Worth the climb

The Sussex is a go-to restaurant for spot-on classics..

The Sussex is a go-to restaurant for spot-on classics . . . and one of the best desserts of the year – lemon posset with a hint of rosemary, writes CATHERINE CLEARY

MY LEGS ARE tired, my mountain boots are heavy and it’s so noisy in this pub that a Friday night pre-dinner hot port isn’t the idyll I’d pictured when setting out across the frozen tundra. I’m at O’Brien’s Pub on Leeson Street in Dublin to try The Sussex, its new upstairs restaurant. At the end of the bar I can see a fuzzy CCTV shot of the restaurant and it looks eerily empty, a ghost restaurant with a flickering fire at one end.

Along with friends Róisín and Christine we are here for our mini office party, so we head upstairs out of the mosh pit. We’re one of the first tables to arrive (never a great feeling), but there’s that cheery gas fire, fairy lights shining through the windows and leather bucket chairs into which we sink gratefully. It turns out we could have sipped our hot ports in comfort up here as you can order drinks from the bar.

It has been an eventful journey, past an igloo being constructed with washing-up bowl blocks of frozen snow and a snowman that would have made Robert Mapplethorpe blush (more of which later).

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“I want something really unforgettable,” Christine says as she surveys the menu. Róisín is taken with the crispy egg starter option (€9.95). It sounds to me like something fried, but as a devoted Masterchef fan, she’s picturing a take on the scotch egg and she’s right. It’s a softly boiled egg coated in crispy breadcrumbs and dropped alluringly on to a moreish salad with black bacon and tiny slivers of gherkin.

I decide on two specials, a celeriac soup for starter (€5.95) and the pork belly with braised red cabbage and gratin potatoes (€19.95). Christine goes for the smokies, a starter of smoked fish, cherry tomatoes, crème fraîche and cheddar (€9.50) and a main course of minted lamb steak (€21.95). Róisín decides on the shoulder lamb shepherd’s pie (€16.95) for main course.

The last time I was here the place was a fun but dingy upstairs comedy venue. Since then, Olivier Quenet of La Maison opened a restaurant here. He has moved on to The Schoolhouse and the people behind Tribeca in Ranelagh, and the Canal Bank Café across the road have taken over. Chef David Coffey is in the kitchen.

The decor is “high-end olde-Irish vibe” as Róisín puts it. There are some generic geegaws on shelves but also some nice vintage Dublin Horse Show posters to chime with its location. Quenet’s white linen table cloths and glass cloths as serviettes have gone. There are willow pattern plates, candles in jelly bowls and ivory-handled butter knives. You can see the upper decks of buses roaring by on their way south.

Róisín’s crispy egg is exactly what she hoped it would be and, as she notes, “it would be very easy to do it wrong”. My celeriac soup is velvety and delicious and comes with some sweet molasses-coloured brown bread. Christine’s smokies starter is on the salty side but with the cherry tomatoes adding a welcome tang.

The mains are very good. The pork belly has a double-duvet thick layer of crisped fat on top. There is a fantastic potato gratin (a hero comfort dish) and braised red cabbage drenched in a grainy mustard cream. Róisín’s pie is “like no shepherd’s pie I’ve ever had. The meat is terrific. It’s more than posh. It’s beautiful.” There is a side salad, but everything is in the pot including peas and carrots. Christine’s lamb is as “unforgettable” as she’d hoped. We have a lovely bottle of Château Peyruchet Bordeaux sauvignon blanc (€26).

For dessert, a lemon posset comes with three spoons before we request them. The staff are very nice. And, although there’s no way to say this without sounding like a lecherous old lady, they’re also very easy on the eye. The posset is stupendous. Later, I find out that rosemary was infused with the cream and lemon, something that our in-house Masterchef has already detected. Even nursing a palate-dulling cold, it’s one of the best desserts I’ve had this year. It comes in a generous-sized glass with blackberries and raspberries on top and shards of fresh mint. Divine.

An upstairs restaurant is tricky. They will have to work hard to get people through the door and up the stairs without the benefit of passing trade to notice happy diners through the window. The pay-off is that places such as these start to feel like slightly-secret venues for the people who love them.

The mid-market cooking is being done very well here and the menu is peppered with food heroes’ names such as Kettyle meat from Fermanagh, Gold River Farm organic vegetables and Sheridans cheese. Another element I like is the waitress gives not only the names of the specials, but also their prices. The L-shaped room means that even on a quiet night you won’t get the ghostly empty restaurant feeling as they seat people close enough to create an atmosphere without cramming us all into a corner.

Outside we brave the icy stretch of Leeson Street to show Róisín the X-rated snowman. He’s a skillfully-sculpted man splayed face down on the granite steps. The attention to anatomic detail brings a new meaning to the word snowballs. An icy homage to the traditions of the Christmas party.

Dinner for three with a bottle of wine comes to €122.50.

Twitter.com/catherineeats

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