Shortly after his coronation in 1821, King George IV visited Dublin.
Copious amounts of goose pie and Irish whiskey didn’t go to waste during the crossing, by all accounts, and by the time the idle monarch stepped onto the pier at Howth, he was staggeringly squiffy.
The king did, however, manage to stand still for the short time it took to cast his footprints in stone at the end of the West Pier. And they remain there almost two centuries later – a pair of dandyish prints with heels and curves worthy of any catwalk.
George didn’t pause long at Howth, sadly – but he would assuredly have noted its fleets of fishing boats, its warehouses and sparkling granite walls (the harbour dates from 1807). And I’d have to venture that, were he to return today, such an infamous spendthrift and gourmand wouldn’t make it past the line of restaurants that has settled into the West Pier.
Ivan’s, Beshoff’s, Wright’s and The Oar House are just some of the names you’ll pass on a summery stroll here. Howth, you see – like Kinsale or Westport – is one of those seaside towns that seem immune to recession: a place where a splash of sun, a glass of white and a sizzling catch of the day makes everything seem all right for a few hours.
Howth can be expensive, of course – but it doesn’t have to be. That’s one of the reasons we chose Brass Monkey for dinner. An ‘Early Monkey Menu’ here offers two courses for €22 with tea and coffee (Mon-Sat, 12-7pm), and the kids menu bundled fish n’ chips with a scoop of ice-cream and a drink for €8.50 a pop. Hardly a king’s ransom.
We started with prawns – and lots of them. Tiger prawns in pil pil oil, served with crusty breads, coriander, garlic and an ocean of butter, were pungent and indulgent. A prawn and crab cocktail contained several Dublin Bay beauties, but the moment the cocktail glass arrived, I felt silly for ordering it. Layering some sweet mango salsa beneath the shredded lettuce was a snappy touch, but this kitschy dish is surely past its second coming.
Thankfully, my main course hit back with a blast of Mediterranean magic – spaghetti spotted with mussels, anchovies, olives and sundried tomatoes, and topped with a peppery clump of rocket. A lemon and olive oil dressing gave it a nice bang – good value for €16.
Of the other dishes, the kids’ fish n’ chips paired nicely crumbed slivers of cod with proper homemade chips, and we also enjoyed a fillet of cod from the specials. New potatoes, samphire, courgette, tomatoes and a zingy salsa conjured up more of the Med, though the fillet was again drenched in butter – something we’d like to have known in advance.
We needn’t have stuck to seafood, of course. Salads, burgers, steak, chicken and even a braised belly of pork are all available on Brass Monkey’s dinner menu.
Desserts went down well – including a chocolate and hazelnut brownie for €6, some decent ice-cream for the kids, and moreish chocolate and hazelnut mousse with toasted walnuts. Another option was the cheeseboard, served small for €7 or large for €14.
Brass Monkey styles itself as both a restaurant and wine bar, and it was absolutely chocca over the May bank holiday – with couples, families and friends of all ages kicking back in the casual, ever-so-slightly racy room. I liked the sangria-red walls, the mix of funky bistro fare, the summery ambiance suggested by eating tapas or supping Prosecco by a busy bar.
There are several tables outside too, with views stretching over the harbour park towards Howth’s Martello Tower. It wasn’t quite warm enough to get the best out of these on our visit, but after our meal, we walked along the pier, enjoying the seals playing between trawlers, the ferry chugging out towards Ireland’s Eye, and of course, those footprints in the granite.
George IV would have approved.
Dinner for three adults and two kids, with soft drinks, came to €122.90. Tip extra.
12 West Pier, Howth, Co. Dublin; 01 806-3746; brassmonkey.ie
Review: Brass Monkey originally appeared in The Irish Examiner.