pleasingly refreshing and went very well with our chicken dishes.
A large bottle of sparkling water, so often three-quarters of a litre, was a full litre here and was priced at €4.50.
It would be fair to say that neither Max nor I were expecting great things. I suppose what we were expecting was a fairly decent meal with no major faults.
But from the very outset our expectations began to change, because the level of customer service was exemplary.
I mention this because over the course of our meal we were served by four different waitresses and each one was as expert and as pleasant as the others. It's been a while since I've experienced service of this quality.
Our starters arrived and they were very nicely presented -- a thick slice of terrine for Max, which he relished, and perfectly cooked livers for me mixed into a well-dressed salad.
What made the salad stand out over and above the average was the roast garlic and balsamic dressing, which was well judged and blended seamlessly with the livers.
In truth, both of these starters were better than I had expected.
And this change in our expectations continued with our main courses. Max's Moroccan chicken arrived on an iron plate sitting on a board, and alongside it there was a bowl of couscous.
I had a large, square plate on which there was a spatchcocked poussin -- that's a small bird which has been opened out by cutting along the backbone and flattening it before cooking. It came with some very tasty roast potatoes and was quite a generous dish in size.
I can't say that I've ever found couscous to be that delicious, but I got a taste of Max's and was quite impressed. As for Max, he was quite vocal in his praise of the flavours in his chicken dish, saying more than once how much he liked it.
He wasn't alone in his pleasure with his main course; I was equally happy with mine. The poussin had been properly cooked and there was a pleasing taste of smokehouse to the chicken. I even found myself picking at the potatoes long after I had ceased to be hungry.
With two good courses under our belt, it would have been churlish to have stopped there, so we went on and ordered desserts -- a chocolate fondant for Max and sorbet for me.
I thought mine might be something tiny, but I got three large balls of sorbet -- two raspberry and one mango -- and two slices of what looked like homemade shortbread biscuits.
Max found himself with a dome of absolutely perfectly timed fondant, runny and gooey in the middle, with a scoop of ice cream alongside, and was once again delighted with his choice.
Two espressos finished what had been a really good meal with excellent service. The Hen House does a great job.
The Hen House
Unit 8, The Pavilion
Centre, Dun Laoghaire,
Tel: 01 663 6611
VALUE FOR MONEY 8/10