RESTAURANT REVIEW: Paolo Tullio at McHugh’s Wine and Dine, Dublin
We've been in the post-boom time for long enough now that we can see new trends emerging. There's one I've spotted and it's this: Irish restaurants are now doing what French and Italian restaurants did 30 years ago. They're basing their turnover on their set-price menus.
Let me elaborate; in both France and Italy eating out has been a part of daily life for centuries. It's a habit; it's enshrined as a major element of social interaction. Until recently, eating out in Ireland was for special events -- it was for birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and weddings.
The 1990s and Noughties changed that for good. We now treat restaurants exactly as the continentals do. Our economic circumstances may have changed, but the habit of eating out has remained.
What's happened is that the à la carte menu has become the special occasion and the regular dining out is done from the set menus. Most of a restaurant's turnover is now made on the set-menu spend, not the à la carte. Even wine sales don't make up the big part of the profit that they used to as we have all adjusted to the drink and drive laws.
Now if you're a restaurant competing on the set-menu market, you can't charge a lot. So if you want to make a profit, you have to watch your spend on ingredients very carefully. That doesn't mean the food is worse, it means that the kitchens now have to do more work. Cooking pork belly, now a staple of virtually every menu, is more time-consuming than throwing a steak on a griddle. But on the other hand, it costs a lot less.
Hand in hand with cutting costs in raw ingredients, restaurants are also a lot more clear these days as to where they source those same ingredients. Lists of suppliers are now almost standard, with meats fully traceable to the point of origin. If well-sourced artisan foods and greater skills in the kitchen are the legacy of the post-boom, then that's something positive.
You can see this new approach in Dublin's north side. A few weeks ago, I reviewed Moloughneys in Clontarf, which I liked a lot for the reasons I've outlined. This week, I went to Raheny to McHugh's Wine and Dine in St Assam's Park. Although they are different in many ways, they're also alike in many ways.
I arrived just before my guest, Niamh Kirwan, and was looking through the menus when she arrived. What they have in common is an inventive menu, evident care in the sourcing, and fair prices both on the menu and wine list. Not surprisingly, it was very busy, even on a midweek night.
With both of us driving, the choice from the wine list was determined by what came by the glass. The first page of the wine list had four specials, all heavily discounted. I'm a big fan of New Zealand Pinot Noir. The Montana Reserve from Marlborough was listed at €22 a bottle instead of €32 and it was €5.75 by the glass. I couldn't resist and ordered a glass.
Niamh wanted white, so she chose a glass of the Chilean Verdejo, on special offer at €18 a bottle or €4.75 a glass. Also on this list of specials was a wine for aficionados -- a Catalonian Priorat 2001 from Oriel, normally priced at €70, but on offer at €30. There was a choice of sparkling water, San Pellegrino or Tipperary, and we chose the Irish water.
The set menu was an early bird, available up to 7pm, and we were just in time. It offered two courses for €20 or three for €24 and Niamh chose from that. For once, it was me who chose the à la carte, mainly because I really wanted the aged rib-eye steak, which wasn't on the set menu. Apart from the steak, most of the dishes on the set menu were the same as the ones on the à la carte.
The early bird menu had five starters and five main courses, some with interesting twists. For example a home-made gravadlax with celeriac mousse, a burger with Jalapeño mayonnaise and an aubergine Parmigiana.
It was the gravadlax that tempted Niamh and she followed that with linguine with tiger prawns, courgettes, peppers and herb cream.
Mackerel is one of my favourite fish, so I started with lightly battered mackerel fillets and followed that with the steak.
Before the starters arrived we were brought some really excellent bread, a brown and a sourdough white, both very fresh and very well made. Maybe it's my Italian heritage, but to me good bread is an essential for the table. It came with a good olive oil and balsamic dip.
If you don't know gravadlax, it's simply salmon cured with salt and sugar, and flavoured with dill. It looks and slices just like smoked salmon, and Niamh's came with a celeriac mousse and a radish salad. It's the sort of dish you can make easily at home, and it rarely fails to please. I got four mackerel fillets, and I'll admit I was a little worried that a deep-fried oily fish would be too, well, oily. I needn't have worried, the fillets were crisp and the wasabi mayonnaise that came with it was delicious.
Niamh's main-course linguine was well done; the pasta was cooked just right, the prawns and cream sauce well-flavoured and the whole thing was combined into a good dish. I enjoyed my rib-eye. It was tender and I liked the pepper sauce that came with it.
I'd also asked for a side order of the Parmigiana, which I have to say was not the night's strong suit. The aubergines were undercooked, and a Parmigiana only works well with fully cooked aubergines.
We shared a dessert, a mixed plate of ice creams, which we finished with pleasure. An espresso for me finished the meal and brought the bill to €77.05 without service. The bottle of sparkling water was charged at a modest €2.95, and the espresso at €1.95, both cheaper than normal.
VALUE FOR MONEY 9/10
McHugh’s Wine and Dine
59 St Assam’s
Tel: 01 832 7435