Eating out: Paolo Tullio at The House, Howth
A few years ago, a cookery book arrived in the post for me to review. On the cover, a young man smiled engagingly under the title, Good Mood Food. Inside, I found real, usable recipes by Donal Skehan, who exuded throughout the book a passionate enthusiasm for his dishes.
To me, enthusiasm and passion are as much a necessity for good food as is skill. Skill alone can seem a trifle clinical, whereas, when it's combined with passion and enthusiasm, a kind of magic happens. And it seems I'm not the only one to think that way, because since the launch of that book, Donal's career has been on an ever- increasing arc.
This week, I went to meet Donal in his home town of Howth. He was keen to get me to experience the food and ambiance of The House, his personal favourite eaterie in his neighbourhood. To find it, go past the harbour until the end of the road and then turn right onto Abbey Street. Go uphill, past The Abbey Tavern and at the next set of lights you'll see The House on your right.
Inside, you find dark wooden tables surrounded by bentwood chairs, a couple of buttoned Chesterfields framing the fireplace, and art from three artists on the walls, which are for sale. The whole effect is pleasing, neither plain nor ornate, just comfortable.
Reading the menu, it became clear why Donal liked the place. What comes through strongly, as you read, is the care that's been taken with sourcing the ingredients. Many of them, especially the seafood, is from local suppliers. As you'd expect from a restaurant in Howth, there's plenty of fish and seafood on the menu, as well as steak, duck and chicken.
There's an early bird menu, but it operates for just one hour and wasn't running when we arrived. It offers three courses for €24.95 and there's a choice of four dishes for each course.
Donal started with the salt and pepper squid with a tomato, chilli and corn salsa and coriander aioli drizzled on the plate. The only way to judge squid rings is to see are they tender, and secondly, how well does the batter or tempura do its job. Both boxes got ticked here: the squid was tender and not chewy, and the batter was crisp and well attached to the rings.
I'd ordered the soup of the day, which was a carrot soup. It came with a thick slice of homemade dark bread and I liked it. It was well flavoured and the seasoning was just right.
While we ate, Donal told me about his trip to Italy to make a series using 'grandma's cooking' or to use the Italian, la cucina di nonna. He got recipes and lessons from the matriarchs wherever they were filming, a sensible thing to do because the 'nonnas' are the repository for the region's traditions. As Donal discovered, they didn't always agree on the details, but as a way to learn and understand Italian cookery, there is no better.
For main courses, we'd both gone for the sea, Donal choosing the scallops with the sweetcorn purée, served with a crab croquette and samphire, while I'd chosen one of the daily specials, ray wing. Again, like the starters, these were two well-made dishes. Donal gave me a taste of his scallops and I have to say, you couldn't have timed the cooking of them any better with a stop watch. They were cooked to within fractions of a second of perfection.
Ray wing is one of those fish dishes that isn't as appreciated as it ought to be. It's a smashing fish and when it was served, as it was here, with a cauliflower purée and a corn purée, the flavours combined very well. And there was a further treat - mixed through the samphire were small brown shrimp and I can tell you that the mix of the two is one I'd happily eat again and again.
If you don't know samphire, it's a fleshy little plant that grows in sand dunes by the sea. Of all the wild greens that can be foraged and eaten in Ireland for free, samphire is without a doubt the tastiest. Because of its innate saltiness, it's a perfect accompaniment for fish and seafood.
At the start of the meal, we'd both refused wine, but when the main courses arrived we both relented and got a glass each of the Austrian Gruner Veltliner, a very crisp, clean and slightly acidic white wine that went really well with our fish dishes. There's a two-page wine list with a dozen or so wines available by the glass and quite a few wines under €30, which seems to be the new benchmark for restaurant wines. If you're not into wines, there's about ten bottled beers listed, including a couple of Irish artisan ales.
In truth, neither of us were still hungry after this, but we were enjoying the chat and the company, so rather than get the bill and leave, we ordered a dessert each, the ginger cake for Donal and an ice-cream for me. I got a taste of the ginger cake and it was a properly spicy ginger cake, with a taste of ginger that sat happily on the palate.
The House does Illy coffee, possibly Italy's finest roastery, so I couldn't resist an espresso. It was a good one and rounded off the meal nicely. The bill was €96.60, of which €22.25 was water, wine and coffee.
VALUE FOR MONEY: 8/10
On a budget
If you can arrange to be in The House for the early bird hour, then you can avail of the three courses for €24.95, with a choice of four dishes for each course. It runs Tuesday to Saturday.
On a blowout
If you were to eat fish from the à la carte, start with the crab claws and Howth clams, which comes with peas, ham and focaccia for €11.95, then do as Donal did and have the scallops with the crab croquette at €22.95.
I thought that the scallops were the best dish of the night.
Hard to find a low point this week, but perhaps an offer at least of a set menu would be a good idea.
DONAL'S LITTLE BLACK BOOK
In Bangkok this year, we met Norman Ruddock who sources the ingredients for the Thai Food Company there. He gave us a tour of the food on offer - it was surreal to hear him speak in Thai, then break into English in a Wexford accent!
I use a lot of Asian ingredients and like to use ones that have an Irish link. Norman, his Thai wife Penn and James Brady set up the Thai Food Company in Wexford in 2005. They supply wonderful ingredients under the Thai Gold label to the Irish market and have great organic coconut milk and pastes, all authentic and natural. I love the Thai Gold Sriracha Sauce, a spicy chilli sauce that is a staple in southeast Asia. thai.ie