Dublin’s Two Game-Changing Restaurants

Christopher Testani

Departures finds two restaurants—one rustic, one refined—that are taking Ireland’s humble culinary traditions to the next level.

One evening last spring in Dublin, I ate Queen Elizabeth’s dessert. Well, not actually hers, of course, but the same one she’d enjoyed at a state dinner ten days earlier at Dublin Castle. I’m not a great lover of desserts in general, but this one seduced me utterly: glistening snow-white double cream from West Cork (prime Irish dairy country) gelled into shimmering richness with carrageen—one of the “chemicals” employed by avant-garde chefs today, it’s a variety of seaweed, named after a village on the Donegal coast, that has, in fact, been used in Irish cooking for centuries—then topped with improbably sweet strawberries from County Meath and served with a meringue flavored with apple balsamic vinegar made by an artisanal cider-maker based a few miles northeast of Dublin’s airport. It was a fairy tale of flavors, but it was also a small anthology of the excellent raw materials that are modern Irish cooking’s greatest asset.

Both my dessert and Her Majesty’s were prepared by the same man: a Cork-born chef named Ross Lewis, proprietor of Chapter One, a quietly elegant but comfortable and unpretentious establishment on central Dublin’s Parnell Square. I consider this to be the city’s best restaurant—an essential stop for any food-loving visitor to the Irish capital. (The fact that Lewis was tapped by his government to cook for Her Majesty suggests that my opinion is shared in high places.)

Equally essential, though, is a very different kind of Dublin eatery called the Winding Stair, which is casual, a bit chaotic and not regal in the slightest—the kind of place that, had it been invited to, would likely have served the queen a homey apple-and-rhubarb crumble or a bread-and-butter pudding spiked with whiskey sauce.

While Chapter One offers cosmopolitan contemporary fare with an Irish accent, the Winding Stair dishes up home cooking that speaks the native language, rough-hewn but lyrical, primal, pure. Between them, these two restaurants represent the best of Irish food today and exemplify the two culinary currents—refined cooking with a native sensibility and rediscovered traditional fare done right—that may one day turn Ireland into a gastronomic destination of the first order.

The best chefs in Ireland in the 19th and early-20th centuries were mostly privately employed, cooking on big rural English or Anglo-Irish estates. The ordinary citizen starved through much of the 1800s, and even after the turn of the century, with the memory of famine and deprivation still so fresh, those who could have afforded to eat well probably would have felt guilty about doing so. It is hardly surprising, then, that Dublin never developed much of a reputation for fine dining; the city’s first good restaurants, in fact, were run by French immigrants. Two French chefs, the Jammet brothers, opened their stylish Jammet’s there in 1901, and it soon became famous all over Western Europe. (André Jammet, longtime proprietor of the lamented La Caravelle in Manhattan, is the grandson of one of the brothers.) Another Frenchman, Pierre Rolland, arrived in 1949 to take over the kitchen at the once-celebrated Russell Court Hotel just off St. Stephen’s Green. The Hungarian-born, London-based critic Egon Ronay, who produced the influential Guide to British Eateries, later wrote that the Russell’s restaurant “must rank amongst the best in the world,” and in 1974, it won Dublin’s first-ever Michelin star. (Ironically, it closed the same year.) Another French chef, Patrick Guilbaud, has the only Michelin two-star place in Ireland today, his eponymous establishment in the luxurious Merrion Hotel.

Michelin isn’t much impressed with Irish restaurants: It gives a scant five more places on the whole island—Chapter One among them—one star each. But Michelin never tells the whole story, especially outside France. The so-called Celtic Tiger, the economic boom that energized and enriched Ireland from roughly 1995 to 2008, encouraged palate-broadening international travel and a kind of elective consumption that would have been unthinkable just 20 years earlier. The Irish restaurant business thrived, with French places remaining popular but now sharing the culinary landscape with Asian fusion, Italian, American and even “modern Irish” eateries.

