Best of 2011
Published 31/12/2011 | 05:00
You don't need me to tell you it's been another hard year for restaurants. Up and down the country, I've been hearing the same laments from restaurateurs.
On the one hand, rates, rents and insurances continue to rise, and on the other hand, customer numbers are falling and there's a relentless pressure to reduce prices.
Trying to find a way to profit between these pincers isn't easy.
Despite the difficulties in trading, 2011 was a year in which I got only one bad meal, which, out of 50, isn't a bad statistic. Mind you, it's also true that I do try to avoid bad restaurants as much as I can.
It was an unusual year, too, in that half of my reviews were outside of Dublin, giving me a better idea of what is happening in the catering trade around the country.
What is certain is that the new austerity isn't affecting all restaurants equally. For every restaurant that's struggling to survive, there's another that's doing great business. Quite why this is so, is hard to pin down.
If we ignore a few isolated cases, then it appears that the successful restaurants are those that offer the best value for money. But even that isn't the whole story, because value for money and cheap are not the same thing.
For a meal to be good value for money, it has to be good. Bad food, no matter how cheap, is never value for money.
So, from my personal sample of restaurants this year, it's time for the awards.
The Golden Paolos
As ever, there are three Golden Paolos to award for the very best. The first, for 'A Special Night Out', goes to the Matz restaurant in Galway's g Hotel. The cooking is superb and the interior, although maybe not to everyone's taste, is strikingly modern and stylish.
The second Golden Paolo, for 'Best Value', goes to Cistin Eile, Warren Gillen's new venture in Wexford Town.
Warren is a talented chef and he produces very good food from carefully sourced ingredients that are, as far as possible, local. The style is simple, uncluttered, honest and genuine -- all epithets that tick boxes for me.
The third Golden Paolo, for 'Best New Restaurant', goes to Moloughney's of Clontarf. I loved the menu here -- it features lots of homemade foods, it focuses on Irish produce and it manages to be affordable as well.
Like Cistin Eile, it has a simplicity and purity that shines out from the plate.
You can almost taste the passion in its preparation.
If there was a trend in 2011, it was a move towards simplicity. I believe that simplicity is harder to achieve than complication, but when it works it's a joy.
This year, I found several restaurants that are treading this path, such as McHugh's in Raheny, Bedlam in Castle Market, Dublin, and the excellent Lennons @ Visual in Carlow town.
Lennons serves as an example. There are times when a restaurant's reputation rests solely upon the chef's shoulders. What makes a meal in Lennons the experience it is, is down to Gail Johnson who cooks it. If she were to move, Lennons might, or might not, remain good.
By far the best Italian meal that I've eaten for years came to me this year in Pinocchio of Ranelagh. Again, this was a result of the chef, Luca Mazza, who cooked it. If he were to move, I'd be following him, rather than remaining faithful to Pinocchio.
Chefs are notoriously peripatetic, so when you find a good one, you have to be prepared to follow their moves.
And talking of good chefs, a visit to the Cill Rialaig Arts Centre in Kerry re-acquainted me with Ivor O'Connor, who has to be one of the best all-round chefs I've encountered.
He catches fish, does his own smoking and makes sausages, as well as cooking Irish, French and Italian food very well. A repertoire as broad as this is rare indeed.
I've always been puzzled by the lack of interest in fish, especially since Ireland is an island surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. Most islands have a strong tradition of cooking fish, but in Ireland it's in pockets, mostly in the west and southwest.
So when a new fish restaurant opened in Dublin, I was keen to try it. Matt the Thresher was known to me as a road house on the road to Limerick, but the Dublin version does fish, and does it very well.
Stephen Caviston, a scion of the well-known fishmongers of Sandycove, brings a level of skill and expertise to bear, making my meal here the winner of the best seafood award.
In the ethnic category, there were two good meals this year. The first was the new Indian restaurant in Donnybrook called Dakshin, where I ate twice this year and on both occasions ate very well.
The second was a hidden gem in Ashbourne, Co Meath, where I stumbled upon The Cinnamon Garden, another Indian restaurant where the food is good and the prices are reasonable.
Hotels and pubs
I ate in a number of hotels this year, but the award for the Best Hotel Meal goes to the Hotel Europe in Killarney. There's a very high level of service here, the views over the lake are wonderful and, best of all, head chef Alex cooked a trout that I'd caught myself on the lake.
Lastly, the award for Best Pub Grub goes to The Magpie Inn, Dalkey. The Magpie has one of the best wine lists that I've seen in a pub, plus it has an extensive beer list both on draught and bottled.
There's a surprisingly long menu, and, on the review night, I ate well and enjoyed a couple of exceptional artisan beers.
It seems that the need to reduce prices has resulted in some imaginative changes in the kitchens of Irish restaurants. There's a new emphasis on local ingredients, on seasonality, on artisan foods and on the cheaper cuts of meat.
These last were ignored during the Tiger years when we only wanted the most expensive cuts. The new reality has brought us back to the tastier cuts, such as ham hocks, lamb shanks and belly of pork.
Personally, I'd love to see more oxtail and tongue on menus; meats that were once a staple of the Irish kitchen. All of these cheaper cuts have far more taste than beef fillet -- they just need more care in the preparation.
As we look into the year to come, I suspect the move towards simplicity will continue. More emphasis on the sourcing of the raw ingredients, more listings of suppliers and a greater understanding of what good, genuine, honest food is.
I would love to see a greater emphasis put on the welfare of the animals that we eat, especially hens and pigs. That means avoiding animals that have been reared in tiny cages and looking instead for animals raised naturally, outdoors.
That's my crusade for 2012.