Sunday 4 December 2016

Paolo Tullio: Confusion from tart to finish

Published 29/01/2011 | 05:00

I've long held the theory that restaurants are at their best when they're operating at about 80-90pc capacity. There are enough customers to give the dining room a buzz, the waiting staff are on their toes and the kitchen is operating like clockwork. When they're nearly empty, the waiting staff get bored, the kitchen gets bored and things tend to slip.

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At the other end of the scale, when they're full to capacity, systems tend to get overloaded, and then haste and pressure means mistakes get made.

As a result of this belief of mine, I almost always to go restaurants midweek. The service is better, the food is often better and the restaurant does what it's supposed to do. But, this week, I ate out on a Saturday night and my thoughts about busy nights were confirmed.

The back story to all of this is truffles. Some years ago, I went with a group of Irish chefs to Norcia in Tuscany to go truffle hunting. While we were there for the Norcia Truffle Festival we met up with a group of Dutch chefs, one of whom was a very tall man called Martin Kajuiter.

At the time, he was cheffing in a restaurant in Amsterdam called De Kas, an extraordinary restaurant that is housed in three huge glasshouses that were once Amsterdam's botanic garden.

A couple of years later I was in Amsterdam and went to visit Martin and De Kas. And a few years after that, I heard that Martin had moved to Ireland and was now in Cliff House in Waterford. I hadn't yet dined there, but I did have a bar lunch there last year. What Martin has done there is remarkable, and a Michelin star after his first year confirms it.

I give you this back story because the management of Cliff House has taken over what used to be Bentley's on St Stephen's Green. Mr Corrigan has left and the building is now called The Cliff Town House. It's a very beautiful building that I have known over the years as The Friendly Brothers Club -- my late father-in-law was a Brother -- then as Browns and lastly as Bentley's.

The change of management means that Martin is now the executive chef. That doesn't mean he's doing the cooking, there's a brigade of chefs to do that, but he would have designed the menu.

No surprise, then, that the menu reads well. Elements of Bentley's remain, such as the oyster bar and the upstairs bar, and Dublin's most personable front-of-house manager, Drew Flood, is still there. Martin's touch is there on the menu now, more so on the set dinner than on the à la carte. I was dining with Marian Kenny and, since she's allergic to shellfish, we kept away from the à la carte and ate from the set dinner menu, which is priced at €34.50 for two courses and €39.50 for three.

Although we'd decided on only a glass of wine each, I did spend a bit of time reading the wine list. I took my time because I was enjoying what I found. There were interesting wines listed but, importantly, the mark-up is very reasonable.

Not only that, there's a whole page of wines available by the glass, the quarter and the half-litre. There are wines for the connoisseur, but the majority of the list is in the €20-€40 range.

We had a couple of glasses of a Sauvignon/Semillon blend from Bergerac at €7.40 each and eventually drank three large bottles of mineral water at €4.95 each.

The set menu gives you a choice of five starters, five main courses and five desserts. So we started with the goat's cheese tart for Marian and the wood pigeon for me, then the rib-eye steak for Marian and the John Dory fillets for me.

I'm going to be pedantic and tell you exactly what was written on the menu and what we were presented with. The menu read "Ardsallagh goat's cheese tart, pumpkin, shallot pickle, walnut, organic honey".

What arrived was a slice of goat's cheese sitting on top of a very thin round of hard filo pastry. It was not a tart in any sense of the word and there was no sign of shallot pickle, although the orange pieces of vegetable surrounding it, which we presumed were the pumpkin, were definitely pickled.

Whoever cooked my pigeon must have got distracted during the cooking process, because one side of the breast had been seriously overcooked, while the other side was barely cooked. It was a dish that should never have left the kitchen -- it should have been binned and re-started.

The main courses fared somewhat better. Marian was presented with a very tender piece of rib-eye steak, a very thin slice of Dauphinoise potato and a small spoonful of wilted spinach.

My John Dory fillets were rather like the pigeon breast -- overcooked on one side. They came with a foam, a spoonful of cauliflower purée and a few raisins and capers. A side of mash potato at €4 made up the rest of the plate.

We decided on a dessert between us and picked what the menu described as 'pear tarte tatin'. Somebody doesn't know what a tarte tatin is. Just as Marian's starter was certainly not a tart, neither was our dessert a tarte tatin.

The defining feature of a tarte tatin is that it's made upside down -- the shortcrust pastry is on top when it's cooked, not underneath. What we got was a filo pastry basket with some poached pears inside. The fact that it was an agreeable dessert doesn't excuse its menu description.

We finished with a tea and an espresso, which brought the bill to €114.85, not including service. It was a meal spoiled by inattention in the kitchen and improper menu descriptions. On the plus side, the service was excellent and the dining room is classically proportioned and elegant.

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