The Woollen Mills, Winding Stair and The Yarn are a trio of Northside venues that attract both tourists and locals alike.
When you add the newest opening, The Legal Eagle, into the mix, you’re left with one of Dublin’s most impressive restaurant groups.
With trailblazer Elaine Murphy leading the way, the kitchen at these restaurants is helmed by friend and chef, Ian Connolly.
Located next to the Four Courts on Chancery Place, The Legal Eagle is an innovative restaurant taking inspiration from old English pub dishes with unique Irish innovation.
Speaking with Ian Connolly, Executive Chef at The Winding Stair Group, he recalled how he originally got involved with the food industry, describing himself as being a bit lost at the time:
“I left school in the late 1980’s having learnt nothing. I was a bit lost, so I did a marketing diploma and ended up feeling even more lost.”
“I then started washing pots in a restaurant at weekends to make a little money. One night, one of the chefs had an accident and I jumped into help. That was 26 years ago.”
I just always loved working in restaurants and I am always pushing myself to get better. I went to culinary college in Edinburgh and worked in the Balmoral hotel, which was tough training.
During that time, Ian “got paid £75 a week and my rent was £50. I had holes in my shoes and a massive phone bill as my girlfriend lived in Dublin.”
Looking back now, quite a few of the restaurants he worked in in the early days are no longer around:
“Many of the restaurants I have worked in are gone now, such as Peacock Ally on Southwilliam Street, the Mermaid Cafe on Dame Street and Brownes on St Stephen’s Green. I had my own restaurant, it was called Moe’s and was located on Baggot Street.”
With an impressive collection of eateries, from The Winding Stair to The Woollen Mills, I was most curious about their newest venture, The Legal Eagle, with Ian explaining:
“The Legal Eagle is all about pub food. We love Fergus Henderson and are quite influenced by his ‘Nose -to- Tail’ style of cooking. We also have a wood-burning oven and do inventive flatbreads such as oxtail and truffle.”
Describing the food on offer in The Legal Eagle, from its Irish provenance to the sustainable approach taken in the restaurant, Ian says:
“The idea is to use unfashionable cuts of meat, fish offal and unknown vegetables. A big part is to rediscover forgotten flavours. We use Oliver Kelly organic potatoes from Wicklow. It’s wild Irish game and you just can’t compare wild to farmed.”
We have a meat platter which is also “old school” cold cuts, hay-smoked ham from Pigs on the green in Offaly, corned mutton from Mick Bonham, spiced beef from Tom Durkin in the English market, pastrami from Kate McGloc and hazlet from Pigs on the green. We also make our own mustard, sourdough and pickles.
For Ian, supporting local producers is “what it is all about” and he praised Toonsbridge Dairy and Iona Farm Veg as the producers who stand out for him at the moment:
“Toby in Toonsbridge is on a roll at the moment and making my job easy with his fabulous products. Iona farm is just 9km from the pub and is producing wild garlic, nettles and incredible radishes.”
With such a rich variety of produce on their menu, I wondered if Ian had any favourites (dishes I intended to add to my Legal Eagle bucket list):
“We do a Monkfish liver pate with seaweed sauerkraut, which is really great. Also, our bone marrow with oxtail and snails from Co. Carlow is a real winner. We also do blood pancakes with pork belly and fennel and apple, which I am very proud of.”
For Ian, choosing the part of his job that he loves most isn’t a difficult task: “When The Legal Eagle is in full flow and I am working downstairs on the wood-burning oven, watching the customers eating and all the cool food and drinks flying around, that makes me really happy.”
His least favourite part of the job is more of a physical issue for Ian, as he states that “the stairs in all the restaurants are my least favourite thing. Anytime I want to get something from a walk-in fridge, I have to climb five flights of stairs”
He remarked that the physical challenges of the job are his biggest hindrance these days as “I’m not 25 anymore, so sore legs are a problem”.
Moving away from the physicality of the job though, the challenges facing The Legal Eagle appear to be the same facing many of the restaurants in Dublin:
“In the last 3 to 5 years, standards have really jumped up in Dublin, so we really need to stay on top of things and to be aware of what’s going on around us. We must just be the very best we can be.”
Reflecting on his achievements over the past number of years, Ian admits to feeling very proud, saying:
“Since joining the Winding Stair group five years ago, I have taken over as head chef in The Winding Stair. And then we opened a restaurant a year after that, which is some achievement and I feel very proud.”
Describing how he manages to achieve a balance between work and his home life, Ian explains: “I am in and out of the kitchens now. I don’t run a section like a normal chef, so it’s gotten a bit easier for me, except when there is an opening. An understanding partner is also crucial for a successful work-life balance. I have four kids and you just have to find a balance.”
With all his experience, I couldn’t resist asking Ian about the advice he would offer to a young chef starting out in the food industry. For him, it’s very simple. Simply “pick a restaurant you like, knock on the door and ask for a job. After that, work your socks off.”
In terms of restaurants he likes, Ian states that the “last great meal I had in Dublin was at Clanbrassil House”, adding: “Aoife is the chef and she constantly knows how to cook. No showing off, just great taste. I really loved my meal there.”
Looking to the future and Ian wants The Legal Eagle to “continue being the best we can and find a place in people’s hearts”.
Sarah has always had a great love of travel, food and photography. Following her journalism degree at DCU, she developed a passion for travel writing while living in Spain.
Sarah loves exploring new places and sampling the local cuisine. Working with TheTaste.ie combines her love of food and travel.
A big people person, especially when it comes to hearing other people’s stories, Sarah loves interviewing chefs, food producers and more.