Nine Irish restaurants that thrilled in 2016
The good news is that the standard of food in Ireland continues to improve. The bad news is that good food experiences are in danger of being ruined by sloppy service. There's a truism in the restaurant industry that a customer can forgive a poor meal, and return to the restaurant that served it, but they will never revisit a restaurant in which they were treated badly.
This year I've eaten decent meals in restaurants to which I will never go back. I'd rather stick pins in my eyes than return to one in particular, where the staff sneered at me and my female companion, while fawning over the corporate tables populated entirely by men.
And I am over - way over - cynical restaurants that make a conscious decision to skimp on the quality of their ingredients, particularly when it comes to animal protein. Please get with the programme and serve smaller quantities of better quality, higher-welfare meat, poultry and fish. The most cynical meal of all is brunch: a huge money-spinner for restaurants and generally comprised of poor quality food smothered in hollandaise sauce. It takes more than a free glass of cheap prosecco to compensate for that, or to get rid of the bad taste in the mouth that you get when you're being ripped off.
Restaurant awards proliferate these days. Some involve rotating the gongs between members of a golden circle to keep everyone happy, and their primary function is as a hook on which to hang the selling of tickets for a lucrative black-tie event. My informal restaurant awards, on the other hand, are a resolutely gong-free zone. There is no dinner for the winners and I promise not to be on the phone flogging plaques over the coming weeks.
So, without further ado (as they say), here are my 2016 restaurant awards, with thanks to all the restaurants in which I ate great food over the past 12 months.
MEAL OF THE YEAR:
Gregan's Castle, Corkscrew Hill, Ballyvaughan, Co Clare. (065) 707-7005
David Hurley's cooking at Gregan's Castle is modern and as big on flavour as it is in looks. Book before Hurley gets a star so that you can tell your friends that you ate there way back when.
NEWCOMERS OF THE YEAR:
FOREST & MARCY, 126 Leeson Street Upper, Dublin 4. (01) 660-2480
The little sibling to John and Sandy Wyer's wonderful Forest Avenue, Forest & Marcy, located just around the corner, is helmed by Ciaran Sweeney, whose food (above) is a delight. Don't miss his fermented potato bread with bacon and cabbage.
Pickle, 43 Camden St Lr, Dublin 2. (01) 555-7755
Sunil Ghai departed Ananda and opened Pickle (above main), which serves the best Indian food in the city. Don't ask for chicken tikka masala, do have the kid goat curry with black cardamom.
'IT COULDN'T HAPPEN TO NICER PEOPLE'
Heron & Grey, Blackrock Market, Blackrock, Co Dublin. (087) 608-3140
It's all been said already, but the award of a Michelin star to this modest little restaurant was the feel-good Irish food moment of the year. It'll be exciting to see what Andrew Heron and Damien Grey (above) have in store for us next.
FOOD ACTIVIST OF THE YEAR
Stephane Griesbach, Gannet Fishmongers, Galway. (091) 440167
Griesbach is the fishmonger who supplies all the best restaurants in the west, and he's a stickler for labelling fish correctly. Expect to hear more from Griesbach in 2017, as he puts it up to the supermarkets and restaurants who aren't quite as honest as he is.
POP-UPS OF THE YEAR
Joint winners: North East and Ichi-go ichi-e
Eric Heilig's monthly Pomeranian pop-up at Heron & Grey was a revelation, and the Ichi-go ichi-e collaboration between Katie Sanderson and Takashi Miyazaki in the Fumbally Stables last month was another very special experience.
SMALL AND PERFECTLY FORMED
ASSASSINATION CUSTARD, 17 Kevin Street Cross, Dublin 8. (087) 997-1513
This tiny little café seats fewer than a dozen people, so arrive early to feast on budget-priced Middle Eastern and Italian-inspired street food. Wonderful.
SPENDING MY OWN MONEY
Etto, 18 Merrion Row, Dublin 2. (01) 678-8872
For the second year in a row, this award goes to Etto for the utter deliciousness of its food and an ambiance that's the best in the city. The worker's lunch is a steal at €14 - you might get something along the lines of fresh taglierini with cockles, n'duja and white wine - and the côte de boeuf is a dish to please the pickiest of eaters. Sit at the bar if you can't get a table.