Our Dublin restaurant critic Aoife Carrigy recognises an experienced talent on the plate in a new opening in Skerries as she checks out Potager restaurant.
Cathal Leonard can cook. That much is evident from his CV alone, which includes eight years as head chef in Chapter One and a recent stint alongside John Wyer in Forest Avenue. He also has a clear vision for the northside restaurant that he opened earlier this summer with his partner Sarah Ryan. The pair met when she was selling him fish on behalf of Beshoff's wholesalers. Theirs is a love story that pivots on mutual respect for and knowledge of great primary produce – as does their completely charming new destination restaurant, where they take full advantage of their proximity to north county Dublin’s horticultural and coastal bounty.
Potager might be new, but the space itself has been a restaurant for over three decades when chef Terry McCoy ran it as The Red Bank. It was indeed once a bank, and original details such as etched glass windows – the reflection of which creep up the dining room walls like an internal sun clock – give a sense of the character and history that the genteel seaside town of Skerries exudes. Half of the charm of a visit to Potager is a chance to soak up the local atmosphere with a waterfront stroll and maybe a sundowner outside Joe Mays, a west-facing pub overlooking the working harbour and hills beyond.
On the fickle-weathered Sunday that we lunch here, it is lovely to be greeted by flames flickering in period fireplaces. We skip the stylish bar, with its mussel-grey walls and glossy green plants, and enjoy an aperitif of Killahora Orchard Rare Apple Port and Fevertree Tonic at our lovely window-side table in a dining room that manages to feel as apt for a dressy date as a family gathering.
On the menu
The streamlined offer at Potager comprises of a five-course menu (€55) offered Wednesday to Saturday evenings and on Sunday from noon to 4pm when a three-course version is also available (€35). We opt for the latter but both make for superb value – as is clear from the first few mouthfuls: tangy three-day fermented beer and malt brown bread with Cuinneog butter, and the lightest potato bread with lovage pesto and whipped house-made ricotta. This excellent opening gambit doesn’t even count as one of our three courses, and nor do two waves of snacks: crisped buckwheat pasta topped with pulled rabbit and truffle mayonnaise, and bite-sized croquettes of super-fresh cod, followed by a whipsmart shot of chilled cucumber, apple and herb juice to cleanse the palate better than any sorbet.
Food is delivered by a team of quietly proud young chefs – all tattoos and upwardly-mobile hair – and cleared away by keen young waiters. Everybody wears smart leather aprons over their t-shirts, white for chefs and black for front-of-house, and each of them seems as excited by the food they serve as we are to eat it.
In the details
My starter features exquisitely textured mouthfuls of haddock, some house-smoked with beech and hickory and some finely chopped tartare-style with horseradish and mustard seed bringing fire to match the smoke. There is a cooling sauce from the ricotta’s whey and purple and yellow beetroot have been powdered, pureed, fermented and slivered into a summery riot.
My date tucks into paper-thin curls of salt-baked celeriac tumbled with juicy little shiitake mushrooms and thinly sliced smoked bacon that has been cooked to a crumbling crisp. This is comfort food with the lightest touch, its big flavours made subtle through delicate layering.
That mastery of flavour and texture are at play in my main course too: tender and juicy rabbit meat stuffed with a house-made sausage of offal and Drummond House garlic scapes and served with the rabbit’s kidney and liver, pan-seared into perfect little mouthfuls. Pert yellow heritage carrots from Iona Farm in nearby Garristown (this kitchen a half dozen separate vegetable suppliers) and a luxurious golden puree of carrot and squash contrast with crisped cavolo nero. The only off-note is the mini rabbit shepherd’s pie, picture perfect in a little copper skillet but let down by a wildly over-seasoned sauce.
Across from me, a generous piece of cod is perfectly cooked in terms of its pearly flakes of flesh but also over-seasoned, especially given the capers that swim in brown butter along with juicy cockles and beet leaves (the kind of root-to-stem, nose-to-tail detail that guarantees great value as well as nuanced flavour). Violetta potatoes from Ballymakenny House have been given the Hasselback treatment so that crispy purple crunch yields to blush-pink inner flesh.
By this stage, Sarah’s suggestion to leave our white wine out of the cooler – Aphros Loureira from the Lima sub-region of Vinho Verde in Portugal (€52) – is rewarding us with some gorgeous expressiveness, evolving from the smoky, preserved lemon character to something akin to baked lemon curd.
For dessert, a set Velvet Cloud sheep’s yoghurt with strawberry and mint is slightly let down by a tough little shortbread biscuit but elevated by gorgeous mouthfuls of caramelised white chocolate. The winner for us though is a boldly smoked chocolate mousse layered over vanilla ice-cream and cherry and beetroot jelly. Full of complex flavours and bejewelled colours, it is a joy from start to finish.
Sarah kindly offers us a drink as an apology for an apparent delay in mains, through we had been so thoroughly relaxed we had noticed none. In the absence of good dessert wine – the list is something of a work in progress, though shaping up nicely with an emphasis on small importers – we opt for a superb Equipo Navazos La Bota de Oloroso 46 and a Niepoort ruby port that pairs brilliantly with the chocolate.
There have been times throughout the meal where we have left somewhat afloat, service-wise: it took too long to get menus and a drink on arrival, for example, and to pay once we had received our bill. But these own-goals aside, what the service lacks in experience it more than makes up for in the kind of genuine hospitality that can’t be taught but can only be felt. The rest of the detail will come with a bit of training, which management is on the case with. Besides, a restaurant always takes a bit of bedding down before the team get fully in their stride.
For now, what has been created at Potager is a restaurant with craft, soul, true pride in place and a great big generous heart. All sorts of people open restaurants for all sorts of reasons. Sarah and Cathal are the right people doing it for the right reasons. They deserve decades of success.
The Bottom Line: We spent €140 for two people before a tip for three courses with an aperitif, wine and coffees.
7 Church Street, Skerries, Co. Dublin