The catch of the bay

AT LONG last, Ireland is getting to grips with gastro pubs.

In a recent survey of its members, the Vintner’s Association found 58% are now serving food — food that varies wildly in quality, I’m sure, but food, nonetheless. As sea changes go, this one could rival the 2004 smoking ban.

In previous decades, after all, you would have searched far and wide for an Irish pub serving anything other than Tayto, a selection of pink and yellow Snack bars or, if you were lucky, a toasted ‘special’ in a plastic sleeve — with crusts that could have doubled as firelighters.

Ireland is famous for its beer, and increasingly well-known for its food. Serving both in pubs makes perfect sense. The only shame is that it took a smoking ban, stricter drink-driving laws and aggressive competition from restaurants and cafés to make publicans actually go out and do it.

Of course, standards remain patchy. In recent months, I’ve enjoyed a gorgeous buttermilk-fried spiced chicken (€14.50) at the Fatted Calf in Glasson, Co Westmeath. I had an open sandwich topped with a killer clutch of Dublin Bay prawns (€11.95) at Stoop Your Head in Skerries.

Dubliners rave about L Mulligan Grocer in Stoneybatter. Foodies flock to Annie’s in Sunday’s Well in Cork city, and Mary Ann’s in Castletownsend is Georgina Campbell’s Pub of the Year 2012. I can also recommend the wild mushroom risotto at the Ballymore Inn in Co Kildare — imagine saying that in the 1990s.

But like everyone else, I’ve also had my fair share of nuked ‘paninis’ that could heel a shoe, soups from a packet, and bowls of ‘stew’ that tasted like they were pulled from a sinkhole.

John Benny Moriarty’s in Dingle has all the hallmarks of a good gastro pub. A chirpily-coloured façade faces the marina, there’s music almost nightly and, stepping inside, it feels instantly like a place you might wander into wanting lunch, and stumble out of at (or after) closing time.

There’s no poshness about it. A big, curvy bar is framed by stone walls, a glowing fireplace, black-and-white photos, a flatscreen TV showing the footie, and a busy crew of waitresses ministering to a happy crowd that includes families, tourists, couples and sprawling lads enjoying the few pints.

Alas, the food is a mixed bag. I start with a “rich and creamy” seafood chowder (€5.20) from the standard menu. It is in fact flat and poorly seasoned, needing a good shake of salt and pepper and a burly stir even to wake it up. The mix is pallid in appearance, and tastes like everything has been lumped in at once, rather than flavours built from scratch with sweated onions.

There’s also an inch-long fishbone to contend with. That’s rarely a crime in itself, but lying there on the side-plate, it spoils the remaining mouthfuls.

Staples on John Benny’s standard menu range from fried fish of the day to a gnocchi dish and a sirloin steak (the most expensive item, at €18.95).

There’s also a list of lunch specials, including a prawn salad, bacon and cabbage, and pan-fried trout fillets on pesto mash.

From the latter, I order steamed Cromane mussels in white wine and garlic cream (€9.95).

It’s much more successful — a winning waft of wine and garlic puffs up from the inky shells; the mussels are easy to extract and don’t require too much chewing. It’s a simple dish that smacks of the sea across the road, looks good, and doesn’t break the bank — ticking all the gastro pub boxes.

John Benny’s is a thumping spot with a busy Facebook page, a decent kids’ menu, some mighty music (the proprietor is a dab hand with the button accordion), and lots of creative ideas — a bundle with Dingle Bay Charters, for example, allows you to bring your catch for the pub’s chef to cook.

As a gastro-pub, however — with its squeezy bottles of ketchup, bought-in soda bread and catering-style sachets of butter — some things remain for it to get to grips with.

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