True to its name -Eatzen, Ashbourne Town Centre, Co Meath
Authenticity in cooking is something that I take seriously. Like the Trades Descriptions Act, I believe that things ought to be exactly as they're described. It's the Ronseal school of description that I subscribe to -- whatever it is, it should be true to its description.
When it comes to authenticity in food I expect two things. First, if something is given the name of a classic dish on a menu, then what gets produced should be exactly as described in the repertoire. So if I order sole Veronique, I expect to see grapes on my sole -- not raisins, not oranges, not bananas. If you don't like the ingredients of a classic dish, or you can't get hold of them, then call your dish something else.
The second thing I expect is a little more complex. When it comes to ethnic food I also want authenticity, but I understand that it's not always possible. If you've read this column before, you'll know that I get cranky and curmudgeonly when I'm given Italian dishes that bear little relation to the original.
I've always suspected that exactly the same applies to other major ethnic cuisines, such as Indian and Chinese. Too much authenticity can frighten people if the food is very different to what they're used to. At the end of the meal that I'm about to describe, this suspicion was confirmed to me by Eatzen's owner, Tim Tang, who is Hong Kong Chinese. I asked him simply: "If you cooked food here like your mum used to make in Hong Kong, what would happen?" He smiled wryly and answered: "I wouldn't be able to sell it."
Consumer resistance is the reason why we don't get authentic ethnic foods. Down in Enniscorthy, Paolo Fresilli of Via Veneto plays hard ball. He refuses to put cream in his carbonara or to serve pasta with chicken. If anyone asks for this, he tells them to try another restaurant. Being determinedly authentic means that sometimes you lose business. Not many restaurateurs these days will take that particular high road.
So it's a compromise: you end up with dishes that have an origin in another culture's cuisine, but they get modified to accommodate local tastes. For me, the less modification the dishes are subjected to, the better. Sometimes, all that's necessary is to miss out dishes that are too foreign. You won't find chicken feet on the menu of a Chinese restaurant in Ireland, but in China you'll find them on offer everywhere. Anyway, it's been quite a few years since I last ate in Eatzen and it's been a while since I dined with my daughter, Isabella, so I combined the two and Isabella and I set off for Ashbourne, where you'll find Eatzen. Actually, it's not that easy to find if you don't know where to look, so find the Tesco which is off the main street and Eatzen is on the first floor of a new building next to it. Being on the first floor means you enter a vestibule and take a lift up to the restaurant.
The first thing you notice as you enter the dining room is how beautifully designed it is. It may have morphed from a purely Chinese restaurant into an Asian one, but all the naff stuff you normally find that defines China, in the same way that leprechauns, shamrock and donkeys carrying baskets of peat define Ireland, is missing. The décor is simple, elegant and restrained and the lighting is beautifully designed. Then you'll notice the quality of the tables, the chairs and the table settings, and you'll get a strong impression -- correct, by the way -- that a lot of money has been spent.
The menu is long, six pages in total, and it's divided into soups, starters, seafood dishes, beef dishes, lamb dishes and side orders, all of which makes choosing difficult. What we did in the end was order a lot of dishes, because frankly they all looked good. So, to start, Isabella had salt and chilli squid and I had a daily special, abalone, then we ordered three main courses -- Szechuan beef, Thai-style cuttlefish and a daily special, lobster. Noodles, rice and stir-fried vegetables completed this rather OTT order.
Last time I reviewed Eatzen I was impressed with the food but not the wine list. The list has changed and it's grown in length, so now there's a choice of about 80 wines. I spent a while perusing it and there are some good wines on it. The house wines are €23 and, although there are wines on the list for under €30, the majority of the wines, 50 or so, are from €30 upwards.
I have to say that the food placed before us was extremely good. I particularly liked the spicy noodles, the cuttlefish dish, the salt and chilli squid and the abalone, a Pacific shellfish that was meaty and interesting. But there was one dish that simply shone out over and above the others, the lobster. It's traditional here to kill lobsters by throwing them into boiling water, but I'm now totally converted to the system used by Eatzen. The lobster is killed by breaking its back behind the head and the meat is then removed from the shell and stir-fried, in this case with ginger and lemongrass. I have never had such tender lobster; it was a delight to eat. It's clear to me now that the boiling water method makes the lobster tense up, making the meat dense and often tough. This way it remains tender and you have the opportunity to flavour it as you stir-fry it.
Examining my shirt at the end of these dishes, I vowed that in future I'll only ever use chop sticks if I have a bib. Me and the table around me looked as though I'd been in a vicious food fight. We'd eaten far too much to consider desserts, so while Isabella finished her Tiger beer, I had a couple of espressos. We'd spent quite a bit: the abalone alone was €20, but the amazing lobster was also €20 and they're going to keep it on the menu. We managed to spend €125.60, of which €18.80 was drinks.
Eatzen, Unit 4a, Building 3b, Ashbourne Town Centre, Co Meath. Tel: 01-835 2110
Read Paolo at www.tasteofireland.com