Locks, 1 Windsor Terrace, Dublin 8. (01) 416-3655
Of all the Dublin restaurants that I've eaten in, Locks is the one that I have written about most often. I first visited in the '80s, when I was a student and lunch at Locks was a spectacular treat.
Back then, the restaurant was owned by Claire and the late Richard Douglas and served hearty, vaguely Scandinavian food (gravadlax, venison, red cabbage - that kind of thing) washed down with copious quantities of red wine. The ambience was convivial, and much appreciated by media and creative types. A room draped in velvet that could be adjusted to shut out a miserable Dublin day was conducive to lunches that segued into dinners, and there were stories of legendary Friday afternoons involving a tower of champagne coupes and a plentiful supply of Bollinger.
That era came to an end many years ago - the decline of the liquid lunch must have hit the original Locks' business hard - and the restaurant has whizzed through a number of incarnations over the past decade. For a nano-second, it held a Michelin star, which turned out to be a poisoned chalice.
These days the restaurant is a collaboration between two chefs: Connor O'Dowd and Paul McNamara; the latter is also a partner in Etto and its highly anticipated younger sibling, Una Mas, due to open on Aungier Street in early summer. Both have CVs that take in some of the city's best restaurants, including Chapter One.
The location beside the canal in fashionable Portobello is one of the most charming in the city, and even on a Baltic day there are swans gliding by, haughtily indifferent to the comings and goings along the banks. The red velvet and dark wood interior of old is long gone; in its place there are painted panelled walls and subtle furnishings. It looks decorous in the way that the old Locks never did, but we do not let that stand in the way of a no-holds-barred winter's lunch, a celebration of getting to the end of another year relatively intact, or at least still with all our own teeth.
There's a real fire in the grate and a warmth to the welcome that strikes us as the essence of hospitality. What else do you want on a bitter day than to be smiled at and have your bags and coats spirited away and a drink pressed into your newly de-gloved hand? On this occasion it's an elderflower Martini, which really belongs in another season but is quite delicious nonetheless.
There's a short wait while our table is (literally) assembled - perhaps we were destined for another part of the restaurant upstairs but we were rumbled and the staff decided that we should not be consigned to Siberia? - and then we are seated. The room is full of relaxed tables of families and friends congratulating themselves on their good fortune to be in this place at this time, and groups of work colleagues who loosen up after a few glasses of wine and some fine food.
It's one of those rare menus on which we'd be happy to eat anything, with the focus on seasonal produce that you'd expect from a modern, neighbourhood restaurant. There's a bowl of those vivid green Nocellara olives to aid concentration while we decide, along with homemade sourdough served with a sublime smoked trout and dillisk butter.
We are faced with a dilemma. We are in the mood for the Himalayan salt-aged rib of beef for two, but we can't resist the prospect of a dry-aged venison haunch suet pudding, either. In the end we order both, the pudding as a (very substantial) starter to share. For good measure, we add a second starter, the crispy pig's head with Bramley apple, treviso and homemade black pudding. Our lunch is turning into a blow-out.
The kitchen has taken the head meat and formed it into a deep-fried croquette, which sits prettily on the pudding, surrounded by pink treviso and green micro-leaves and the sharpness of apple. There's lovely balance of flavour and texture, and general piggy deliciousness.
The suet pudding comes gently anointed with a light foam of chanterelles and is a thing of beauty; the rich venison inside contrasting with a suet crust that is not heavy at all. Suet gets a bad rap, and you seldom see its presence announced on a menu, but it makes a mean pastry.
And then there's the beef - a large rib served off the bone and impeccably cooked, plus braised short-rib with some charred onion and an intense cauliflower purée that fools us into thinking that it's something much less prosaic, as well as crisp oxtail (effectively a variation on the theme of the croquette).
There are duck fat chips, organic leaves and a luscious bearnaise, and the dish is at the same time comforting and a little different to the standard cote de boeuf that's in danger of becoming ubiquitous on Dublin menus. The meat is fabulous.
To finish, a mid-winter dessert of cranberry fool, pomegranate, cherry blossom and honeycomb and some nicely oozing gorgonzola, with homemade crackers.
The bill for this epic meal comes to €185, including a bottle of Nebbiolo San Biagio 2013 at €45. Locks is back on a roll, and we may see those champagne fountains yet.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
Locks is open for lunch on Fridays and Saturdays, with a set menu priced at €25 for two courses and €30 for three.
ON A BLOW OUT
A couple of snacks (hake, chorizo and leek croquettes and whipped chicken liver), followed by roasted scallops with parsnip and apple, smoked lardo and Colombo spice, cote de boeuf for two and cheese, would cost €122 for two before drinks and service.
THE HIGH POINT
A winning combination of excellent food and service.
THE LOW POINT
A slight yearning for the louche ambience of the past.