The Winding Stair
40 Lower Ormond Quay
Dublin 1
Phone: 01 872 7320

Irish Daily Mail
3 October 2015

Finding a restaurant that has a real sense of place can be a tricky business. There’s no doubt that cruising down the Seine at night time on a bateau mouche will make you acutely aware that you’re in Paris but the food, in my experience, is rubbish, and very expensive.

By and large the best restaurants in any city – and I don’t mean the poshest – have a sense of place solely in terms of what happens inside them. Paris bistrots, well off the main tourist drags, for example, and the venerable tapas bars of Madrid and Seville.

I once ate in a Michelin-starred restaurant inside the Sydney Opera House and the sense of place was overwhelming. Unfortunately the food was just about okay and outrageously expensive. By contrast, a meal in a dodgy suburb (cooked by Jared Ingersoll) was much cheaper, stunning and, in its brilliant eclecticism, could only have been produced Australia.

There are two restaurants in Dublin with a real sense of place. One is the relatively new Fish Shack Café in Sandycove; the view from its window could only be Scotsman’s Bay (and the food is as authentic as the view).

The other one is The Winding Stair. The view from its windows is 100% Dublin in the form of the Liffey and, if you’re seated appropriately, with the bonus of the Ha’penny Bridge.

The last time I ate here was with my favourite wine writer, Jancis Robinson and her husband, Nicholas Lander who reviews restaurants for the Financial Times. And the last time I ate with them was at Sage in Midleton where Kevin Aherne cooks his wonderful 12 Mile Menu (which, I reckon, is self-explanatory).

They seem to bring out the best in my restaurant choosing. After last week’s experience (and the previous week’s, come to think of it) I wanted a restaurant that held out some promise of pleasure. In fact, I should stress that I try to seek out good experiences rather than the contrary, so there’s nothing really new in this. On the other hand, I didn’t want three disasters in a row.

My faith was justified. On a Tuesday evening both floors of The Winding Stair were full by half-past-eight, proof that Dublin is firing on all cylinders again. And the decibel level was ferocious; my only quibble with TWC is that it’s possibly the noisiest restaurant in Ireland.

The menu, incidentally, also has a sense of place: it’s decidedly Irish and has been since way before an emphasis on local food was compulsory or even fashionable. I recall, with misty-eyed nostalgia, collar of bacon with cheddar mash.  The mash currently goes with smoked haddock that has been poached in milk, something I would have ordered had I not been careless enough to eat lunch earlier in the day.

Smokies, that rich, salty, smoky, delightful combination of smoked haddock (I needed my fix, but in a starter dose), cream, Knockanore cheese, scallions and other good things, were the definition of comfort. Eat me, they seemed to say, and all will be right with the world. And so it proved.

Potted Dingle crab was simplicity itself: sweet white crab meat (Irish people won’t eat the brown, it seems) under plenty of clarified butter, served with toasted brown soda bread, a little salad and a squeeze of lemon. Perfect.

Of course, after the smokies I had to resort to a second starter. The general run of food at The Winding Stair is what I think of as “refined ribsticking”. It’s generous, comforting, plentiful. And I have a pitifully small appetite most of the time.

But my second course, a starter of Milleens cheese, in spheres coated in crisp breadcrumbs and served with pickled plums was fab. There was crunch, there was oozing, there was earthiness and there was the sharp tang of the plums without a hint of sugar, a lovely balance, a dish of remarkable simplicity that really worked.

The companion’s main course was a generous (see what I mean?) lamb steak that had been cooked on the rare side of pink, gloriously juicy, slightly smoky. It came with ribbons of al dente courgette and some anchovies (I’m guessing Ortiz) in what is an ancient and classic combination that emphasises the savouriness of the dish. The companion was not keen when he got to the marine element; I thought it was robustly delightful.

We shared a portion of bread and butter pudding – an ingot really – that was well flavoured and maybe a little heavily textured. On the other hand, the generosity and the ribstickingness (maybe not so refined in this instance) was undeniable.

The bill, with a couple of pre-dinner drinks and a bottle of wine, came to €120.