Jack Devlin samples Hartley’s in the south Dublin suburb of Dun Laoghaire.
During the Celtic Tiger years, we used to get aggravated by noisy restaurants. But these days, with eateries all over the country going under and many of the survivors struggling to get people through the door, it came as a slight relief to be greeted by a wall of sound and activity at the entrance to Hartley’s. The commotion, coming from an office shindig in the bar area, had me worried that my dinner conversation was going to be reduced to a shouting match across the table. But once we were seated in the spacious dining hall, the sound softened considerably, allowing my dining companion and I to quietly discuss what the menu had to offer.
Opened in 2007, Hartley’s occupies the original ticket hall of the Kingstown Station (Now Dun Laoghaire Dart station). Founders Kirsty Argyle and Julie Shiels secured the lease for the building from CIE and retained the dramatic features put in place by architect John Mulvaney in 1844. Today, Hartley’s boasts one of the finest dining halls in South County Dublin, and enjoys a wonderful location smack bang in the middle of Dun Laoghaire’s popular East and West piers. I just hoped the food could live up to the setting.
Sticking to the set menu (€24, two courses, €29 for three), I was torn between the whitebait with onion raita and chutney and the hot & spicy chicken wings. Realising I would likely have a fishy main, I opted for the latter starter. The wings, although a little bit on the skinny side, were wonderfully tasty and crispy without a hint of gristle in sight. And the liberal coating of piquant sauce applied to the chicken meant that I rarely felt the need to dip them in the accompanying roquefort dip. My partner in crime only had eyes for the salt, pepper & black sesame squid with nam jim dipping sauce. The squid was cooked perfectly: thick but tender, with a melt in the mouth batter. The nam jim dip, a mixture of garlic, fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, and chilies, was a nice change from the standard gloopy sweet chilli sauce.
For the main, I kept it simple with the beer battered cod and home-cut chips. The batter on the fish was perfect: light and puffy and not at all oily – the freshness of the fish also did justice to the harbour-side location. Paired with chunky chips, pea purée and caper aioli, this was an above average main. Owner Julie Shiels, tells me that Hartley’s sources ingredients locally wherever possible. “Some artisanal produce is difficult to source in Ireland, but we keep the use of these ingredients to a minimum, and our menus are very easily sourced in Ireland. Customers always appreciate that we buy local, but I think it is something that is non-negotiable now. Not only are there recessionary reasons to buy local, but there are environmental issues to consider as well. It should be a given, and thankfully it is swiftly becoming that way,” she argues.
The beer selection in Irish restaurants rarely strays beyond the likes of Budweiser or Heineken and this is a pity, because the multitude of craft and international beers – blondes, ambers, dark wheats and pale ales – offers great food pairing potential. Thankfully, Hartley’s had a selection of beer to match their impressive wine and cocktail lists. Shiels notes that they take great care in selecting their drinks list. “It’s hugely important, and our staff are very knowledgeable about food pairings,” she says. I went for a bottle of Anchor Steam (€6), a Californian mid strength craft beer. Bittersweet and woody, it’s not particularly remarkable on its own but it worked a treat when paired with a surf and spuds main.
I always make the mistake of ordering dessert before my starter and main has had time to settle in my stomach. That’s probably explains my choice of the rich and sinful chocolate peanut butter brownie with vanilla bean ice cream. This would be the perfect dessert to have with a lunchtime coffee and nothing else, but it’s probably a bridge too far once you’ve had two courses. My companion made a much more sensible choice, ordering the equally tasty, yet significantly lighter, warm pear cake with rum & raisin ice-cream
For a Tuesday night Hartley’s is fairly busy, with only a few tables sitting vacant. Shiels informs me that, unlike a lot of restaurants these days, Hartley’s hasn’t felt the need to utilise social media or daily deals sites to draw in the punters. “They come in because either they or someone they know has come in and had a great night”, she says, adding: “social media is obviously a huge forum, and will continue to evolve as a forum, but there is nothing to compare with providing a consistently high level of service and food, and we honestly put all of our efforts into that.” Despite the recession, footfall at Hartley’s has remained almost unaffected. The introduction of set menus, loyalty schemes, and a consistent programme of special in-house offers have helped to keep business steady, though the average spend has declined. “The spend per head has dropped because of the introduction of set menus as well as the discretionary spend on both wine and food sales having fallen”, Shiels informs me.
Would Shiels like to see the Government help the restaurant industry in any way? “Of course, but I don’t think it is going to happen. In fairness they lowered the rate of VAT on food which helped, but then in the last budget they put €1 duty on a bottle of wine. In some cases that represents an immediate imposition of a 20% tax on product, and I don’t think that there is any other specific industry which has been dealt such a blow in any other budget over the last four years, so that should be reviewed,” she suggests.
As I settle up, I look out at Dun Laoghaire Harbour and wonder what the future holds for this once thriving port town. It seems to be at a crossroads. On the one hand, numerous businesses have closed down in the centre, but there has been a steady rejuvenation going on in the area, and a number of exciting businesses and initiatives have cropped up in recent years. The foodie market on Sundays is always buzzing and construction of a new Arts, Culture and Community Complex has just begun. Julie is certainly positive about the direction Dun Laoghaire is going in. “I’m very optimistic, particularly about the Harbour area. It is a fantastic amenity, and the DLRCoCo and Dun Laoghaire Business Association are doing fantastic work in difficult times.”
3 courses and a beer each brought the bill to a very reasonable €66 (before service). Well worth the Dart journey.
For further information please contact Hartley’s:
1, Harbour Road, Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin
Telephone: 01 280 6767