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Smart Hartley's is right on track

The writer Evelyn Waugh, holed up in Yugoslavia during the Second World War, bet the ebullient Randolph Churchill (son of Winston) he couldn't read the Bible cover-to-cover.

A witness to the challenge stated that Randolph, as he progressed through the Old Testament, could be heard repeatedly exclaiming "God, isn't God a s**t?"

I was minded of this last week when Sibella and I lunched the mother of my late best friend, best man and business partner. Back in the summer of '89, when he took away the sweetest guy on the planet, aged 35, God must have been in an uncommonly crabby mood.

The reunion with Pat's mum was also a salient reminder that restaurants have other purposes than setting the scene for gastronomic excess. The brief was to find one that would help fashion 'an occasion' for someone who probably does not dine out that often; food that would satisfy a palate less questing than mine; an ambience that would facilitate private conversation but where staff would not be discommoded if either M, me, or both burst into tears. In the event, the three of us embraced the occasion as a joyous celebration of Pat O'Flaherty's tragically short life. God might have popped in to say "sorry" but he didn't.



splendour

The beautifully proportioned cut-stone listed building was once the eastern terminal of the Dublin to Kingstown railway, and for many years housed Restaurant (later, Brasserie) Na Mara. After a brief interregnum, during which it was tricked out like a cross between a Costa del Slapper nightclub and a psychedelic ice-cream parlour, the building was acquired by the people who own the estimable Dali in Blackrock and restored to something approaching its erstwhile splendour.

The long bar at the seaboard end affords views of the harbour, and high windows and full-length mirrors admit plenty of light. All told, about as congenial a lunch spot as can be found. The lunch menu is MOR as it gets, with nothing to shock or stretch the imagination. Starters included a soup of the day; free-range chicken wings; salt-and-pepper squid (thankfully with a nam jim, rather than the habitual sweet chilli sauce); plus, of course a goat cheese salad, which Sibella selected and pronounced excellent. The whitebait starter, alas, was off the menu that day.



mussels

Here I hit on a curious anomaly of the pricing policy. We were on the set lunch menu: two courses for €24.50, three for €29.50, with a €4 supplement if you wanted the steak. Chalked up on the blackboard were a few specials, including the mussels. A starter portion of the latter was priced at €10, whereas other starters were €9. I asked could I have mussels and pay a €1 supplement and was told "Sorry, no".

I couldn't see the logic in this; a week later, I still can't. I backtracked and asked the waiter if the squid was fresh or frozen. "Fresh frozen," he said. To his credit, he smiled.

I took it anyway and found the squid was sympathetically cooked and tasty. The chilli, garlic, fish sauce, lime juice and palm sugar of the nam jim pointed up this starter a treat. It teamed particularly well with the beer I had chosen from the short but interesting range of designer beers.

M declined a starter and ordered the lemon and coriander free-range chicken breast, which came with a 'guacamole, red pepper and cherry tomato salsa, mozzarella quesadilla'. How very 'Jamie', I thought.

I ordered the 10oz rib-eye and here the waiter earned his corn by suggesting I took it medium rare rather than rare "as rib eye has a fair bit of fat". Good call. It was a decent piece of meat, glammed up with 'rocket Caesar', balsamic roast onions, home-cut chips and Bearnaise.

Sibs settled for the fine seafood and spinach pie, topped with a Cheddar crust. Our waiter brought extra chips, no charge.

Both the girls enjoyed their orange cake (another great modern cliche) with mint ice cream, and orange and star anise syrup. I found the trio of sorbets hard going; by the third I could have done with some ice cream as a flavour and textural contrast.

Overall, Hartley's fulfilled the brief. While the menu is stereotypical, there is a deal on it that punters would eat and the dishes we had were competently cooked and served with panache.

The entertainment -- provided by a second waiter who, during quiet spells, practised his shapes in front of one of the long mirrors -- was hilarious.


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