The Spotted Dog is a small bistro in Dundalk that is run by a chef formally of the Michelin Starred l’Ecrivain in Dublin and a front of house manager who would be entirely at home in any restaurant in Paris. Nestled between a bus station, a Chinese supermarket, and a pharmacy, the restaurant is on the Long Walk in Dundalk, a street which improved ten-fold the day The Spotted Dog opened. Chef Brendan Mulligan’s fine dining background is showcased well here as he serves up the best breakfast in Dundalk followed by lunch and dinner menus that feature local seafood, bread baked with local artisan flours, cheese from just down the road, classic French sauces, and the best of Irish beef, pork, and lamb. If you picked this restaurant up and dropped it in a small town just outside New York there would be queues down the street and it would probably have its own Netflix documentary within a week. Dundalk doesn’t get that excited but hopefully we all know what we have and will continue to support it for a long time.
This blog post is not about The Spotted Dog. But we were having breakfast in The Spotted Dog one morning when Chef Brendan told us he was just back from a cooking collaboration with another former l’Ecrivain protégé, Chef Robert Curley. The event was named the Slemish Market Supper Club and it took place in Ballymena. The Slemish Market is familiar to us as lots of people who read our long and somewhat colourful Facebook posts have compared them to similar posts by the owner of that market. He does go on a little, and he is very entertaining. We hadn’t heard of the supper club though, but after a little Google research we discovered that they were holding an event on Rathlin Island. An event that involved foraged seaweed, lots and lots of fish, and a collaboration with the man who was named Kerry’s best chef in 2018. We booked in immediately.
On Friday the 4th October it was the weekend of my 42nd birthday, hurricane Lorenzo was whipping up a frenzy in the imagination of Met Eireann (it was a beautiful day!), and Great Northern Larder a.k.a. Laura and I were travelling on a small boat from Ballycastle in County Antrim to Rathlin Island. Rathlin is 5km off the coast, but the cliffs and mountains rising all around us and the low-lying clouds gave the impression that we were crossing a bay rather than open waters. In the back of my head I had vague memories of reading about great massacres on Rathlin, Robert the Bruce and his spider, and at least a few major shipping tragedies. The connection between Robert the Bruce and Dundalk is not that tenuous either as his brother massacred everyone in the town in 1315 before getting himself killed and buried just outside it. Not exactly Disneyland then.
Upon arrival Chefs Robert Curley, Gary Godfrey, and Gorka Arietta met us in the local bar. Rob is the main chef behind Slemish Market Supper Club and I was surprised to find he had a strong Dublin accent. I know little about Ballymena, but the few times I have been there I always felt very foreign – much more so than in Belfast. I never did get to ask Rob how he fitted in but given the type of food he cooks I suspect he doesn’t feel any need to fit in. Gary is his right-hand man, a Ballymena local, and an award-winning Tapas chef. Gorka is from the Basque Country, has been named Kerry’s best chef, and is a Tapas champion. He was to be the collaborator with Rob this weekend.
The weekend started with Friday night tapas in McCuaig’s Bar, the only pub on the island. Everyone was seated at a long table and within minutes we were chatting to everyone. The atmosphere was excited, and the vibe was relaxed and informal. Glasses of Cava and bowls of olives started to appear from the kitchen and were placed on the bar at the end of the function room. Soon after the three chefs appeared. Rob introduced himself and his colleagues to the room and gave us a long biography of Gorka which involved a lot of very impressive exploits involving Tapas dishes in both Spain and Ireland. He then invited us to grab some olives to begin our meal.
Dish One – Spanish Olives / Vermouth
Soft juicy olives with a vinegar tang drizzled in sweet concentrated Vermouth and stuffed with Vermouth jelly. These things exploded in your mouth. The vinegar and the sugar from the Vermouth contrasted beautifully. Laura and I took a dainty and polite two olives each on our first trip to the bar, and then went back for a plateful when we tasted how good they were.
Dish Two – Wild Duck Cigar / Chilli / Burnt Kelp Ash
We knew things were going to be interesting this weekend when the waiting staff came out with ashtrays. In each ashtray was a big fat cigar with a red tip and lots of ashes. I thought it looked amazing, but when I sent the picture to a foodie friend of ours, she asked if that was something we found down the back of the couch. The wild duck was gamey, smoky, and rich, the hot sauce was mild, creamy, and had a lingering burn that suited the cigar theme. The kelp ash was surprisingly delicious. I would have assumed ash was ash, but this ash had flavour!
