Tim Mason called his restaurant Out of the Blue for the obvious reason. While blue skies are not a regular feature of Ireland’s wild Atlantic coast, every now and then a fish restaurant appears that is radically ‘out of the blue’ and is a surprising success. The fish is fresh, perfectly cooked and served imaginatively, as you would expect of chefs who know their fish. Then the chefs move on and take their reputation and skill with them.
Jean-Marie Vaireaux is one such chef. Born in Lyon, trained in Thonon-les-Bains and educated in the Beaujolais, he found himself in the west coast of Ireland at the end of the century, content to go fishing with a French friend. Fish as fresh as it comes has always been the mantra of clever fish chefs.
The arrival of the Dublin-born stockbroker gave the Lyon-born chef the opportunity he craved, the chance to stay in Dingle and cook fresh fish. That he would do this in a cramped kitchen with two other chefs did not faze him.
In the summer of 2001 the fish restaurant that would become known as OOTB opened. It was a revelation from the start.
We are sitting on the wooden benches at the tables on the veranda adjacent the tiny restaurant on Dingle’s waterfront. OOTB’s French chefs explain why they are masters of fish cuisine. There are no secrets, they say, it is all about experience and knowledge. And, Eric Maillard from Brittany is quick to affirm, the tricks of the trade.
Inevitably the conversation drifted to the secret of the perfectly cooked pan-fried fish. The backbone should come away from the flesh clear and clean. Like the cartoon cat with the cartoon fish bone? Exactly. Later, when we sample the secrets of their success, we get that affirmation. At a nearby table a diner lifts the backbone clear of the fish. All we can do is giggle.
Tim Mason did not know what he wanted to do when he arrived in Dingle at the turn of the century. He drove around the seaside town, found himself – like Jean-Marie before him – on the waterfront, and there it was, the stuff of dreams. A ramshackle house that over-looked the bay.
He found a local fisherman and persuaded him not to retire his licence, instead to catch fish for him. He found Eric Maillard, and he found a supporting cast. He found his mission, to see whether a fish cafe with five tables and a fresh fish shop could succeed. ‘We used to sort the fish outside – we had no room inside – everyone could see how fresh the fish was.’
This was the true secret of their success. As the years rolled by and the small cafe morphed into a small restaurant, the word crept out. OOTB was something unusual, it was a fish-only restaurant that served seafood caught the same day.
OOTB is the epitome of ‘catch of the day’. The chefs see what they have, come to conclusions and chalk their ideas on the blackboard that is the menu, as original as the fish. They have their favourites, dishes that are typical of the fish cuisine of their homeland, where the accompaniments including sauces are designed to compliment the fish, another secret to their success.
Their smoked fish chowder is as good as anything served anywhere but it is their smoked mackerel pâté that is arguably the best in the country.
And this brings us to the heart of the matter.
How does OOTB compare with other restaurants that specialise in fresh fish? Aherne’s in Youghal should always maintain its reputation, the Fish Kitchen and O’Connors in Bantry should always serve a good plate, the Anchor Bar in Liscannor should be hard to beat, the Lobster Pot in Burtonport will always be a personal favourite of the Fricot Project and we will always have a soft spot for O’Dowd’s Seafood Bar in Roundstone. There are surprises around the country, not least among the myriad ‘fish and chip’ shops. Of these McClements in Millisle serve the best scampi. Fusciardi’s in Dublin used to serve a delicious smoked cod. We hope they continue with that treat.
If OOTB can maintain its standards and its modus operandi it will remain the best fish restaurant not only in Ireland but among the best across the European continent.