Life's rich tapas
This week I had my annual trip to the French Riviera. It's a weekend with old friends and we've been doing it for the past 12 years. It's mostly a gastronomic weekend, as we explore the finer dining experiences that the south of France has to offer.
This year, we went nowhere new – we went to two of our favourite restaurants, Bistro d'Antoine in Nice and La Reserve in Beaulieu. Bistro d'Antoine has been trading for nearly 80 years and is a great place to eat. The food is superb and the prices are very modest.
La Reserve is at the other end of the scale; it's a two-star Michelin restaurant and it is not cheap. The food, however, is exquisite.
It was Michael Winner's favourite restaurant, and he wrote about it a lot, so before we began our meal there, we raised our glasses to his memory. I met him just once, on the apron of Northolt airport in London, and we talked briefly about restaurants before he set off for France and I set off for Ireland.
Back home again, I continue to be amazed by the number of people who are out spending money at the weekends.
In the past few weeks, I've been in and around George's Street, Clarendon Street and South William Street, which seems to be a mecca for new restaurants. When I've been there it's been absurdly busy, as though the austerity never happened. It's certainly not representative of the country as a whole, but it's good to see that there are areas of the catering industry where things are happening.
A little further out from the centre is another area of buzzing activity: Ranelagh. Restaurants make up a fair percentage of the shops in Ranelagh, and it's one of the best-served areas in Dublin for eateries. Maybe it's helped by a Luas station but, like George's Street and its environs, the restaurants here seem to be busy most of the time.
I went there to visit La Bodega, a tapas bar, with my old friend Michael Colgan. He lives not too far away, and he'd been to La Bodega before.
"I really like local restaurants," he told me, "especially ones that let you snack, like this one." It's one of the pleasures of tapas – you don't need to eat three courses including meat and two veg. You can graze on a variety of tasty dishes instead, which is what we did.
La Bodega is a recent arrival in Ranelagh and it has a fair amount of competition nearby, but it seems to have already gathered a following. We were there midweek and the place was well filled with diners.
The dining room has a comfortable feel to it and there are some unusual seats to break up the space – Michael sat opposite me in something resembling an ornate carved throne, giving him a regal air, which rather suited him.
We started with a basket of bread while we read the menu. I was briefly puzzled by the presence of a Caprese salad on the menu, but no matter – all the usual tapas are there, and in two sizes: tapas (the normal portion) and raciones (a larger portion). It's worth mentioning that the tapas portions here are larger than normal, so only order a racione if you're really hungry.
The other thing that caught my eye on the menu were the northern Spanish stews – big, hearty dishes full of warmth for cold winter nights. There were four: a fish stew, a lentil and chorizo stew, a lamb stew, and a bean and vegetable stew.
Despite it being a cold winter night, we went for the traditional tapas: prawns pil pil and fish cakes with baccala for Michael and Spanish omelette, kidneys cooked in sherry and ham croquettes, for me.
We wanted just a glass of wine each, so we ordered a glass of Pinot Grigio for Michael and glass of Monte la Mesa for me, at €7.50 and €8 respectively.
I don't normally notice background music, but I found myself humming along to the 'Concierto de Aranjuez', a lovely piece for classical guitar by Rodrigo. Quite brought me back to my years in Spain.
All of the dishes arrived together and we tucked in. The prawns pil pil were very nicely done, the prawns firm and fresh and the garlic and chilli judged well and in balance.
I started with the croquettes, not made with potato as they would be here, but made with a thick bechamel and flavoured with chopped ham. These, too, were well done, the breaded coating crispy and golden, the inside soft and tasty.
Baccala is one of the Mediterranean's staples – it's salted cod, and you can find it in the Iberian peninsula, southern France, Italy and Greece.
It comes rock hard and needs to be soaked overnight to become usable, then it's commonly mixed with potato or, like here, made into dough balls.
I thought the portion of Spanish omelette was one of the best I've eaten; so often it becomes a dry, hard slab of protein, but here it was succulent and full of flavour. For me, it was the best dish of the night.
Last, I got around to the lamb's kidneys cooked with sherry.
These, too, made a well-done dish, the kidneys a little undercooked as I like them, and with just enough flavour of sherry coming through.
We finished with a coffee for Michael and an espresso for me, which brought the bill to €55.15. I thought that was very good value – the food had been very good and the service excellent.
Of the many tapas bars now opening in Dublin, I thought La Bodega was one of the better ones I've tried. Go on a Sunday night and you'll be regaled with live flamenco music.