THE PORT HOUSE
64a South William Street
Phone: 01 677 0298
The people who brought real tapas to Dublin and who still do missionary work with sherry. Small, cosy and reassuringly busy. A Dublin landmark.
You’re looking for good tapas? Fear not, help is at hand, but first let’s have some context. For some time, Ireland didn’t really “get” tapas and there are still a few alleged tapas restaurants where the food seems to have been cooked by someone who has never seen the real thing but was, instead, given a vague idea of tapas through the medium of crude sign language.
And then there’s the problem of Irish restaurateurs running away with the idea that tapas are (a) easy and (b) wildly profitable. That way lies disaster. Or at least the average Irish tapas restaurant.
There is nothing average about The Port House (the strange name is down to the fact that it’s (a) an offshoot of The Porterhouse craft beer pubs and (b) an understandable enthusiasm for the great fortified wines of the Douro (which, after all, becomes the Duero when it crosses the border into Spain).
The Port House on South William Street was only the start. Having got it absolutely right here (not far from certain “tapas” establishments that get it spectacuarly wrong), Lee Sim went on to open in Temple Bar, Dundrum, and even London (conveniently located on the Strand, not far from the London outpost of The Porterhouse).
It’s a cosy establishment, warm and dark, quite subterranean, and there’s a sense of retreating from the frenetic world outside to comfort and sustenance, good company, good food and good wine. Indeed, the wine list offers one of best value selections in the capital, thanks to the fact that Lee Sim has established excellent relations with one or two key importers but also the fact that he goes in search of direct imports. The results are outstanding and explore way beyond the usual suspects in Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Add to this, a fine selection of sherry, port (naturally) and decent beer.
When you factor in the food, which doesn’t just have a Spanish accent, it’s fluently Iberian, you are transported out of a rainy Dublin to sunnier climes where food and drink occupy a more central part of the average life.
As you settle in for your candle-lit lunch or supper (and definitely not in the Hyacinth Bucket sense), and start to drain a copita of manzanilla, perhaps, you will notice something very important. The Port House smells right. That’s what transports you to Seville or Jerez de la Frontera: the aroma of authenticity.
Authentic, but not doctrinaire. The croquetas are exceptional, the garbanzos with chorizo are exactly as you would wish. The canelon de pato, pasta tubes filled with duck confit and bechamel, topped with Manchego sauce and put under the grill is a Catalunyan exercise in decadence. Pork cheeks braised with PX (Pedro Ximenez, the dark, honeyed sherry) are meaty and surprisingly savoury. And there’s also, cheekily, chicken wings with piri-piri, imported, like the ports, from across the border. And pastel de natas, that Portuguese riff on custard for which civilisation should be exceptionally grateful.
There are fabulous port tasting flights which for anyone wanting to explore the fascinating world of these sweet but far from cloying wines are a godsend. They involve great names like Niepoort and Warre’s (and you can taste the latter’s 2000, 2003 and 2007 vintages currently for €25).
The missionary work carried out by The Port House extends to converting heathens (not that they think of customers in that light, I’m sure) to sherry; you can have a glass of fino, old oloroso and sweet Pedro Ximenez with a taster of Iberico ham, olives and almonds for a tenner.
The Port House is not just a tapas restaurant, it’s more a way of eating and drinking. And it’s a very civilised way of doing both. But go early or be prepared to wait (which is no hardship with a glass of something good at the bar).