A blast of fresh air for Howth
What’s the story?
There are certain types of people residing in Dublin who frequently make grand statements such as "there's nowhere to eat in *insert suburban town/village/street here*", while others look on in confusion thinking, "but there's 36 restaurants there?" (We may or may not be guilty of such statements.) What this actually means is "I'm aware there are 36 restaurants there but none are exciting enough to make me get off my bum and pay someone a substantial amount of money to cook my dinner", and one of the postcodes that's fallen into this bracket over the years is Howth.
Yes there are plenty of restaurants, yes there's a decent (could be better) amount of fresh fish, but it always felt like a trick was being missed, and the culinary dynamism that's been taking over the city centre at full force hadn't quite reached here. So when we heard that ex-Etto front of house Jess D'Arcy and chef husband Killian Durkin (ex-Thornton's, Chapter One and Charlotte Quay) had signed the lease on a harbour facing site earlier this year we felt a shiver of excitement.
They describe Mamó (Irish for grandmother) as "a contemporary European dining experience in a relaxed and friendly setting", and a showcase for North County Dublin's abundant produce, as well as lesser known fish that they can buy directly from the boats. With Jess coming from Etto we had high hopes for the wine list, and a quick look online showed sherries, lesser known producers and no prosecco. So far, so ticking all of our boxes. They opened the doors at the end of September, and initial reports suggested our excitement was going to be justified.
Where should we go for a drink first?
The good news is there's no shortage of pubs in Howth. The bad news is if you're looking for something other than beer or gin you may struggle. The Bloody Stream is a cosy place to huddle up with a pint if it's cold outside, the Abbey Tavern up the hill on Abbey Street claims to date from the 16th century, and if you're after a more "modern" selection of drinks head for Wrights Findlater. They also have a roof terrace if it's warm enough to sit outside.
Where should we sit?
The dining room is cosy and quite compact - be careful what you say as it's likely your neighbours will hear you. There are tables and counter seating (perfect for eating alone) as well as four tables outside - we don't need to tell you how in demand these are going to be come spring. For the moment heaters have been ordered. The two tables at the window with a view of the harbour are the ones to plump for if you have a choice, or the counter's lovely for one or two.
What's good to eat?
The menu is divided into snacks, starters, mains, sides and desserts, and as seems to be the case more and more lately we're finding ourselves more drawn to smaller plates than larger ones - probably because it allows us to try more food. The menu is changing regularly depending on what's available but if they're on as a snack when you visit do not miss the confit potato chips with taramasalata - Mamó's take on fish and chips. Salty, vinegary, creamy, fishy, and exactly the type of culinary excitement we've been looking for from a restaurant by the sea.
Herby, garlicky razor clams with a macadamia nut crust were perfection on a plate (the flavour still hasn't left us), and chicken liver parfait with chicken skin crisps and crispy onions was gone in seconds. Both are must-orders if they're on.
Good sourdough bread comes as standard and they plan on varying up the butters. At the moment it's a Vadouvan butter (similar to a masala spice blend) with flakes of sea salt on top. It was whipped to the point of fluffiness, and the bread comes in very handy for mopping up the last few smears of chicken liver parfait.
From the starters we had a mackerel tartare with orange and pressed cucumber, which was like a Peruvian ceviche cleverly served with crisps. We are very much here for the zing and freshness of a well-made ceviche and the accompanying crunch of salted crisps, and think that variations of this will be one of their signature dishes (read: please don't ever take it off). Another starter of tarragon gnocchi in a porcini broth felt like an ideal plate for a cold day, and managed to feel light despite the rich, savoury flavours. Killian is apparently known for his homemade pastas so we look forward to more of those hitting the menu over the coming months.
A main of wild black pollock with sobrasada, Lambay crab and coco de paimpol broth was well balanced with a tingle of heat and excellent fish, but wasn't as memorable as some of the smaller dishes. They also do an Etto-style Côte de bœuf from Higgins Butcher to share with bearnaise sauce and crispy potatoes, so that's on the agenda for a return trip soon.
We did have the crispy potatoes as a side and they're up there with Etto in terms of their ability to turn a table of adults into a pack of scrambling animals desperately fighting over the last few crunchy bits. Another side of carrot salad with tahini and pomegranate didn't really do it for us, and felt like it was lacking seasoning.
For dessert the Howth honey tart with sea salt ice cream is another we're hoping is a permanent fixture. Honey comes from up the hill where there's also an allotment they're on a waiting list for, and it's hard to think of a more thoughtful, of-the-moment ending to a meal here. Another of dark chocolate ganache with blueberries and Italian meringue was luscious, but the portion sizes didn't allow either to feel overwhelmingly sweet. We're still regretting not ordering the Old Groendal cheese with poached pear and Guinness bread, so that's high on the list for next time.
What about the drinks?
We're big fans of small production/on the natural side wines, but have been growing weary of seeing the same names on every new wine list in town, so it was refreshing to see a lot of lesser known producers here, and Jess is more than happy to talk people through them and make recommendations. Anywhere serving sherry by the glass gets bonus points from us, and offering something sparkling other than prosecco by the glass gains more again - here it's a great value sparkling Chardonnay from the Loire called 'Tuffeau' from Domaine Plou. There are 13 wines by the glass and we asked them to bring what they thought would work for each dish. They were on the money every time, particularly a dry furmint from Tokaji in Hungary with the mackerel tartare.
And the service?
This is very much a family operation with Jess' brother helping her front of house and the rest of the crew calm and tight knit. Jess is very much the hostess making sure everyone is well looked after, and while we were there she had to graciously turn away guest after guest without a booking - but not without making sure they had the restaurant's card with booking details, and telling them they would love to welcome them another time. It's not often that people leave a restaurant this happy when they haven't been able to get in.
Mamó is a breath of fresh air in sleepy Howth and it feels like it's been a long time coming. We're looking forward to seeing it settle in and just hope that the tourists don't find out about it too soon or we may struggle to get a table forever more (especially in summer, picture the scenes). At the same time, we're excited about visitors experiencing this new iteration of Irish food in such a tourist hotspot and going home to tell everyone about it, so basically you can't win. A drawn-out, lazy Sunday lunch here would be just the way to end the week, or a midweek evening stroll along the harbour followed by ceviche, 'fish and chips' and all the wine sitting up at the counter would be as good an antidote to hump day as we can imagine.
Harbour House, Harbour Road, Howth, Co. Dublin mamorestaurant.ie