What’s more Dublin than cockles and mussels? The Winding Stair, overlooking Ha’penny Bridge, could scarcely be more Irish if you were serenaded up the steps with a feadóg. Restaurateur Elaine Murphy’s original baby, before Woollen Mills, The Washerwoman and most recently, The Legal Eagle, has stood the test of time and appears time and time again on the must-visit list for tourists seeking out a genuine Irish food experience.
Long before provenance and championing Irish artisans was considered a benchmark, The Winding Stair was going above and beyond to offer Ireland, plated, since the first edition of its menu was published in 2006.
Charming, inviting and warm, a chorus of happy guests makes for welcoming background music as we ascend the stairs and are ushered into a busy dining room. Dimly lit with the glow of the Ha’Penny Bridge shedding light on hanging wine glasses, waiting to be filled, we’re lucky to nab a cosy corner window seat with scenic views of both the iconic bridge and a blackboard menu of tempting wines by the glass.
With no less than seven whites and seven reds from Burgundy to Piedmont, as well as Móinéar Irish Strawberry Wine (a favourite of mine with a cheeseboard), it would be difficult to imagine a oenophile being dissatisfied with this read, more comprehensive than you would expect from a dedicated wine bar. We kicked off proceedings with a buttery glass of Thevenet & Fils Macon Villages (€12.50) for me and a pleasingly intense Finca Sophenia Reserve Malbec (€11) across the table.
At first glance, an extensive a la carte, supplemented further by numerous specials, troubled me slightly. Often, restaurants offering so many dishes fall into the trap of quantity over quality and drop the ball on the execution. However, the menu at this former book shop cum café seemed to read like a novel documenting a passionate love affair with Irish produce.
Keen to ensure that common gripe wasn’t the case here, and quite honestly, utterly unable to narrow down our starter choices from a particularly tempting line up to just two, the opening act was one of gluttonous indulgence. There is a fine line, after all, between need and want.
With an artisan supplier’s list as extensive as Winding Stair’s, a board of something so fundamentally Irish, a Smoked Fish Plate(€13.95), was a must-try. Stephen Kavanagh’s Smoked Oyster Paté was exactly what it says on the tin – akin to an oceanic foie gras and pure, seductively smoky luxury, quenelled, scooped up with that most wholesome of comforts, brown soda bread seasoned with flecks of dillisk.
There’s no smoke without fire, and this platter set tastebuds alight, from Burren Smokehouse Mackerel and Trout to in-house beetroot cured salmon. A dish worthy of every unnecessary extra bite, (I feel a spree on Kavanagh’s website coming on, smoked scallops and oyster paté stocks feel like a non-negotiable investment) paired well with a sharp and pleasantly crisp Long Beach Chenin Blanc from South Africa’s Western Cape (€7.25) and was a sign of delicious things to come.
On the meatier side of things, a generous disk of hand-cut Beef Tartare (€12.95) was silkily enrobed in yolk, dotted with sharp capers and crowned with a crisp fried and unctuously rich quail’s egg. Adding a distinctive Irish twist to the classic French dish, three dots of smoked oyster mayo (the same unrelentingly tempting dip served with pork scratchings in The Legal Eagle) made a dish I am never too enthralled by thoroughly worthy of a swift plate cleaning.
The only minor gripes? I would have loved a bit more crisped ox tongue, as sharing the lone shard felt like a hardship, and this was possibly not the greatest choice for a dinner á deux with lashings of raw onion – not that this stopped either of us from devouring it.
Finally, a veggie dish which tickled my imagination more than my dining companion’s proved to be a surprise superstar dish – Cauliflower Cheese Croquettes (€11.95) punched well above their weight for both of us.
Perfectly panko crisp, avoiding the pitfalls of a greasy till, these oozed sheer dairy deliciousness from within but this was only half the story. The accompanying flourishes of smoked almonds, lightly pickled grapes, bitter chicory and burnt onion mayo rallied together to create nothing less than a flavour explosion. Cauliflower has never been so seductive, and you’d be far more likely to get my last Rolo than my last bite of this sensational starter.
Just about resisting the temptation of going full-on Molly Malone with Cockles and Mussels (served with Clougherhead crab and brown shrimp toast), I still managed to get my fix of the melodic duo. Doran’s Roasted Bream(€24.95) a beautiful fillet with those covetable butter-crisp edges, arrived in a canary yellow pool of cider butter, vibrant, sharp and slightly sweet.
The crowning glory, pickled cockles and mussels, served to cut through the richness of this well-conceived celebration of Irish seafood, finished with Oliver Kelly’s earthy crushed Jerusalem artichoke and another comforting croquette of buttery Colcannon.
Across the table, carnivorous cravings were more than satisfied once McLoughlin’s Slow Braised Beef Cheek (€24.95) arrived, nestled under a thing of primal beauty – a whole roasted bone marrow, in no way dried from the bone. I may protest if I am ever presented with a beef dish lacking this (now absolutely essential) element ever again – oozing pure, unadulterated flavour over a melting braised cheek, falling apart with the slightest brush of a fork.
Add to that a cheddar mash with a hint of parsnip sweetness and resistance was futile. Lips were licked and the plate went back squeaky clean.
It quite pained me to pass up an exploration of artisan Irish cheese, but a little sugar was just what the doctor ordered after an array of intensely savoury flavoursome dishes. The classics were out in full force on the dessert menu, and Bread and Butter Pudding (€6.95) was as traditional as it gets, studded with raisins but that little bit more luxurious than your mother would make with a generous glug of whiskey caramel.
I wouldn’t hesitate to say this was the best example of the staple Irish dessert I have ever had the pleasure of fighting over, down to the very last contested bite. Along with it, a deep, dark and rich Guinness Cake (€6.95) with boozy Bailey’s ice cream ticked all the boxes for my inner chocolate fiend – a happy ending indeed.
Needless to say, belts were hastily undone and a brisk walk across the bridge was needed after what had been a feast well worth writing home about. The bill, for three (don’t judge!) starters, two mains, two desserts and four glasses of wine came to €140.
It would be no work of fiction to say that many of the masterful flavour combinations, ostensibly simple but far more than the sum of their parts, were borderline poetic. Classic but without a creaky step in sight, The Winding Stair deserves a place on every Dublin diner’s bucket list.
Bookworms find themselves engrossed in novels, often transporting their imaginations to faraway shores and fantasy worlds, but The Winding Stair, in each cosy, bookshelf-lined corner, is a love story, immersing diners in real, honest Irish cuisine and culture. This is a tale I’ll reread time and time again – Romantic Ireland, at least on the food front, is alive and well here.
The Winding Stair
40 Lower Ormond Quay
T: 01 8727320
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.