Refuel: Downstairs ****
Gilbert & Wright, Hollybrook park, Clontarf, D3
This Sunday is Mother's Day. This Sunday is very good news for restaurants. No matter that the economy is going to hell in a hand basket, no matter that you've flogged your last pair of Louboutins on eBay just to put stirabout on the table. No matter how poor you are, you are not poor enough to forsake your Mammy on guilt meets gratitude day.
I am a mother, and the greatest gift my son could give me this Sunday is to eat his dinner -- all of it, without complaint, while I congratulate myself with a glass of wine for having gotten both of us thus far. I am also a daughter, not a good one, not even a so-so one, but a consistently negligent one. And in keeping with that, I have failed to book a restaurant this Sunday to express my gratitude and assuage my guilt towards Ma Flannery. The way I see it, we go out to eat often enough. I've a stack of reviews to prove it.
I thought I'd laid the matter to rest, that my conscience was clear, when I went for lunch with Ui Rathaile at Downstairs. We ordered some Catarratto, chinked our wine glasses and exchanged approving comments about the menu. Everything was easy and light and anguish free, until I copped a blackboard that read: Join us on Sunday April 3rd for Mothers' Day ... don't forget to bring your Mum!
From that point on, there was three of us at the table.
I wondered what Ma Flannery would choose as a starter. Definitely not the spicy chicken wings, possibly the beetroot and blood orange marinated salmon, but most likely the tomato and mozzarella salad. The mains were easier to predict. She'd want the ribeye, but she'd want it well-done, which would set me off on a lecture, so she'd pretend she didn't want it.
The pork belly would be too fatty, the fish pie too fishy, and the roast chicken too compromised by the presence of chorizo, which is always too oily, except for when it's too smoky. So she'd settle on the red pepper tart, with goat's cheese and rocket, which I would inevitably sniff at because it's too boring.
Oblivious to my mother's presence, Ui Rathaile got stuck into his crab salad starter. Served in a kilner jar for potted appeal, the pale, delicate claw meat was finely shredded and bound in light, faintly peppery mayonnaise that was studded with sweetcorn kernels. It was a bright, summery fusion of flavours, that worked well, particularly when piled on to a crunchy paddle of sourdough toast that had been drizzled with assuredly green olive oil. Paired with the easy, creamy Catarratto, it had all the qualities of a lazy holiday lunch.
My starter was altogether more autumnal: chanterelles sautéed in butter, just long enough to soften them up without losing any of their natural chewiness. They were thick and fleshy, their woody flavour tempered by the addition of cream, and then lifted again by sheer purple slices of smoked duck, before being drowned in the richness of a soft poached duck egg, whose yolk poured like sunshine over the top of them. I loved it.
The roast chicken breast that wouldn't have done for my mother, did fine for Ui Rathaile. The skin was crisp, the meat moist and grainy in texture, although the flavour was shy enough. It wasn't a particularly well-assembled dish. There was an army of chickpeas, which were slightly undercooked, and the chorizo worked in pockets rather than adding an overall smokey hue to the dish. It struck me as a dish in need of a nationality.
No such identity crisis for my fish pie, however, which was quite simply perfect. The portion was generous, layer after layer of salmon, undyed smoked haddock and prawns in milky, mashy sauce, flecked with chives and parsley. I've been sorely disappointed by fish pie in the past (most notably in The Cliff Townhouse -- and its predecessor Bentley's), but the Downstairs version is a winner.
The only thing that quite literally jarred with me was our shared dessert -- peach jelly and vanilla ice-cream (Ui Rathaile's choice, not mine) -- in a kilner jar. The ice-cream was too hard, the jelly was set to the bottom of jar, making extraction hard work. And there were more kilners to come -- one for sugar, and then a bottle shaped one for milk. The table looked like a jam-makers convention. It's a gimmick that Downstairs doesn't need.
Then again, your Mammy might like it. They may still have tables left for Sunday. You should give them a call. If they're booked out, you only have yourself to blame for being so useless that only your mother could love you.
TYPICAL DISH: Roast cod with artichoke puree and crush
RECOMMENDED: Downstairs fish pie
THE DAMAGE: €71.30 for two starters, two mains, one dessert, three glasses of wine, one beer and two coffees
ON THE STEREO: Amy Winehouse
AT THE TABLE: Locals
Day & Night