Eating out: Paolo Tullio at Saison
'I really liked the menu. It was just the right balance of interesting ingredients and familiar ones.'
My favourite poet, Hilaire Belloc, wrote a poem called 'On Food', whose opening lines are: "Alas! What various tastes in food/Divide the human brotherhood!"
9/10 value for money
And so it does. The Chinese enjoy jellyfish; I do not. I've watched people enjoy fried scorpions in Vietnam, mealy bugs in east Africa, rotting shark in Iceland – the list is long and varied. It seems that food is as much a product of custom as it is of fashion.
National diets are made up in general of what's indigenous to the land. It's only since the 20th Century that it has become economical to transport food from one end of the globe to the other. It follows from that, that regional cuisines are based entirely upon the foods that are to hand. An example – in the north of Italy, where there are plains and grazing, there is butter and they cook with it. In the south, where there are no plains and no grazing, they cook with olive oil.
Fashion tends to rear its head when readily available foods are rejected, often for no obvious reason. When I first came to Ireland, fishermen would throw away crabs they caught in their lobster pots. Even today, mackerel is often spurned, while in other countries it's prized as one of the tastiest fish in the sea.
Here's another oddment: in Italy, farmers harvest the green tops of turnips for sale to people at market, then turn their sheep into the field to eat the turnips. Here, farmers let the sheep eat the green tops and sell the turnips to us.
When I arrived in Ireland in the late '60s, you didn't buy olive oil in supermarkets, you bought it in chemist shops. It came in tiny bottles and it wasn't for putting on your salad or for frying, it was for putting in your ear to cure earache.
Back then there were no pizzas in supermarkets, Roma pasta had only just begun, even mayonnaise was a rarity. And as for an espresso or cappuccino, not a chance. Not anywhere, not available.
These days we have trends like seasonality, local sourcing, sustainability and increasingly, foraged foods. It's trendy and popular, but it isn't new. Thirty-five years ago in my restaurant, Armstrong's Barn, we had foraged foods on the menu and we changed the menu every two weeks to keep abreast of the changing seasons.
All this comes to mind because this week I went to try Saison, the French word for season, a nod to their intention to have a seasonal menu. The restaurant is the latest incarnation of the basement of Mitchell & Son in Kildare Street, formerly Mitchell's, then Bruno's and lastly Town Bar & Grill.
It's been re-modelled since Town; there's fewer tables and more space, but the biggest change is the carpeted floor, which reduces the ambient noise and adds a sense of comfort. Good lighting and carefully chosen occasional furniture also add to the sense of comfort.
I was there with Marian and almost as soon as we were sitting along came a choice of four breads with a pat of artisan butter. My advice is to pretend you don't see the butter. It's so delicious that you may end up doing what I did and eat five slices.
I really liked the menu. It has just the right balance of interesting ingredients and familiar ones. There were six starters: whipped goats' cheese, seared foie gras, seared mackerel fillet, pea and bacon soup, grilled octopus and Himalayan salt beef. In price they ranged from €9 for the soup to €16 for the foie gras.
The main courses also offered a choice of six: slow-cooked Iberico pork cheek with scallops, roasted halibut, assiette of rabbit, slow-cooked beef rib, gnocchi with summer vegetables and an assiette of Wicklow lamb. These ranged in price from €22 for the gnocchi to €34 for the beef rib.
Marian ordered foie gras to start and followed with the lamb, while I started with the octopus and followed that with the rabbit. For drinks, Marian had a passion fruit mocktail and I took the sommelier's suggestion of a glass of Greek white wine called Ovilas. It was a beautifully balanced wine, crisp and clean tasting with a pleasing acidity to balance the fruit.
The menu told me the head chef was Graeme Dodrill and a little subsequent Googling told me he'd come from One Pico, a pretty serious restaurant that's coupled with an even trendier one, The Greenhouse. This goes a long way to explain why the food was so good.
Marian was completely won over by the foie gras, while I enjoyed the octopus and clam dish. But the real skill was evident in our main courses. These were both Michelin-star plates, beautifully presented and each element skilfully cooked. So good that Marian eventually tried a breaded sweetbread, something she's never done before.
To finish, we shared the baked peach with fennel, orange, gingerbread and star anise ice-cream, before ending with a tea for Marian and an espresso for me. Our bill came to €140.85 without service charge.