Not much thrives in Ireland today, of course, as the one-time Tiger whines like an alley cat and begs for monetary scraps—around 1,300 pubs have closed nationwide in the past five years, and a number of well-known restaurants, including Dublin’s beloved Mermaid Café and the one-star Mint just outside town, have shuttered—but the paradigm seems to have shifted. The Irish may be counting their euros, but they apparently haven’t lost their newly acquired taste for good eating. (The fact that the Irish government has temporarily lowered the VAT on restaurant meals from 13.5 percent to 9 percent has doubtless helped stimulate their appetites.) Even as good restaurants close in Dublin, others continue to open, among them the smart new bistro called Pichet and the solidly Irish O’Connells (see “The List”). And Chapter One is always packed.

Ross Lewis, 46, was brought up on a dairy farm in County Cork, widely considered the country’s food center, and earned a degree in dairy science from University College Cork. After graduation, he moved first to New York, working as a waiter and manager at Dorrian’s Red Hand, an old-school Irish pub in Manhattan’s Yorkville section, and then back across the Atlantic, where he found kitchen jobs in London and Geneva. Home in Ireland, he signed on at the well-known Old Dublin restaurant, owned by Eamonn Walsh, who was also president of the country’s restaurant association. “I did really well there and became head chef,” says Lewis, “so Eamonn offered to back me in a place of my own.” They found a space on Parnell Square, in the basement of the Dublin Writers Museum, and opened Chapter One there in early 1992. Lewis has learned a lot in the two decades since. “It was a slow progression for me,” he says. “I never got the training that some of the young guys working at high-level restaurants have. I never had the exposure to technology. What I had was a love of what I do, a sustainable business model and a desire to make the restaurant better every year.”

He seems to be succeeding. Chapter One gets everything right: The dining rooms are warmly lit and comfortable, accented by a small collection of contemporary art, including a stained-glass window depicting some of Ireland’s most famous authors. The service is a marvel—somehow rigorously professional without being snobbish or mechanical. The wine list shows real imagination and is fairly priced. And then, of course, there’s the food.

The Irishness of the menu is subtle but unmistakable. Working with his longtime executive chef, Cathal Leonard, Lewis smokes a duck breast appetizer over turf, giving it a whiff of that unmistakable Irish-country aroma. The restaurant’s signature “charcuterie trolley” includes a classic foie gras terrine; some crumbly house-made pig’s trotter “boudin”; slices of salami made in West Cork by one of Ireland’s top charcuteries, Fingal Ferguson (whose mother, Giana, produces the renowned Gubbeen cheese, one of the first triumphs of the Irish artisanal food movement); and a ramekin of potted rabbit and ham, the kind of rustic pâté that once would have been common in Ireland’s better estate kitchens. Another version of boudin, this one made with black pudding (blood sausage) and sweetbreads, comes with smoked bacon, an organic farmhouse egg poached in red wine and puréed parsnips—a sophisticated dish made with earthy ingredients. Lewis’s Irish coffee is actually a layered soup of white and green asparagus seasoned with black-truffle gelée. A fork-tender roasted duck breast main course comes with cumin-scented carrot purée and a version of those once inevitable Irish side dishes, potatoes and cabbage—though, in this case, the potatoes have been smoked and the cabbage is sizzled in foie gras fat. “I think of what I do as more of a genuflection to Irish cooking than purely Irish,” says Lewis, “but as part of our evolution, we’re slowly moving to as much Irish as we can.”

Like Chapter One, with its book-related name and its berth beneath the Dublin Writers Museum, the Winding Stair—just across the Ha’penny Bridge from the lively Temple Bar neighborhood, with huge windows giving onto the River Liffey—has literary connections: It shares a building with the Winding Stair Bookshop, itself christened in honor of a poem by William Butler Yeats. Beyond that, it’s as different a restaurant as could be. For starters, instead of being down one level from the street, it’s up a well-worn and, yes, winding wooden staircase, behind what looks very much like a fire door. There are no elegant appointments here, either: just café chairs, bare wood tables and floors, ceiling fans, shelves of books and walls hung with blackboards listing specials of the day and wines by the glass.

