Ex-Chapter One head chef makes Skerries a food destination
What’s the story?
In January this year it was announced that The Red Bank restaurant in Skerries, open since 1983, would close, and the site would be taken over by ex-Chapter One head chef Cathal Leonard and his partner Sarah Ryan. Interested eyebrows were raised, more so as the industry rallied behind them on social media to tell the world what lovely people they were and how great their first solo venture was going to be. Cathal had most recently been working with John Wyer at Forest Avenue, but also worked in UK restaurants like the Michelin-starred Clove Club in London, before coming home and settling into Chapter One. Sarah had been selling fish wholesale to the trade, which is how they met 10 years ago, and Potager has been their dream practically since they met.
Despite being one of Dublin's most popular seaside villages, Skerries has been lacking a destination restaurant in recent years. A trip out there at Christmas was less than inspiring, and left us scratching our heads as to why no one was pushing the boat out (sorry). And as if by magic along comes Potager. 'Potager' means kitchen garden, and theirs comprises the wealth of vegetables and fruits being grown in North County Dublin, as well as fish caught locally and meat like Lambay beef from Lambay Island just across the water.
They describe the food as modern, Irish and seasonal, built around Irish producers and their ingredients, and with Cathal being originally from Rush just down the road, he was no doubt familiar with the glut of produce in this part of the country, that few places seem to be taking advantage of. All of the pre-opening talk about it being a showcase for local produce made it sound like the type of restaurant we might have dreamed up, so we were full of anticipation heading off on the Dart.
Where should we go for a drink first?
We would come straight here and have an aperitif in the lovely waiting/bar area. Cosy up beside the fire (in June) with a sherry or an Irish G+T and enjoy a few moments of calm before heading into the dining room on the other side of the building. If you feel like a bit more action you could head into Nealon's a few doors down (who do a great trad session on Wednesdays), or to The Snug around the corner, which might be the most atmospheric (and snug) bar in the town.
Where should we sit?
The main dining room is down the corridor from the reception/waiting area, and is a good size whilst still feeling intimate. There are also two smaller rooms off the main one, which would be perfect for group dining or celebrations, or if you were looking for a bit more privacy. The room is very well lit despite there not being much natural light, so there will be no issues reading menus or getting those all important photos of your food.
What's good to eat?
At dinner it's tasting menu only, with a couple of choices to be made throughout. They say it's five courses for €55, but really it was eight when you include the bread (which you should) and the snacks, which for this amount of food at this level of cooking is incredible value. We imagine once the plaudits start coming in the prices will increase, so get in soon if you like bang for your buck.
The first thing to arrive is bread, and it was the most perfect bread course we've had in years. A fluffy, white mashed potato bread, and a dense, fermented, crunchy crusted brown bread with pumpkin seeds came with cuinneog butter and ricotta with local lovage pesto. We could have left after this and it would have been a worthwhile trip.
After this came snacks of a tapioca cracker with smoked cods roe, and white beetroot rolled and stuffed with more beetroot, walnut and mint. The cracker was the winner when it came to flavour, but both were interesting single bite snacks.
Usually soup does little to get us worked up, but the next miniature course of potato soup with herbs, thickened cream and dehydrated bacon was about as exciting as liquid vegetables can get. We desperately scraped out every last drop out until becoming aware that we were probably disrupting the other diners.
The next course of cured, then torched red mullet (a severely under used fish), in a red mullet sauce, with rush tomatoes, tomato jelly, tomato powder, basil and frozen buttermilk was probably the dish of the night, and one of those experience elevating plates of food that makes you wonder how a person even begins to put these flavours and textures together to create something with the ability to totally silence those eating it.
After that came another highlight, and a curve ball in the form of strong blue cheese midway through a meal. A cashel blue cheese mousse sat on top of very finely chopped celery and apple, with apple jelly and pickled walnuts. So unusual, so dynamic, so insanely delicious.
Then came a dish that we've thought or talked about daily since eating it - charred octopus with roasted cauliflower, Drummond House elephant garlic, and a milk and seed crumb. The garlic heightened everything without taking over, and the charred octopus tentacle was meltingly tender. There had been so much flavour by this point that our heads were spinning, in the best possible way.
After that sensory rollercoaster it was onto the mains, and on the night there were two choices, both of which we tried. Hake came with broad beans, lemon confit, smoked mussells, samphire and Ballymakenny pink potatoes, while Aylesbury duck breast came with braised duck leg, cabbage and baby turnip. Both were faultlessly cooked plates of food, the hake probably winning it for us, but they somewhat lacked the excitement of everything that had come before. We wondered if they felt pressure to put on "a proper main course" for locals and former regulars, rather than continuing the theme of small and explosive.
Dessert choices come on a separate menu with options for tea, coffee, dessert wine or any other after dinner drink you might want. Again there were two choices, and again both were eye-widening. A smoked chocolate mousse (genius) came on top of beetroot and cherries, with vanilla ice-cream in the centre and puffed spelt berries. Apparently Cathal has a thing about putting vegetables into desserts, and anyone that can do that and have us dreaming of eating it again is very talented. Another scraping the bowl scenario.
The other dessert of set sheep's yoghurt from Velvet Cloud, came with the sweetest local strawberries, strawberry tea, strawberry sorbet, shortbread and burnt white chocolate, and it's hard to think of a more perfect, more delicious, Irish dessert at this time of year.
And the drinks?
The wine cellar is in the old bank vault, which must make it one of the coolest in the city, and they're fine for you to stick your head in and look around. There's a decent sized wine list with some real finds on there and they're working with great wine importers, but it's clear that there's no sommelier to refine it and give it a personality unique to the restaurant - they are looking for someone though. Servers were not versed on the list, so if you want a recommendation find Sarah the owner who will be happy to chat and talk through the options.
They've played it very safe with the by the glass list, and the choices won't do much to excite wine lovers, but there's lots to try by the bottle with some really unusual options, and they do have plans to expand and change the wine list over the coming months. We had a really interesting white wine from Savoie in France made from the Jacquère grape - new one on us - and it was complex enough to cope with all of the flavours without over powering anything.
And the service?
Owner Sarah is a natural host, very generous with her time and clearly at ease working her way around the room making sure everyone is looked after. The chefs brought most of the dishes to the table, which is something we wish more restaurants did, giving us an in depth overview of what we were about to eat, but the few times that servers brought one (clearly as the kitchen was under pressure) they didn't know what they were bringing, and a chef ended up having to come out anyway.
Things were very smooth and excellently paced up until the mains, which we had an abnormally long wait for, with no communication from staff about what the delay was. They did take two drinks off by way of apology at the end, but there were a few other issues that weren't dealt with as quickly or as fuss-free as they should have been. We think they're aware that service needs tightening and would be surprised if this isn't top of the agenda over the coming weeks.
There are a lot of panicked voices at the moment in Dublin about restaurant closures and how it's "carnage out there", but the reality is that most restaurants don't work out because they're missing a certain magic that makes it somewhere that people are desperate to eat in. Potager has that magic and feels like two people who've laid everything on the line to create their perfect restaurant, a chef who's finally been able to fully unleash his own creativity after years working for other people, and now it's exploding onto plates into Skerries.
There is no doubt that this is a place that's going to get people very excited to get off their bums and go for dinner, and that's how you survive in a competitive restaurant market. Add to this that the menu seems to be changing daily and we're going to struggle to fight the temptation to hop back on the Dart on a weekly basis due to crippling FOMO.
7 Church Street, Skerries, Co. Dublin potager.ie