It is lucky for me that potatoes in general, and chips in particular, are such versatile creatures. Week after week, they keep me, and this Spud Sunday slot, alive with potatoey possibilities.
It is also lucky for me that, through this blog, I have had the opportunity to experience all kinds of food made by all kinds of people – and not always involving spuds either. A case in point is the invitation that came my way the other day to visit the Cliff Town House – the Dublin outpost of Ardmore’s wonderful Cliff House Hotel – for a masterclass on fish with head chef Seán Smith, followed by a sampling of their new menu, one which has a decidely seafood slant. Safe, nay, smug in the knowledge that, where there was fish, there would also be chips, I packed my bloggy bag and headed along.
To watch Seán Smith, among other things, deftly fillet and skillfully sear turbot was to appreciate one who knows his craft. It will not, I’ll hazard, have made me any better at filleting fish than I am now though – like getting to Carnegie Hall, it takes practice – but I did come to appreciate some aspects of fish handling better (suffice to say that if I ever have to skin a sole, I’ll know to dip its tail in hot water to loosen it first).
More interesting, perhaps, was the insight that we got into what it takes to deliver a top quality seafood menu. Seán’s first comment to us, straight out of the traps, was that it’s always a struggle to find fresh fish. It seems an anomaly, given that Dublin is a port city and Ireland an island nation but, there again, we Irish are not given to enjoying the bounty of our seas as often, or in as great a quantity as we might. Even now, much of what is caught in Irish waters is as likely, if not moreso, to end up on a French or Spanish dinner plate as on one of our own, while our plates are too-rarely filled with anything other than the usual suspects of salmon and cod. Whatever the difficulties in sourcing, from a consumer point of view, it was gratifying to see a decent range of fish and seafood options on a Dublin menu.
As for the meal which followed the session with Seán, it was, for me, at least part nostalgia, bookended as it was by a smoked haddock starter and rhubarb jelly dessert. Smoked haddock – something I was subjected to as a child – would, during those childhood years, make a fish-on-friday appearance at the table, served with white sauce and onions, and I always struggled to eat it. The Cliff Town House version of smoked haddock was, unsurprisingly, nothing like the dish of my youth (for a start, it was not lurid orange, as the smoked haddock of my memories are). Here it was a joy, served with strips of leek and apple and a properly boiled egg.
As for the rhubarb jelly, the only version of same that I can ever recall eating is the one that my mother used to make (and, unlike the smoked haddock, I don’t think that I ever had a problem with polishing it off). That it was on the menu at all was a surprise and a delight, especially as my late lamented father was a great man for the old jelly and ice cream. Though this particular incarnation of rhubarb jelly was more refined than my mother ever produced, neither was it terribly different to hers, and I imagine that my Da would have been happy with this for dessert, as, indeed, was I.
In between those remembered of dishes of yore, there was, of course, a centrepiece of turbot and chips (and yes, you can always trust me to find the chips). It was a classic rendition, with expertly battered pieces of turbot, mushy peas and a fresh and tangy tartare sauce. It was also evidence of Seán’s approach to his fish dishes, an approach which keeps them reasonably simple and focuses, instead, on the proper cooking of fresh-as-possible fish. Other dishes included a superb black sole on the bone with browned butter, grilled organic sea trout with fennel salad, and baked wild sea bass. I’d be happy to go back for any or all of them (and even happier to have the services of sommelier Anke Hartmann to wine-match every morsel, which was a real treat). It’s also a treat to have a restaurant in Dublin’s city centre specialising in fish when, outside of fish and chip joints and a few sushi places, that can be a hard enough thing to find. The seafood menu at the Cliff Town House is a welcome addition indeed.