The menu, crowded with the names of purveyors and artisanal producers, is different too: very Irish, very simple, very homey. Lamb’s liver is much appreciated in Ireland, and the Winding Stair turns it into a faintly peppery pâté, a dense bloc of it on a slice of toasted homemade bread, surrounded by a tangle of perfectly dressed bitter greens. Ted Browne’s Kerry prawns—prawns in this case being Dublin Bay prawns, or langoustines—are presented similarly but drizzled with lemony garlic butter, which soaks into the toast to wonderful effect. Irish seafood chowder, made with mussels, clams, pollack and whiting, is given heft with pieces of Fingal Ferguson’s chorizo and served with slightly chewy, sweetish treacle bread.

Irish grass-fed beef is remarkably flavorful, and some of the tastiest is the Aberdeen Angus from Maurice Kettyle, a purveyor in Northern Ireland’s County Fermanagh. (The same beef is served at Chapter One and at many other prominent Irish restaurants; the best Irish chefs tend to discover and develop sources for raw materials and then share them enthusiastically with their colleagues.) Here, Kettyle’s sirloin is char-grilled, graced with garlic butter and long-cooked “sticky” onions and served with hand-cut chips (thick French fries). The same chips, with aioli for dipping, come with a big bowl of steamed Lissadell mussels, buttery soft and sea-fresh. The kind of main dish that would have been found only in traditional home kitchens—and not even a lot of those, until the Winding Stair put it on a restaurant table—is Nicholson’s hand-smoked haddock, poached in milk with onions and served over potatoes mashed with Irish white cheddar. “Poached in milk” has a nursery-food sound to it, but this is definitely grown-up fare—flaky, salty, smoky fish, its texture offset nicely by the still-crunchy onions and the warm smoothness of the mash.

The head chef at the Winding Stair, I was surprised to learn, given the indisputably Irish character of the food, isn’t Irish at all, but a Czech named Thomas Kalman. “Talking to Thomas, I realized how similar Czech country cooking is to what we do in Ireland,” says Elaine Murphy, 42, the restaurant’s owner and animating spirit. A native Dubliner with rhubarb-red hair, Murphy claims that she has been fascinated by food all her life. “When I was about five,” she tells me, “I’d look at cookery books in the car, annoying my parents by reading out recipes.”

Murphy studied history, politics and sociology at Dublin’s Trinity College, then earned a music degree in piano from the Dublin Institute of Technology, working her way through school in a series of restaurant jobs (including a stint at the now-defunct Mermaid Café). The Winding Stair had opened in 1982 as a bookshop with a simple café upstairs and become a much-loved local institution. In 2006 the building was taken over by the Thomas Read Group, a big Dublin restaurant company (it ran concessions at Dublin Airport, among other things), and they asked Murphy to be the manager. “I agreed,” she says, “but I insisted that the bookshop remain open, and I realized that I wanted the restaurant to be only Irish. I wanted to revive some traditional dishes and keep the food honest. It’s contemporary only in the sense that it exists now.” After the Read Group went into receivership in 2009, Murphy was able to buy the property outright.

Many of the most successful restaurants in London—a city whose cooking, remember, was until recent years maligned as much as Dublin’s often is today—have embraced England’s culinary past. The Winding Stair has taken the same approach with Ireland’s food traditions, but why, I ask Murphy, haven’t more Irish restaurants followed suit? “A lot of the problem goes back to our post-colonial situation,” she replies. “People just weren’t proud of the Irish language or of Irish food. And when we suddenly had enough money to start going abroad, we came back wanting latte, not tea; biscotti, not poppy-seed cake. Also, frankly, a lot of people had bad experiences with their mum’s or their grandma’s cooking. It’s all very well for us to serve bacon and cabbage, but bacon and cabbage reminds people of what they used to eat at home every Thursday night. And nose-to-tail eating is, for many, just a reminder of poverty.”

