Hollybrook Park, Clontarf, Co Dublin
Tel: 01 8338883
Downstairs, but certainly upmarket
It feels very much like winter as I make my way out to Clontarf, the salubrious suburb of North County Dublin, on a cold November night. I've got the kind of hacking cough that goes with the weather and is making life embarrassing. I ring to make reservations and go into a comedy fit of choking. People turn around in the street to look at me as the cough buzzes in my chest like an old man blowing on a comb and paper. They seem surprised to find a young (okay, young-ish) woman and not an old man playing the comb-harmonica.
When I arrive at the Downstairs restaurant, I am a little anxious to discover how tranquil the place is. It's positively soothing. Candles flicker, music plays softly, a couple murmurs to each other, and into this atmosphere I arrive with my seal's bark. It's not ideal, but what can you do?
We've chosen to come to Downstairs because last month it was awarded a Bib Gourmand by the Michelin Guide. A Bib Gourmand is an award for good food at reasonable prices – what's not to love? And it's true, Downstairs presents brilliant value with its menu deal offering two courses for €23.95, and three courses for €26.95.
This restaurant has really paid attention to its interior. There is a wall of windows as you walk down the stairs, which must suffuse this place with the most beautiful light during the day. But tonight, it's all about the dark wood and candlelight, which makes for a very romantic setting – no wonder its clientele seems to be entirely couples-based.
It has a modern mismatched feel. The furniture is a mix of modern Perspex seats and polka-dot banquettes (which are much tamer than they sound). At the back of the restaurant is a dark gleaming bar that simply begs for a mysterious stranger to blow in and order a scotch on the rocks.
Instead, my farmer friend blows in, with his hair strangely wet and slicked back. It's not a disconcerting new fashion. He's just come straight from the swimming pool. We make quite a pair. I laugh at his hair and he alternates between laughing and being appalled by my cough. The other diners are just appalled. Luckily on this Monday night the restaurant is quiet enough that no fellow diners are required to sit too close to us.
The farmer likes his grub but he's a modern Irish farmer, don't you know, so it's not all meat and potatoes. After much deliberation, he goes for the pork belly with scallop and truffled coco beans (€7.95) to start and I have the toasted sourdough with creamed oyster mushroom, crisp quails egg and Bayonne ham (€7.95). Mine is incredibly flavoursome, the ingredients working well together. The farmer's pork belly is a little bland, but combined with the other items on the plate it starts to make sense.
The menu proudly lists Downstairs' suppliers – the farmer throws a squinty eye over them, like a buyer appraising a bull at the mart. They are mostly local and all respected (Wrights fish, Searsons Wine, Kettyle meats).
The service is very friendly and extremely attentive. I want to order a glass of Rioja or something like it. The Maitre d' says he can give me a glass from a more expensive bottle of wine that is not normally served by the glass, as he has a bottle of it open. I am delighted by this and hereafter we drink glasses of the Navarra Innurieta, which is €6 a glass.
I find it near impossible to make a decision on the mains – everything looks fantastic, from the steak to the duck to the risotto.
I eventually go for the roast chicken breast with crushed and pickled butternut squash (€18.95). The farmer goes with the baked cod with parsley crust, pickled girolles, artichoke and vanilla puree, semi-dried grapes and roast salsify (€19.95).
"What's salsify," he asks. "Kind of like a parsnip," I tell him. "Is it not a seasoning?" "No, I'm pretty sure about this, mainly because I used to think salsify was something to sprinkle over your food too. It's like a parsnip."
Our conversations sometimes resemble the script from Dumb & Dumber. One classic from our past was our argument over exactly what colour chartreuse is. The waiter arrives and I ask what salsify is. It's like a parsnip right? No, it's more like a long, thin root vegetable that is like sweet parsnip. Right, so like a parsnip.
The presentation of the food is of the kind you expect in a much more expensive restaurant. This might have something to do with chef Brian Walsh's provenance.
He began at Patrick Guillbaud's, moved on to The Four Seasons, Duzy's and Dylan McGrath's Mint before setting up Downstairs two years ago with Paul Foley (owner of Valparaiso, where Walsh was also chef).
My butternut squash comes three different ways – sliced, creamed and roughly cut – and all three taste amazing. The chicken is good, but strangely it's the squash that really impresses. Likewise, the deep-fried baby courgette chips are incredibly enticing and moreish and we fight over the last one.
For dessert, the farmer says he has to have a bit of chocolate, so he goes for the chocolate cremeux with pain d'epice mousse and poached pear (€5.95).
"How do you pronounce cremeux?" he asks. I say: "crem-UH."
He orders it and deliberately mispronounces it, then asks the waiter how it's pronounced, just to annoy me. The waiter tells him it's pronounced crem-OH. Tomayto, tomahto, salsify, sawlsify, crem-uh, crem-oh. I take no chances with my own pronunciation and order the homemade jelly and ice cream (€5.95), which takes me to my 1980s nostalgia happy place, where you never had to worry about pronouncing things properly.
Downstairs is well tucked away off the Howth road, but at these prices it is well worth seeking out.
THE DAMAGE: €93.90 for two three-course deals, one hand-cut chips, one green tea, two americanos, one bottle of corona and four glasses of wine.
RECOMMENDED: Get whatever fish is on the menu, it's fresh from Wright's of Howth.
AT TABLE: Relaxed, murmuring couples
ON THE STEREO: A surprisingly pleasing 1970s disco mix, from Blondie to Barry White.