These are great days for bargain hunters. Restaurant prices just seem to keep coming down. That's great for consumers, but I can't help feeling that, in the long run, it's not such a great idea. It's as though restaurateurs are in a competition to see who can produce a meal the cheapest. One advertises a three-course lunch for €25, another underbids at €22, then another goes for €19.95.
I'm as quick as anyone to take advantage of these offers, but at the back of my mind I'm thinking that this can't last. Restaurants need to make a profit or they won't stay in business. The phrase 'busy fools' keeps coming to mind. Sure, you can fill a restaurant when you're giving the food away, but if at the end of the month you haven't covered your costs, then you're the classic busy fool. You've been busy, but you've made no money.
A couple of months ago I reviewed the 'Fivers' menu at Odessa. It was a menu of 10 dishes that cost €5 each. They were effectively generous starter portions of dishes that still allowed a modicum of profit. It's been very successful and Odessa remains very busy. These things don't go unnoticed in the trade and others have followed suit. Since then I've reviewed Green 19, where starters are €5 and main courses are €10, and I've been to Buenos Aires Grill, where main courses at lunch time are well below €10. You see what I mean? We must be approaching the point where restaurants become charity soup kitchens.
The newest addition to this list is Tenors, which you can find in Donnybrook, where the Courtyard Restaurant used to be, and in Naas. The name is a pun, I suppose, because its main marketing thrust is that their main courses cost a tenner. Quite what they'll call it when inflation kicks in and the price goes up to €11 or €12 remains to be seen. Elevenses? Dozens?
Anyway, in the interests of research into what exactly you can serve at these prices I went to Naas with my son, Rocco, to find out. Tenors is just after the lights at the end of the main street on the right hand side, on Fairgreen Street. It has a big entrance lobby with a bar, and two tall pillars stand on either side of the entrance to the downstairs dining room, where we took a table. There's an upstairs as well, so Tenors must seat around 100 people. From the downstairs dining room you can look into the kitchen, where you can watch the chefs going about their business.
You might expect a short menu at these prices, but instead there's a long and varied menu. Even the briefest of cursory glances reveals that they've cut no corners to achieve the low price -- on the menu you'll find sirloin steak, king prawns, buffalo mozzarella, real Parmesan and a seafood chowder for only €4. The dinner menu offers 10 starters and 15 main courses, which should be enough choice for anyone. If you're a coeliac, you'll be happy to know that some of the menu is gluten-free, and many dishes can be ordered as a gluten-free variation.
As soon as we sat down, iced water arrived along with good bread, something that always pleases me. It took a while to choose, but eventually we ordered the tomato and buffalo mozzarella salad for Rocco and the mussels marinière for me, then the roast belly of pork for Rocco and nasi goreng for me.
There's a fairly basic wine list, but the mark-up is very low. It's been longer than I can remember when a half carafe of wine could be bought for €8. That's not much more than £5 in old money. A full carafe of house wine here (750ml) is €14.95. It seems that, finally, wine is coming down in price as well as food.
When you find a menu with dishes priced this low, your expectation level is also low. I certainly wasn't expecting much by way of presentation or skill; rather I was expecting competent, but plain dishes. The starters arrived and my expectations were shattered. Rocco's salad tasted good, looked good and was accompanied by some decent mozzarella and some excellent fiery rocket. I got a big bowl of mussels, a small ice-bucket for my shells and a finger bowl. The marinière sauce was very well done and the dish was as good as any I've had, even in Belgium.
Not bad for a total outlay of €10, but the best was yet to come. Rocco's belly of pork was perfectly executed and its colcannon mash was also good. My nasi goreng translates as 'fried rice'. As a restaurant dish it's usually more complex than that. A fried egg is common and so is some kind of meat accompaniment. The last time I ate this dish was in a hawker market in Singapore, and what was placed in front of me here was pretty similar. I had fried egg, fried rice and a skewer of chicken satay.
This was extraordinary value for these four dishes, which were well-made and flavoured, served professionally and in a nicely-furnished dining room with comfortable chairs. That's a combination I've found nowhere else in Ireland.
We decided on a cheese plate to share, which like all the desserts cost just €5. Rather than giving you a few slivers of various cheeses, here you get a decent piece of the day's cheese, in this case Cooleeney, served with crisp bread and a relish. I finished up with a very good espresso, priced at €1.50, or about half of the usual restaurant price. That, plus a couple of large bottles of mineral water, brought the bill to €53.50 without a service charge. Quite remarkable.
Tenors Grill Room, Fairgreen Street, Naas, Co Kildare. Tel: 045-881595
Read Paolo at www.tasteofireland.ie