Sunday, May 13, 2012

Restaurant review: Hartley's

This review first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail in March 2012

It’s tempting to claim that there’s no recession in the smarter bits of south County Dublin, but it’s not entirely true. There’s an outward appearance of affluence and bustle in Monkstown village, for example, but the spend is certainly well down in the local restaurants.

And, of course, the local restaurants have had to adapt to the new circumstances. Hartley’s still looks the same as it did in the boom times, occupying the vast and rather elegant site that used to be Restaurant na Mara, perched above the Dart station in Dun Laoghaire. And the customers – hordes of them on a Friday night – were much the same too. I suspect that most them live, like we do when we are in the capital, within at least vigorous walking distance.

I had been looking forward to revisiting Hartley’s after several years. It had a very sound wine list (and it still does) and the food was modern, informal, quite punchy in style.

I generally don’t mind loud restaurants. They can be fun. But the expansive hard surfaces here, when the place is busy, makes for irritating cacophony which would be forgivable if the food were really good. But it’s not. It ranges from the careless (squid), through the competent (chicken wings and beef short ribs) to the expensive mistake (fish and chips). It would take a remarkable wine list to compensate for that.

The squid starter, which comes with a kind of oriental dip, comes in rolls (which is what squid does spontaneously if cut like this). It’s tossed in seasoned flour before deep-frying but the problem is that the flour in the centre of the cylinder doesn’t crisp: squid with a soggy centre like this means careless cooking.

Actually, the food took a detour via the pointless and puzzling with a duck starter: thin slices of cold, pink duck breast served with a roasted plum, also cold) and some bean sprouts drizzled with a strange and rather indeterminate brown dressing.  I can understand something of the theory behind it; but did nobody try it before putting it on the menu? It seemed to have been thrown together.

My chicken wings were fine. They were done in the way popularized in Dublin many years ago by the Elephant & Castle in Temple Bar: crisped and tossed in a sticky, sharp chilli-hot sauce, served with celery sticks and a blue cheese dip. Hartley’s version was a true facsimile but the dip, this being the heart of south County Dublin, had become a Roquefort one. No complaints there.

I continued the American theme with beef short ribs which were generous, perfectly tender and coated in a sauce that was authentically sweet and chastely, mildly spicy. They were as good as any I’ve eaten across the Atlantic but, to be honest, this is not the greatest claim to fame. A slaw of green beans and red cabbage dressed with horseradish was very good.

Skate (or ray as most people call it in Ireland) was perfectly cooked, still a little pink just at the bone. It came with a dressing of capers and little cubes of spectacularly unripe tomato.

On the other hand, the battered halibut had been battered into submission by the simple expedient of cooking it to perdition. It had the texture of cotton wool which, as eaters of this expensive fish know, is not the way it’s meant to be. For €25, the portion was pretty mean too. And, to add insult to injury, the chips were frustratingly within hailing distance of being crisp but didn’t make it. To conclude this expensive tale of woe, we felt that the oil in the fryer, frankly, needed changing.

We decided to skip pudding in favour of Magnums on the way home. We needed a bit of cheering up.

The bill, including mineral water, a carafe of wine and a glass of wine, came to €110.50.

1 Harbour Road
Dun Laoghaire
Co Dublin
Phone: 01 280 6767

The wine list – and indeed the range of beers – at Hartley’s is exceptionally good and quite out of kilter with the food. Prices start at €6.50 for a 175ml glass and €13 for a 375ml carafe (of Domaine Marcé Sauvignon de Touraine or Gran Sasso Montepulciano d’Abruzzo). Highlights for me incude Josemeyer Pinot Blanc (€29), steely, elegant Mount Horrocks Watervale Riesling (€46) and the fragrant Finca La Emperatriz Rioja at a rather steep €34.

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