Monday 24 October 2016

Paolo: On fine dining, restaurant recommendations and the Irish food scene

Published 13/06/2015 | 02:30

Eat, drink and be merry: Food critic Paolo Tullio. Photo: Martin Maher
Eat, drink and be merry: Food critic Paolo Tullio. Photo: Martin Maher
Paulo Tullio documented the evolution of the Irish restaurant industry. Photo: Ronan Lang

For nine years Paolo Tullio wrote restaurant reviews every week here in ‘Weekend’ magazine. He documented the evolution of the Irish restaurant industry over a significant decade, criss-crossing the country to champion interesting and worthwhile restaurants for our readers. In his reviews, he also shared his musings on all sorts of topics, some culinary, some surprising. Here, we share some of his wisdom…

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Paolo on  Private dining rooms

I’m not giving away any secrets when I tell you that back in the 1970s and 1980s, the private dining room in my restaurant, Armstrong’s Barn, was a rendez-vous for the rich and famous. Diners included Lee Marvin, John Boorman, Frederick Forsyth and, perhaps most famously, Charles J Haughey. The room was set up with one large table, which meant it could seat from two to 12. There was a switch at the table, which turned on a red light outside the door. The idea was that the light would be a summons to the waiting staff, and that was how it was normally used, but CJH used it differently. When he turned the red light on, that meant “do not disturb”.

Paolo on  the rise of the  celebrity chef

I’m old enough to remember a time in Ireland when if you asked the question ‘can you name a chef?’ you’d only have got one answer — Sean Kinsella. He had a restaurant in Sandycove called The Mirabeau and his name was almost constantly in the newspapers. The great and the good of the 1970s were his clientèle and his prices were legendary, so it came as a surprise to just about everyone when his restaurant closed down. Ask that same question today and you could get a myriad answers. Chefs these days are household names, they’re on the telly, the radio and in print. If you took food out of the TV schedules, you’d be left with a big hole to fill.

Paolo on  what makes a good pizza

In truth there aren’t many places you can take an Italian to eat in Dublin. There’s no shortage of restaurants that call themselves Italian, but the food that they serve is more hybrid than authentic. The capricciosa is the pizza I always have when I’m in Italy. It is a classic Neapolitan base, the centre with the filling thin, and the edge allowed to rise. Quite often when I eat a pizza, I’ll leave the outer edge on the plate, but when you have a really good base even the untopped edge is good to eat. I’d suggest that when that happens, you’ve got a good crust before you.

Paolo on  changing the way we eat

If you’d asked anyone 30 years ago ‘how do you define a meal?’ you’d have got this answer — ‘meat, two veg, and potatoes; either mashed, boiled, chipped or roasted’. Today you could get a lot of different answers to that same question: we have takeaway meals that don’t fit the definition, we have fast-food meals that don’t fit the definition, and, over the past couple of years, we’re getting more and more tapas bars, which really don’t fit the old definition. Tapas bars are slowly spreading around the country because frankly, it’s a fun way to eat. Because each dish you order is small, you can have quite a few different tastes before you’re full, and because they’re small, they don’t cost a lot, which in these days of watched pennies is no bad thing.

Paolo on  A breakaway with the boys in the South of France

It’s become a tradition now, that either during the first week of February or the last week of January, I meet up with old friends in the south of France. Since the three of us enjoy good food and good wine, the focus of the trip is distinctly gastronomic, and this year it was more gastronomic than most. As an Irish restaurant reviewer, getting to eat in great French restaurants is important for me, as these are the restaurants that set world standards. It’s a way for me to calibrate my palate, so that I have a touchstone for judging meals here. It’s hugely expensive, but as an occasional exercise it can be excused.

Paolo on  food trends

Restaurants and fashion are inextricably linked. There are never-ending changes in the fashionable food of the moment, or in the presentation of it, there are chefs who become household names and are followed slavishly until another comes along, and there are restaurants that for some reason or another become the place to be seen in and are frequented by the great and the good. A few years ago raspberry vinegar turned up just about everywhere, kiwi fruit became omnipresent, then it was the turn of the sun-dried tomato. You may remember finding them on all sorts of dishes, even where they didn’t belong. Today’s overused ingredient is probably basil pesto, but I suspect its reign is coming to an end.

Paolo on  Chefs’ reputations

Chefs’ reputations too are subject to fashion. If chefs don’t constantly reinvent themselves, they become viewed as yesterday’s men. The entire world of gastronomy is a constantly evolving flux, with new ideas, new flavours and new cuisines arriving and being assimilated.

Paolo on  the first  review when you get back from holiday

There’s one restaurant review every year that I have trouble with, one that year after year causes me grief, and it’s this one. It’s the holiday that causes it. I get back from my annual stay in Italy and after eating delicious food for a few weeks there, the first restaurant that I go to on my return inevitably suffers from the comparison. I have to try and remind myself that you can’t compare apples with oranges; what’s normal for Italy is not normal for Ireland. Still, the temptation is there to make comparisons, and the Irish restaurant rarely compares favourably.

Paolo on  dining at  Patrick Guilbaud’s

What struck me about this meal as I’ve thought about it since, is that on previous visits, I’ve always felt there was a huge gulf between the quality of the food in Patrick Guilbaud’s and the food elsewhere. This time I felt that the gulf has closed up. We had an excellent meal, no doubt, but no better than many others that I’ve eaten in Dublin lately. It’s not that Guilbaud’s standards have fallen, it’s that everyone else’s have risen.

Paolo on  lessons from the Celtic Tiger

This improvement in Irish cuisine hasn’t happened by accident, it’s the result of a long process. Good chefs don’t appear from nowhere; they have to learn their skills over the years, they need restaurants to train in and good chefs to learn from. There may not be a lot to show for the years of the Tiger other than debt, but there is one very positive benefit. During those heady years we learned the habit of eating out regularly, and that habit hasn’t gone away with the new austerity. We still eat out in large numbers, we’re just more careful about the final spend. Busy restaurants mean that there’s work for chefs and the good ones don’t have to emigrate.

Paolo on  Dining companions

I haven’t done a review with Michael Colgan since last year, so we arranged to meet for lunch in Il Secreto. A couple of days later I was talking to Chris de Burgh and mentioned our lunch. He decided right then that he wanted to join us, so three of us arrived in Il Secreto.

Paolo on  Refreshments  in hospital

There’s something that I’ve noticed recently and it’s this: when you’re young, you know where hospitals are because you pass by them on the way to do whatever you’re doing. You have no idea what they’re like on the inside because being young and robustly healthy, you have no need to know. It all changes as you get older. Suddenly, there’s a hospital that you get to know very well, since you’re in there a lot for tests, for cures and examinations.

Paolo on  ageing

I’m not the first person to say this, and I surely won’t be the last, but there’s a weird thing about getting older and it’s this: you don’t feel it yourself. I don’t feel any different than I did when I was 28. I’ve asked friends about this and pressed them for their mental age. We all seem to have stopped somewhere in our 20s in our minds, although our bodies have aged relentlessly.

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