Downstairs in Clontarf
There’s a great neighbourhood restaurant feel to this basement bar
There was a blackboard that used to sit on the footpath outside my favourite pub. It advertised “Food that Cannot be Passed,” accidentally nailing the description of most pub food back in those gritty days before the smoking ban: deep fried stodge designed for soakage. The healthiest element was often the sachet of malt vinegar sprinkled over things to cut through the grease.
Downstairs in Dublin’s Clontarf is a pub restaurant with a plain name, which makes for confusing conversations and texts. When you ask, “Where are we going for dinner?” the answer “Downstairs” takes a bit of explaining the first time around.
The place is what it says it is – down a wide set of stairs from Gilbert & Wright’s, a pub in a redbrick residential enclave up a small hill away from Clontarf’s seafront. The pub is one of a chain of businesses that includes a nightclub, a restaurant and a bistro. The night we visit, Clontarf is sandbagged against the storms. It makes you glad this basement has a long length of sloping road between it and the seafront.
The fit-out looks to have been done in two stages, the first being a modern, box-fresh scheme creating a blokey but bland restaurant, with dark timber floors and sober colours. Then came a layer of fussing up, with wine boxes on the walls holding bric-a-brac and white picture frames with knives and forks glued to dark backgrounds inside. A final flourish came in the shape of different sized lampshades made of stretched twine.
The food on the plates here takes a similar approach. They could have slapped some boring bistro staples on the menu, but it’s a little more quirky. And it works, in all but one dish. Take my starter of gin-cured salmon. It’s an elegant plate of clean, tart and sweet flavours nuzzling up against two small slabs of prefect oily orange salmon. There’s a juniper hint that must be the gin, but it’s hasn’t overpowered the salmon, green seedless grapes and capers for tang, with some shoots of micro parsley for a garden green finish.
Liam has a lovely pressed terrine of ham hock with Savoy cabbage, that great Irish staple of bacon and cabbage with the soft meat the livid, moist pink of a happy dog’s tongue. This is a version that is firmly on the right side of the sandbags that separate good ham hock terrine from the overboiled, salty and dry.
His main courses is more pig, in the form of shoulder of suckling pig. The meat is as moist as the seven-day weather outlook. There’s a torpedo shaped serving of excellent wholegrain mustard mash, some curly cabbage that is still a spanking dark green and a sweet onion element that’s had a heavy hand on the sugar.
I have the duck breast: three chunky rare slabs around a mound of bulgar wheat. There are baby beets of varying hues, all good, and some leathery cultivated blackberries. The only glitch is a curry flavour in the bulgar which seems an odd match for the duck.
We finish feeling like Winnie the Pooh, fishing spoons of stiff house-made jelly out of the bottom of a Kilner jar where it’s been set and then topped with three small quenelles of ice cream, one vanilla and two strawberry.
I love eating in good pubs. Downstairs is a good restaurant downstairs from a pub. When I check the website a short while after eating there, the menu has been tweaked, which is always a good sign and one dish has gone down in price by €1. Dinner costs €29.95 for three courses. Is it a restaurant? Or is it a bar? Who cares when the food is this good.
Dinner for two with a pint and two glasses of wine came to €87.05.