Dish Three – Haggis, Neeps, and Tatties Croquette / Islay Whiskey Aioli
When you get three out of three perfect dishes you begin to relax, and this dish was ten out of ten. It was a big croquette like you would get in a school canteen, and to be fair even the filling was familiar potato and turnip. But there was a little magic going on here. The haggis, which was supplied by Gary’s father in law who is a butcher in Scotland, was beautifully spiced and filled the croquette with flavour. The breadcrumb outer was fried perfectly. The Islay Aioli was one of the best sauces I have ever tasted. It had the smoke and bite of a good Scotch, but it was superbly creamy and rich and was topped with pepper dulse.
Dish Four – Kelp and Celeriac Noodles / Braised Wild Hazelnut
Despite being on an island and all the talk of seafood, this was our first taste of the sea. The kelp and celeriac noodles were very crunchy and packed a serious amount of flavour. The broth was full of herbs and beautifully salty. The hazelnuts also had a bite and gave a fantastic contrasting texture to the soft meat or veg you usually expect in a noodle soup. Laura declared she would be making this at home before the week was out and as I write this just a few days later there is already celeriac on our kitchen counter. I suspect we will be foraging seaweed at low tide today.
Dish Five – Pollock Burger / Brioche / Sea Lettuce / Mayo / Carrot Kimchi
Served in a cardboard burger box, this was by any definition a burger. When I want to take a burger to the next level I go for big chunky homemade beef patties, artisan cheese, dry-cured bacon, black pudding, and a massive bun. When a talented chef wants to take a burger to the next level he uses a soft and delicate pollock patty, compliments it with a very light leaf of sea lettuce (seaweed!), and finishes it with a tangy spicy bright orange carrot kimchi (a Korean fermented pickle). I stand over my burger, but I loved this one.
Dish Six – Glashon Gambon / Peas / Passionfruit / Elderberry Caper / Acorns of the Sea
This was the first dish that was served that caused a few murmurs of dissent amongst the oohs and ahhs around the table. It was a challenging dish of coley fish (glashon) served as cured pork – i.e. salted and cut thin. Alongside the fish was passion fruit including the hard seeds, garden peas so fresh they stood up to the fruit, and cockles taking the role of acorns. I found the texture of the seeds and the hard peas with the soft cockles and the delicate fish to be a little strange. Saying that if I had managed to get through seven dishes without my taste buds being asked to do some work I would have went to bed a little underwhelmed.
Dish Seven - Fisherman’s Friend Churros / Curd / Liquor
Churros are like long plain doughnuts. In Spain the come with a cup of hot chocolate for dipping and they are a staple of almost every café. They tend to be coated in icing or castor sugar.
On Rathlin Island churros come dusted in crushed Fisherman’s Friends mints and with lemon curd instead of a cup of chocolate. They are all the better for it. Liquorice, methol, and lemon is a taste combination that is hard to beat. The curd was one of the best I have ever tasted and more than a few people around the table were getting the last of it out with their fingers. A strong finish.
After dinner, Laura and I went to the bar where we spent the rest of the night (and it was a long one!) chatting to a couple from Ballymena called Tim and Jill who were regulars at the Slemish Market Supper Club as well as being experienced divers. We learned even more about Rathlin, the sea, and Chef Curley. If we said that Rob joined us for a drink you would probably have the impression that he graced us with his presence and to bask in the glory of our admiration and praise while signing copies of his latest book. But trust me, this weekend was nothing like that. Rob, Gary, and Gorka were buying rounds, having the craic, and chatting about everything from food to politics. If I could remember the evening I would tell more, but it is all a blur.
We slept well, had a very good breakfast in The Manor House, and took a long walk to the East Lighthouse. Some of the sights of Rathlin include the Hill of the Screaming where in 1575 the womenfolk watched as Sir Francis Drake under orders from the Earl of Essex slaughtered their menfolk. Unfortunately, he then hunted down the women and children and slaughtered them as well. 400 islanders were killed and the island remained uninhabited for many years afterwards. At the East Lighthouse you can see what little remains of the world’s first commercial telegraph station and you can appreciate the same view as Robert Bruce had from his cave during the famous episode with the spider.
