Winning the numbers game
A wet winter evening is enlivened by food that’s as good as it sounds in old El Paso, writes CATHERINE CLEARY
It’s tricky being hungry and numerically challenged in Dundalk. Ask for directions to Restaurant 32, and you might be sent to a lovely looking cafe called 23 Seats. There’s a bakery called Number 1. They like their numbers here. And their good news number story at the end of the year was that Dundalk made it on to Fáilte Ireland’s shortlist of the top 10 Tourist Towns. Not bad for a place they used to call El Paso.
Dundalk is a survivor, its shopkeepers standing firm against the magnetic pull of the nappies and booze deals in cross-border supermarkets. I’m visiting with my mum on a dank and dismal night. We’ve browsed a massive antiques shop and visited the cathedral, where they’ve just polished the parquet. It’s a case of things to do in Dundalk when you’re dead early. Then the rain gets the better of us and we head to Restaurant 32, with a short diversion past 23 Seats.
The restaurant is tucked away on Chapel Street, so there is not much passing trade. It’s for people who know it’s there. The front-of-house man (who looks like Dara O Briain’s Dundalk cousin) takes pity on us and opens five minutes before time.
A toasty radiator beside the table takes away the chill and we can see the place is set up for at least two large parties later that evening. It’s a long, narrow room decked out with black leather swivel chairs and a grey banquette along one wall, which is panelled in grey-painted timber. A red wall that frames the bar has a stencil of a stag on it. The other two sides of the room are windows. There are more seats upstairs. The choices on the express menu for €25 are as cheerful a sight as you’ll see, plenty of hearty chunky flavours pitched well for the night that’s in it.
Menus can read better than they taste. Something can happen between the idea and its execution that dials down the delicious. It might be a dip in energy, a little belt-tightening on the ingredients or food that was prepared and then refrigerated long before you sat at your table to eat. The party season is a classic time for that to happen, when restaurants are under pressure to turn tables.
But not in Restaurant 32. The food is as good as it sounds. Three Kilkeel scallops (€12 on the à la carte) are plump, sweet and just caramelised, with a salty smoky haddock brandade, some rocket and caper butter. A poached plum and cranberry salad does that lovely thing of combining a plum that’s been poached into tasting more plummy, with a salty feta, and tartly sweet shots of dried cranberries.