A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a new Dun Laoghaire restaurant, The Fish Shack, and how its simple seafood offering is a welcome addition to the town's seafront.
You'd expect Dun Laoghaire to be crammed with restaurants, but for some reason it's not. There's a cluster of places to eat in Monkstown, and another in Glasthule/Sandycove, but in between there is little to get excited about. With a hinterland of prosperity, you'd think there would be a greater choice of restaurants for the locals, but most of what is on offer down by the seafront is at the casual end of the spectrum (Milano's, Gourmet Burger, Itsa, and The Hen House).
If you are looking for somewhere with more of a sense of occasion about it, then there is really only one option, and that's Hartley's. It's just as well that it's good.
We dropped in at short notice on a Wednesday night and the place was hopping. It's a wonderful room that used to be the ticketing hall of the Kingstown train station. It has high ceilings, big windows, some good art and a sense of glamour about it. Years ago, it was home to Brasserie Na Mara, a restaurant run by CIE, the forerunner to Irish Rail. The food was always good, but the ambience tended toward stuffy and formal, with waiters in dinner jackets and bow ties.
Since 2007 it has been Hartley's, which has evolved into Dun Laoghaire's eatery of choice, the place where business is done, friends catch up, couples escape for date night and families gather to celebrate. It's also a popular wedding venue, and there's a terrace covered by large parasols which gets some use in the summer months, although the view of the harbour is blocked by the ferry terminal, which is no longer in use.
Go to Harley's in spring and it's full of communions and confirmations, go in December and it is crammed with seasonal reunions. And go on a Wednesday night in early autumn and it seems as if every second table is celebrating a birthday. During the course of our evening the poor staff performed seven renditions of Happy Birthday and delivered seven cakes with sparklers to seven separate tables. To their credit, they did it with good grace, but it must get wearing.
One of the reasons Hartley's is so popular is that there is something on its menu for everyone. The website acknowledges that the seafood and steaks are the backbone of the menu. So you don't go to Hartley's expecting fussy food, but you do go expecting to be well fed.
There's a set menu, priced at €24.50 for two courses, and €29.50 for three, and you can order single courses from this selection too. In addition, there's an a la carte, plus daily specials. Amongst Hartley's signature dishes are its chicken wings (unusually, these are free-range, for which credit is due), served with a Roquefort dip, its classic burger (enormous, which comes with terrific pickles) and its beer-battered fish and chips, all of which are good old reliables I've had on previous occasions and can recommend.
This time, we started with Gambas Pil Pil, served with toasted sourdough, a classic Spanish tapas dish with garlic and chilli, a generous helping of shell-on prawns with plenty of juices for mopping up, and a gratin of a few different types of mushrooms with Comte cheese - another large potion - that was rich and tasty. Two great starters, full of big flavours.
For mains, a special of monkfish with shredded ham hock, in a soupy puddle of hammy broth and greens. A harmonious combination of ingredients, and fish cooked just right, made for a pleasing dish.
Fillet wouldn't generally be my steak of choice - there's better flavour in other cuts such as sirloin and skirt, which happen to be considerably better value too - but this was a tender piece of meat and the Béarnaise was excellent, with a pronounced tarragon flavour. Chips came in one of those ubiquitous little metal pails (can we please call a halt to this nonsense?) and were crisp without being exceptional.
We finished up with a simple rhubarb fool and a ridiculous dessert cocktail, a Starbartini, that was as tooth-achingly sweet (and delicious, I'm ashamed to admit) as its name suggests. With a carafe of house red - a grenache/syrah blend from the Languedoc - our bill came to €139, to which Hartley's added a 10pc service charge. Some of the prices are steep: our starters were €13 each, the monkfish €28, and the fillet an eye-watering €32.50. You could spend considerably less eating from the set menu which is better value.
Hartley's is the kind of restaurant that you'd hope would exist in every decent-sized town in the country: somewhere that you can bring anyone and be confident they'll find something on the menu that will appeal, a place that cares about the provenance and sourcing of its ingredients without banging on about it, or feeling the need to forage, pleasant floor staff that know what they are doing, and a kitchen that takes pride in what it does. Dun Laoghaire is lucky to have it.
On a budget
The set menu is €24.50 for two courses. You could have chilli and black sesame squid, with namjim dipping sauce, followed by free-range char-grilled spiced chicken breast, tamarind tomato chutney, cucumber raita, toasted cashew nuts, pomegranate and mango slaw.
ON A BLOW OUT
Fritto misto, followed by an 8oz fillet steak and banana split would set you back €54.50 before drinks. The 2009 Barolo from G. D. Vajra at €90 might go well with the steak.
THE HIGH POINT
It's a great room, one of the best in Dublin.
THE LOW POINT
Seven renditions of Happy Birthday during dinner
7/10 value for money
The annual Dingle Food Festival takes place from October 2-4. The Kerry town was named Ireland's first foodie town by the Restaurants Association of Ireland last year, and the festival is just one of the reasons why. There's a taste trail with 80 outlets, including The Little Cheese Shop (pictured), which will be serving fondue laced with red wine and poitín, and new coffee shop, Bean, in Dingle serving espresso martinis, plus a giant food market, plenty of cookery demonstrations and other events, including a men-only bake-off to find the best coffee and walnut cake. See dinglefood.com