Friday night and the lights are low, couples savouring a romantic date night knocking back oysters and groups of friends devouring platters of seafood, they knew well the place to go. Although I have savoured the delights of the deep here myself, when I arrive to the marble clad dining room on this occasion I’m shown to the steps to the kitchen rather than a table overlooking St. Stephen’s Green.
Having had what was possibly the best lobster of my life here only weeks before (quaffing over Afternoon Sea) I set my sights on finding out what kind of seafood sorcery goes on in the kitchen of The Cliff Townhouse, headed up by Chef Sean Smith. A larger than life character, my first impression is of a serious and intense head chef, but Smith’s welcoming Donegal drawl quickly dispels my intimidation.
Piercing sea blue eyes oversee every aspect of the show here, but it is clear Sean lends more than a watchful eye to proceedings, hands-on in the kitchen and behind the scenes. While it is my maiden voyage in this kitchen, Smith has been manning the stoves here since the days of Bentley’s, as Richard Corrigan’s main man before it was taken over by the Cliff Group in 2011.
The group includes The Cliff House in Ardmore, which is home to a Michelin starred restaurant under Martijn Kajuiter and Cliff at Lyons, soon to house Aimsir, the new destination restaurant of Jordan Bailey from three star Maaemo. It is safe to say exceptional food is key to this group of prestigious properties, and this commitment is evident in Cliff Townhouse.
“Food is a stronghold in the company. We all cook well. They source the right people. They invest in people and the surroundings. We all have international experience, we have that brand of quality and commitment to sourcing.”
A recent investment in overhauling the kitchen to create a state of the art culinary playground has given Smith a new lease of life and injected yet more ambition as he tells me “we want to be the Shanahan’s of seafood in Dublin.” We go over the menu, as he notes it is designed around deliveries from his suppliers, like fishmonger Gareth Doyle in Howth, and now changes regularly to showcase the best available Irish seafood at any given time.
As the ethos here is simple seafood, expertly executed, sourcing is everything and the list includes Wrights of Marino, Clougherhead Crab and Kelly’s Oysters, whereas Smith travels to Louth himself to collect lobster straight off the boat and refuses anything but Irish lobster. “Sourcing has been my number one priority for 12 years” he tells me, cementing his commitment to taking the best and treating it with respect as the first piece of the puzzle.
I pop on my chef’s whites and head in to the kitchen, which is surprisingly calm with service already in full swing, with an average Friday night of 150 covers under way. My first impressions are how calm and physically cool the kitchen is – no sweat, no shouting and no stress. Chef Marcin Krygowski is on the pass, plating up a simple yet elegant, still almost translucent halibut fillet with a side of Irish asparagus and an unctuously buttery hollandaise.
As we enter the airy and spacious heart of Cliff Townhouse, it is clear Sean actually cooks whereas many executive chefs observe, he is on the other side of the pass before I can even nestle in to safe standing space. “The guts of half a million went into this kitchen. We have to up the game food wise with that investment” he says as I get acquainted with the offering.
New potatoes glistening in seaweed butter and vinegar smell like the seaside, and behemoths of expertly fried haddock are coated in what looks like an audibly crisp golden batter. ” People think, oh, it’s only a beer batter…it isn’t. It is Corrigan’s beer batter recipe” he confirms, and it is clear every single dish, classic or contemporary, is given this exacting treatment.
Sean lines up a mackerel masterpiece, a showcase of the season with rhubarb and blue cheese, in the hopes I can get stuck in and recreate it. My wide eyed deer in the headlights expression answers his question. Salad leaves from Wicklow, hand picked that day, are the final flourish on the intricately plated starter, up next on the pass and straight out the door in the arms of a dicky-bowed waiter. Needless to say, these plates return with only a minor trace of violet smudge, demolished by approving diners.
Instead, I try my hand at adding the pyrotechnics to simple but seductive flamed oysters with blowtorch in hand to send out what has to be one of the most tempting seafood platters in the city, a celebration of Irish seafood which has me envious of Table 12 – they’re in for a treat.
“Look at Corrigan”, Sean advises me, “his is just simple food with very well sourced ingredients.” Smith has made this the central tenet of the kitchen here, with each and every fanfare-free dish requiring the utmost precision in execution. Thermometers, refractors, PH specific taps and a decade of seafood mastery mean each dish is cooked perfectly down to the very degree – 57C for lobster, to be precise.
While the taps are meticulously filtered, Chef is less so, and candidly admits that “when I was 21 or 22 I had that typical big ego – now I just want to eat decent, honest food that tastes nice. Fine dining bores me to tears.” Molecular gastronomy and “textures of carrot” and the like do nothing for Smith, who believes no-one really enjoys it, and these feats of gastronomic fluff appear nowhere on his straight-talking menu.
In the same vein, he tells me honestly “you can’t always be right. The ego gets in the way of it, but if something goes wrong I’m the first person to admit to it. As you get older, you learn these things.”
Partaking in karate every morning before clocking in relieves stress and sets him up for the day, and I catch a glimpse into his razor sharp coordination as he spots a sub par blini topping a smoked salmon starter and bellows “no,no,no,no!” With that, a porter appears with fresh milk, eggs and flour, and less than a minute later Smith is flipping flawless pancakes at the speed of a blackbelt – this is one Executive Chef who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.
In so doing, he nurtures another passion of his, training young chefs, and shows me each of their notebooks telling me “they need to walk away from here with a book of memories and recipes to bring with them.” Clearly a practice inspired by his own formative chef years, Sean shows me his own collection of notebooks, tattered, worn and obviously much loved.
Packed with cutouts, Peacock Alley recipes and tips from Conrad Gallagher to Corrigan, Smith has amassed his expertise over the years in kitchens in London and Dublin, but isn’t finished learning. Alongside Kajuiter, he has headed to international culinary symposium Madrid Fuzion every year for the last eight to stay on top of trends and bring back the kind of produce others just won’t have.
As vibrantly ruby red bowls of classic Summer Pudding are finished with a quenelle of creme fraiche before being whisked away (there’s one leftover, a heaven in a bowl treat for me) service is winding down. So too is Smith, about to head off to the Pyrenees on a motorbiking tour with friends to clear his head so he will be razor sharp on return to drive Cliff Townhouse onwards.
If becoming the undisputed go-to for fine seafood in the city is the ultimate goal, they’ve already got one believer in me, although next time I’ll be delighted to be on the other side of service having my way with that lobster.
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake Off and am passionate about discovering and creating delicious things – I can sometimes be caught in the act on TV3’s Six O’Clock Show or RTE Today. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting. Follow me on my pursuit of deliciousness.