The rain came down heavy during our walk and we only barely made it back to The Manor House for lunch. The Manor House is the old “big house” on Rathlin and was once the residence of Reverend John Gage the then owner of Rathlin. It’s a beautiful building and the main dining room was a perfect setting for the next stage of our Slemish Market Supper Club experience.
Aperitif – Smugglers Brew
A cocktail of poitín and seaweed. After several massacres and a few other misadventures at the hands of the authorities its not that surprising that the islanders are a little bit proud of their lawlessness. The pub holds irregular opening hours, the few cars on the island look like something from Mad Max, and everyone we met claimed to make poitín. This cocktail was amazing. It reminded me of Kombucha in that there was a rich metallic flavour that you don’t associate with fruit and alcohol-based cocktails. I think it was probably the iodine from the seaweed.
Wee Bite – Paint the View
This was simply class. We were all presented with an easel and a canvas made of potato. Our paints were Cajun hot sauce, sea lettuce aoili, and kelp ash. Strangely those colours (grey, green, and orange) were very appropriate for painting Rathlin and that is what most of us did. This playful dish was ridiculously tasty.
Starter – Pumpkin / Kelp / Rathlin Seafood Chowder
I hate seafood chowder. It is creamy, dull, vaguely fishy, and too filling for a starter. This wasn’t any of those things. It had no cream, it was bright and well-seasoned, it was immensely fishy (mackerel, pollock, crab, lobster, periwinkle, cockle), and it was lovely and light. Fresh local ingredients in a bowl – you couldn’t go wrong.
Fish – Octopus / Potato / Espelette Pepper / Liquorice
I hate octopus. You can see where this is going right? Well, maybe not this time. I appreciated how well it was cooked and the Ballymakenny Potatoes were very good, but the octopus was just a little too fishy for my liking! I still finished it all because I knew that I would never taste octopus as good again. Which is why I may never taste octopus again! Laura, on the other hand, loved this dish and she especially liked the liquorice sauce.
Meat – Lamb / Kelp / Carrot / Potato Puree
We were back in my comfort zone with meat and veg. The lamb was from @GlensOfAntrimLamb in Glenarm and it was cooked until falling apart. There was a seem of fat holding the meat together and the flavours from both the fat and the meat were everything you would expect from great Irish lamb. The sauce was made from lamb bones and the dish was a favourite of the weekend for me. I could be wrong, but I think Gary was responsible for this dish - he certainly seems to be a chef who knows his meat.
Pre-Dessert – Apple / Wild Hazelnut Crumble
Another highlight of the weekend for me. The apple was tart, the nuts were crunchy, the custard was pure luxury. This was a one-bite wonder and that was its only fault. 10 of them would have made a great dessert!
Dessert – Sea Buckthorn / Dulse Ice Cream
Laura and I are both foodies, so there wasn’t really much across the weekend that baffled us. We were bemused and surprised by the Fisherman’s Friends, a little overwhelmed by the octopus, and wanted to move to Scotland after the haggis. But this plate baffled us. I still have no idea what the “cake” was made from. It was one of the best sweets I have ever tasted. The buckthorn is like concentrated citrus, but after that I am not sure what was in it or how it was made. The dulse ice cream had that something from the seaweed that I am having difficulty describing throughout this blog post. Again, I can only call it a metallic salty taste, but in a very good way. This dessert was a great end to one of the best lunches I have ever eaten.
Laura and I went and slept off lunch for a few hours before we headed to the pub for the night. We joined Rob and Gary at a table in McCuaigs at around 7 pm. We shared the table with another couple from Dundalk who I assumed were also on the island thanks to Brendan in the Spotted Dog. But no, it turns out they are friends with Charles who is Scottish and lives on the island. Charles Stewart is a skipper of the RIB boat “Hirta” and along with Ksenia Zywzcuk, he runs food and foraging tours of Rathlin. Ksenia is from Texas and she is obsessed with foraging Rathlin for seaweed and seafood, but she also makes her own seaweed pesto and being Texan she is big into BBQ. Over the course of a few, a good few, ok many drinks I vaguely remember that we agreed that Laura and I would organise with Charles, Ksenia, and Rob a grand tour involving islands, boats, BBQs, supper clubs, seaweed, and a multimillion-euro deal with Netflix.
Watch this space.