I met a man at a noisy book launch recently. He said a “friend who lives in London” wondered why I only review restaurants 15 minutes from my house? I could bellow a list of far flung dinners in his ear. But why spoil a juicy jibe with wizened facts? “Because that’s where the good places are,” I said instead.
Tonight's visit to the Pigeon House has stretched the 15 minute radius to capacity. Clontarf is one of those places perpetually further away than I think it is. Even the Fairview friend has underestimated the schlep and has just rung to say she'll be late as I pedal in. We walk the last stretch together and arrive into the place well hungry for dinner. She's been here for brunch, which was "only okay", but they had only just opened.
Paul Foley and chef Brian Walsh are the men behind the restaurant, according to a press release. They ran a restaurant called Downstairs up the road, but moved when the premises was sold, hugging to the coastline to open The Pigeon House Cafe in Delgany, Co Wicklow. Like avenging Vikings they've paddled their longboat back to Clontarf, opening a sister joint to the Delgany venture, also called The Pigeon House.
It’s a swish fit-out of what used to be a darker, less airy room. There are dark wood floors and tables and handsome chairs. There’s a smart outdoor terrace to the front with two gleaming dog bowls for brunchers blown off the seafront with their dogs. Inside, the walls are greyer than a thunder laden summer sky. Someone has let rip with some copper piping to turn the hanging filament bulb cliche into a slightly more imaginative wall fitting. The menu follows the theme: familiar yet slightly more ambitious.
So there are four fat spears of asparagus, cooked so they’re still bright green but have lost their stringiness. They’re draped with ribbons of guanciale, pork fat so silkily delicate you picture the chef having to flick it off his fingers to get it to nuzzle up to the asparagus. There’s a crispy “hen’s egg” a menu description that could do with editing one word. And there are toasted hazelnuts. This is not the first time I’ll see these tonight. Peas that taste like they’ve never seen the inside of a freezer bag and freshly shelled broad beans have been sprinkled with good crumbly goat’s cheese in a summery starter.
Next up is the kind of competent cooking that earned this partnership a bib gourmande in their last Clontarf venture. It’s a fillet of sea trout with a glass crisp skin, flesh side down on a tangle of red quinoa, fennel, orange and sliced grapes. Virtuous ingredients have been spun into a gorgeous combination by dint of sweet things such as grapes sprinkled through the fennel and quinoa and a sweet citrus sharpness to finish it off. The fish is brilliantly cooked, pin-boned so that every skin-on morsel is a pleasure rather than a wince.
Across the table there’s a small tower of rolled lamb shoulder with garlicky fried courgettes and buttery mash. It’s all expertly cooked and perfect for a cooler summer evening. The only dead end is a side of lentils, celeriac and kale with what is becoming the ingredient of the night: hazelnuts. It’s a dish so heavy it eats like lead weights strapped to the ankles. They might have pulled it off by lacing it with something tart or sour, but as it is, it’s a clagfest.
On a hazelnut roll, I order the Nutella parfait for dessert, but it’s a hazelnut too far. Like the cherry parfait across the table, it’s just an array of prettily arranged variations on sugar, everything sweeter than a princess-themed party and just as one-dimensional.
Desserts aside, I’ve liked everything about The Pigeon House. It’s a smart neighbourhood restaurant that the locals, within their own 15 minute radius, are filling happily. Dinner for two with a carafe of wine came to €92.75.