Star from the sea

A GREAT meal out often has one best dish, a mouth-watering triumph whose memory outlasts all others.

At the Cliff Town House, my best dish was also my first — six succulent and squishy Carlingford oysters (€12.50) served on a glistening mound of ice.

Presented with hunks of lemon and a tiny pot of shallots slow-cooked in red-wine vinegar, chomping the first oyster felt like a slithery electric shock. My eyes pinged open. The mix of salty water, creamy mollusc and tart dressing was plunge-pool invigorating.

Open since November, the Cliff Town House is a sister property to the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore, Co Waterford. Both are owned by Cork businessman Barry O’Callaghan and both share an executive chef in Martin Kajuiter, the holder of Ireland’s only Michelin star outside Dublin.

Sean Smith is the talent at the Town House, but Kajuiter’s influence is all over the menu. Irish growers and producers are right up front, and the duck, beef and seaweed for the brioche, amongst other produce, we were told, are delivered weekly from the south.

Sitting beneath high Georgian ceilings, my wife Lynnea and I pored over a three-course set menu (€39.95) and an à la carte featuring dishes such as Skeaghanore duck served with baby artichoke and Lyonnaise, a pricey fillet steak (€39.50) and a Warren Point Fish Pie (€18.50).

One of us would order from the set menu, we decided, the other from the à la carte. Alongside my stellar oysters, Lynnea ordered the East Coast potted monkfish as a starter, served in an old-style rubber-seal pot, with little gem lettuce and lemon mayonnaise.

For mains, she had spring chicken with baby carrots, wild mushrooms and puréed potato, and I went for wild Irish halibut with samphire, gnocchi and mussels (€28). I’ve learnt not to expect much from chicken in a restaurant, but this was impressive, with an unusual depth of flavour.

My halibut was served with the top surface crisply browned, and an almost feathery texture to the flesh. The plate was splashed in a white wine, mussel stock and cream reduction, together with a bubbly foam. Very tasty — although the gnocchi and mussels arrived lukewarm.

The Cliff Town House replaces Richard Corrigan’s ill-fated Bentley’s, and the changes are subtle, assured and for the better. A brash child of the boom is replaced by a classy restaurant utterly at home in its handsome space. It doesn’t shoot for the Michelin heights of the Cliff House Hotel, but sits comfortably alongside other top Dublin restaurants like Pearl, Dax and One Pico. The one area where the student trumps the master is in the room itself. In Ardmore, the House restaurant can feel a bit cramped, losing its oomph once the coastal view gives way to darkness. Here, a long, elegant space leads the eye from sash windows over St Stephen’s Green to the marble oyster bar swooshing elegantly around the raised rear section.

It’s at once smart and stylish, classical and airy, with white panelling, soft pinks, dark parquet flooring and the studded blue leather chairs and banquettes that worked so well in Bentley’s coming together to hit the sweet spot between opulence and understatement.

For dessert, Lynnea went with a seriously strong flourless chocolate tart. I had the rhubarb fool (€6.50). The portion was too big, but digging down through custardy sabayon and sweet cream to extract pert lumps of ruby-red rhubarb beneath, I had no trouble polishing it off.

Lynnea is coeliac, and we were surprised to be told the Cliff Town House doesn’t offer gluten-free bread. Otherwise it was a first-rate evening out — service was on the button, and our waiter was worth his tip for the wine recommendation alone, a cool, crisp glass of Domaine de Montredon Picpoul de Pinet (€8.50) that made the best dish even better.

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