Thursday 21 September 2017

Service worth singing about at Bistro 161

Aingeala Flannery

Bistro 161

161 Upper Rathmines Road, Dublin 6.

Tel: 01 4978049

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Service worth singing about at Bistro 161

People keep asking me if food, value and service are better in restaurants since the arse fell out the economy's trousers. Generally I answer: yes, definitely, and not necessarily -- in that particular order. What they really want to hear is an unambiguous, resounding yes on all fronts . . . some reassurance that there is a silver lining on the curtain of doom that has descended upon the country.

Well, I can't give it. We are well and truly spancelled. Unemployment is six-feet deep and rising, yet there are waiters who consider it an affront to their occupational dignity when somebody asks for a prix fixe menu.

I'm astonished by how often I come across haughty, boom-time service -- usually in mature, leafy parts of Dublin where the so-called winds of recession feel like Le Mistral -- a sub-climatic time warp -- €63bn of bank debt away from the shit storm that's raining down on the less fortunate.

People still go out to eat, and what rankles them most is restaurants that try to squeeze in two sittings between 7.30pm and 11.30pm.

It takes about 50lbs of Semtex to get me out of my chair. However, offer me "still or sparkling" when I ask for a glass of water, then give me the once-over for responding with the word "tap", and I'm gone, but on your own head be it. That, and the capital offence of not alerting customers who leave a tip on a bill where a discretionary service charge has already been added.

What, I have asked myself repeatedly, is the Irish problem with good service?

We don't know how to give it or how to complain when we don't receive it.

The conclusion I've come to is that we are a race of peasants twice removed, so unsure of our bearings that we confuse service with servility. We don't give good service because we didn't crawl out of tenements and bog holes to scrape and bow. We don't demand good service for fear of sounding uppity and, anyway, we think we don't deserve it. Only the trade unions are comfortable with the expression "service industry" -- the rest of us speak vaguely of something called "hospitality".

Proper service from somebody who isn't a) the owner, or b) a foreigner is such an unusual occurrence in Irish restaurants, you feel flattered and grateful when you encounter it.

Take the case in point -- Bistro 161 during a busy Bank Holiday lunchtime.

A waitress is working the floor on her own and the kitchen bell is banging faster than a Shanghai bike race. There's just one table free. "Come in, come in," she says. A plate on one arm, cappuccinos in each hand and a stash of menus under her oxter. "You might have to wait a bit," she says helpfully, not contrarily. "There are a few big orders in ahead of you."

The delay we were bracing ourselves for never happened. We'd barely finished reading the menu when she reappeared at the table, glasses of water in hand, notebook at the ready.

We ordered a couple of salads to start, then proceeded to hum and haw over the wine list. "Try the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc," she intervened. "If you don't like it, I'll change it for something else." If all restaurants operated on this no foal, no fee basis, I'd have been eating for free all over town.

Our starters were substantial and very good. The Cartoonist's crispy Parma ham and pear salad was a bright summery blend of salt and sweet with cubes of mild creamy feta tossed into the mix. On paper, it was a confusing Greek/ Italian hybrid, which should not have worked.

There was an obvious compatability issue with using balsamic dressing and pesto on the same plate. But work it did. The blend of crunch and cream, the burst of sweetness from roast cherry tomatoes, and coarse salty shavings of Parmesan -- it had a whatever's clever quality that tasted of picnics and sun.

The beef salad -- thick strips of medium rare steak -- was warm and pink. The slick balsamic dressing worked a treat here, the beef was tender and flavoursome, and paired with charred whole peppers, roast cherry tomatoes and crunchy poppy seed croutons.

So far, so barbecue-ish, but the killer detail was a layer of halved baby beetroots, sweet and bloody, at the end of the bowl.

The seafood brochette I ordered for my main almost ran aground when it emerged the kitchen was out of prawns.

The waitress was quick to offer redress -- presenting me with the solution rather than the problem: would I have sea bass in place of the prawns? Yes, I would -- always.

The brochettes were loaded with sizzling chunks of fresh peachy salmon, meaty undyed smoked haddock and mild fleshy sea bass.

A spritz of lemon rendered them perfect, good fresh fish requires nothing more, and besides the accompanying aioli was insipid, bordering on pointless.

The Cartoonist's fish and chips was perfectly rendered: a golden cumulous of crisp batter hugging an immaculately fresh fillet of cod. The side of mushy peas was tempered with fresh mint and the tartare sauce, exquisitely sharp.

Our only quibble was with dessert: a summer berry pudding that was scuppered by an ungainly blob of mascarpone.

We agreed that fluffy, fresh whipped cream would have worked better. It was a minor complaint -- forgiveness came in the form of very good coffee.

By now the kitchen had closed, it was just us and the waitress. "No rush," she said, casually adding that she was giving us the early bird deal. It probably cut 20 quid off the bill.

There's a lot to be said for taking your work by the horns. Service is about good judgement -- that's a skill, not subordination. Get your coat, love, I wanted to say. You're hired.

TYPICAL DISH: Steak sandwich

RECOMMENDED: Rare beef salad

ON THE STEREO: Macy Gray

THE DAMAGE: €66.50 for two salads, two mains, one dessert, four glasses of wine and two coffees

AT THE TABLE: Local families

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