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Thursday 24 April 2014

A seaside sensation

Back in early spring, I was in The Waterside House Hotel in Donabate in Co Dublin. It's one of the very few hotels in Ireland that is right on a beach, so, if the weather is even just a little bit clement, you can enjoy, as I did, a drink on the large terrace that overlooks the beach and a Martello tower.

I was there talking to Tom Walsh, a chef who had just arrived at The Waterside and had plans to create a fine-dining restaurant there.

The summer passed and Tom and his team kept working, refining their menu until they presented it to the public in October.

I'll confess, I was impressed that Tom and his team took their time, – it took them five months before they were ready to open Samphire, which is the name of the new restaurant.

I was back there this week to see what Tom had done. The new restaurant is tucked away at the right-hand end of the hotel, and it's not a large dining room, seating maybe 35.

You get fine views across the sea to Lambay Island on one side and Malahide on the other.

I'd arrived with Gemma Kenny and Gavin Cullen, who'll forgive me if I refer to them as 'I promessi sposi (the betrothed), since they're learning Italian.

We got a table with a view of Malahide and settled in to reading the menu. It is a kind of combination set menu and à la carte.

The top part of each section is included in the set price, which is €22.95 for two courses and €26.95 for three. Below these dishes are more that come with a supplement, making them effectively à la carte.

The set-menu prices are pretty much what you can find anywhere in Dublin these days, but what sets Samphire apart is what you get on the set menu.

Normally, these are the dishes that cost little to source and are easy to prepare, but here there are dishes that you wouldn't expect to find on a set menu at this price.

Here are a few of the starters: breast of wood pigeon, confit leg, garlic purée and crispy salsify; parfait of goat's cheese, roast hazelnuts and tarragon, beetroot three ways and sherry caramel; and fish cake in Japanese breadcrumbs, watercress salad, grilled lemon and tartar sauce.

It took a while to order as there were so many things that looked good, but eventually it came to this: a carnaroli rice risotto with forest mushrooms, Parmesan and micro leaves for Gemma; the potato and garlic soup with seared scallops, parsnip crisps and marsh samphire for Gavin; and the wood pigeon for me.

Then we chose coq au vin for Gemma, venison for Gavin and rare tuna for me.

After a little discussion with our knowledgeable sommelier, we picked an Argentinian Malbec from Michel Torino from the wine list, priced at €24.80. For the third time, in a month I was delighted with the Malbec – it was smooth, full, well-balanced and long on the palate, and surprisingly good for the price.

The first things to arrive at the table were two small loaves straight from the oven. There was a nutty one and a tomato one, and both arrived with their own breadboard and cutting knife.

Smothering slices of these breads thickly with the handmade butter that came with it was a temptation I couldn't resist. I can't remember when I last got artisan butter in a restaurant.

The starters arrived and were beautifully presented. Not only that, they were also superbly cooked.

Gavin's potato and garlic soup was thick and creamy, and the scallops – big and juicy – were surrounded by the soup. The plate was decorated with parsnip crisps and samphire.

Gemma had a perfectly cooked risotto, rich and creamy and filled with real mushrooms, the whole topped off with micro leaves.

I had rare pigeon breast in slices, a caramelised confit leg and two crispy chips of salsify with a garlic purée base.

When Gemma got her coq au vin, she was momentarily fazed. Not a girl with a large appetite, she had a whole poussin in front of her, with baby onions, pearl carrots and potatoes in a red-wine jus.

Across the table, Gavin had a plate with slices of medium-rare venison loin, celeriac purée, roasted carrots and rosti potatoes with a gin and juniper sauce.

But I thought the tour de force of the night was on my plate. I had three tournedos of tuna, just seared on the peppered outside and each with a small plastic phial containing a flavouring. Of the three, the basil oil was astonishingly good.

We finished with three superb desserts: a chocolate tart and raspberry sorbet, which came topped with popping candy; a lemon posset, which came in a tiny Mason jar accompanied by sable biscuits and blueberry jelly; and a coconut panna cotta, with poached fruits and a mango sorbet.

I've had meals as good as this in Michelin-starred restaurants. It was one of the best meals I've had this year, and when I tell you that the bill for the three of us came to €142.45, it becomes one of the best-value meals I've had for a long time.

The food was faultless, but I did have a small reservation. The room was nicely lit by candles, but they were scented candles. When the food's as good as this, I would have preferred to have smelt it without the scent of the candles.

Donabate is easy to get to. My advice is go there and enjoy this food.

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