Ross Lewis, meanwhile, is optimistic. “In the Celtic Tiger years,” he says, “we had so many talented young chefs who couldn’t get into the restaurant business. The price of entry was too high, so many of them left and didn’t come back. There are three Irish chefs at Noma [the Copenhagen restaurant recently named the best in the world], for instance. But there are young people today just waiting for the banks to start lending again. I think we’ll see more good restaurants going forward. Remember that we have a young restaurant industry in Ireland. We’re really not much more than 15 years old as an eating-out culture. But there is real momentum on the Irish food scene today, in the right direction. Our customers are younger and better-traveled and less rigid than they used to be. Now is a time of real freedom for Irish chefs.”

If those chefs use their freedom to rediscover, and build upon, their own culinary roots, Ireland will one day be a wonderful place to eat—and Dublin may very well join the ranks of serious European food cities. In the meantime, if you’d like a taste of how good Irish food can be, Chapter One and the Winding Stair would be happy to oblige.

Dublin Restaurant List

The best of dublin’s modern irish cuisine.

Chapter One

Juan Manuel Cossío’s 2002 painting End of Play overlooks diners at Chapter One, in the basement of the Dublin Writers Museum on Parnell Square. Here, chef Ross Lewis has brought a decidedly Irish sensibility to his sophisticated cooking, serving lamb from the country’s Connemara region and smoked salmon from Clare Island in County Mayo. Lewis’s restaurant has shown Dublin’s potential for becoming one of Europe’s great gastronomic destinations. $ At 18–19 Parnell Sq.; 353-1/873-2266; chapteronerestaurant.com.

The Winding Stair

The menu at the Winding Stair, upstairs from a bookshop, is full of lilting Irish names: O’Doherty’s black pudding, Corleggy goat cheese, Kilkeel hake. Looking out on the River Liffey, the restaurant serves traditional food thoughtfully prepared with impeccably sourced local ingredients. Owner Elaine Murphy and chef Thomas Kalman represent one of the trends invigorating the Dublin restaurant scene: the rediscovery of Ireland’s homegrown culinary heritage. $ At 40 Ormond Quay; 353-1/872-7320; winding-stair.com.

Locks Brasserie

A stretch of Dublin’s Grand Canal runs alongside Locks, lending it an almost bucolic feeling. There’s nothing rustic, though, about Locks’s French-inflected modern Irish dishes like West Cork lobster with squid-ink linguini and John Dory with artichoke cream and salted grapes. At 1 Windsor Terrace, Portobello; 353-1/420-0555; locksbrasserie.com.

Lord Edward

The cooking at this old-style restaurant above a bustling pub isn’t fancy. It’s just wonderful, simple seafood, correctly served, from smoked fish, dressed crab and oysters (try the Galway Bays) to various preparations of absolutely fresh sole, prawns, sea trout, plaice, turbot and the like. At 23 Christchurch Pl.; 353-1/454-2420.

O’Connells

Tom O’Connell, the proprietor of this new pub-turned-restaurant, belongs to the royal family of modern Irish cooking. His sister is Darina Allen, who runs the Ballymaloe Cookery School. His own food is old-fashioned and exactly right, from char-grilled native lobster to roast Hereford beef carved from a silver-domed cart. $ At 133–135 Morehampton Rd., Donnybrook; 353-1/269-6116; oconnellsdonnybrook.com.

One Pico

Chef-restaurateur Eamonn O’Reilly’s showplace gives Irish ingredients an international gloss: Clogherhead crab salad is served with curry crème fraîche and Connemara lamb with ratatouille-stuffed eggplant. At 5–6 Molesworth Pl., Schoolhouse Ln.; 353-1/676-0300; onepico.com.

Pichet

This lively international-style bistro does an excellent job with such fare as pumpkin soup with crispy ham and roast monkfish with oxtail and field mushrooms, and the sticky toffee pudding has developed a cult following. At 14–15 Trinity St.; 353-1/677-1060; pichet-restaurant.com.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.