I have to come clean. Hamptons is a difficult restaurant to review.
Before visiting Limerick, I threw out a wide net for recommendations. I asked friends, colleagues, followers and foodies for city tips that were worth reviewing, and which haven’t already been reviewed for The Irish Examiner. That left a short list.
Limerick’s foodie scene has its flourishes. The Strand and Savoy hotels have raised their game by backing talented chefs, La Cucina goes from strength to strength, Love Gourmet Week is a fab idea, the Milk Market is legend and creative new ventures like Canteen nicely complement highlights like The French Table and Brasserie One. As a whole, however, the city still lags behind peers like Cork, Galway and Belfast.
Hamptons won’t be on Michelin’s radar, but lots of Limerick diners love it. The Savoy’s main restaurant rates excellently on TripAdvisor and menupages.ie, got a good shout-out on Twitter, and besides, reviews shouldn’t be limited to new openings, sexy chefs and self-consciously “worthy” cuisine. Most of our meals are mid-range, after all.
So we pushed open the heavy glass doors on Henry Street, descending into a moodily-lit basement abuzz with busy staff and bustling customers. Hamptons felt like a cigar club in a steakhouse, with lots of dark wood, richly toned fabrics, low ceilings and shifting levels partitioned by slick mirrors and strips of wood. Apart from the nods to Limerick Castle in a variable art collection, we could have been in any city on earth.
Every type of customer on earth was accounted for too, from casually-dressed families to canoodling couples, older diners and groups of friends. And things moved at a rapid clip. We were brought brusquely to our seats, the first waiter arrived to take an order barely a minute after we’d received the menus, and our little girl’s prawn cocktail was whisked away before she’d finished – only after it was gone did we notice.
The menus are laminated sheets crammed with over 30 variations of steaks, curries, stir-fries, seafood, salad, pasta and more (and that’s just the mains). Even the value menu, competitively priced at €25 for three courses, offered 16 mains. There’s something for all tastes, in other words… and some of it was very tasty indeed.
My 21-day dry-aged rib-eye steak was the highlight: chargrilled over beachwood and served exactly as I ordered (medium rare) with a simple seasoning. It was perfectly mouth-watering, with spot-on garlic butter and a side of Lyonaise potatoes that didn’t just crack the spuds, but the buttery onions too. A simple dish, succulently executed.
We sampled several starters. Bang Bang Chicken featured strips of wok-tossed battered chicken with stir-fried vegetables, chilli dressing and mixed leaves (titillating enough, but the leaves had wilted). The Knife & Fork barbecue ribs fell off the bone as described, and the coleslaw nicely foiled a smoky sauce (indulgent, but lacking the depth and kick to send you out with a zing in your lips and a compulsion to tell your buddies).
I realise Hamptons has a wide constituency, but I do think investing more depth and imagination in fewer dishes could produce more memorable results.
The poorest plates included the house prawn cocktail, described as “succulent fresh prawns with spicy Marie Rose sauce” but actually a fistful of puny prawns crowning a limp glass of lettuce. A chicken Florentine delivered a rich and flavoursome tomato sauce, and good spinach, but the escalope itself was dry and stringy on the tongue.
Here’s the thing though. When we mentioned this to the staff, it shot up the chain of command at lightening pace, and before we knew it our desserts and coffees had been comped, and two additional desserts were brought for us to share. That kind of customer care is never a given, even in the finest of Ireland’s restaurants.
At the end of the day, you can only judge a restaurant on what it sets out to achieve. And by those standards, Hamptons succeeds admirably. It’s an assembly line with a heart, a posh Captain America’s, a slick script that plays out a little too brisk, but whose characters are friendly, attentive and unpretentious…. both with adults and kids.
A difficult restaurant to review, then. But an easy one to enjoy.
Dinner for two adults and two kids came to €89.50. Tip extra.
061 609325; Henry Street, Limerick; hamptonsgrill.ie.
This review originally appeared in The Irish Examiner.