I've probably reviewed more chefs with Tom Doorley than with anyone else. On 'The Restaurant' show alone it's close to 70, and then there are the occasional times when we visit restaurants together.
We were together again this week to check out risottos. Increasingly I've been hearing that Anita Thoma, the chef/proprietor of Il Primo, is a dab hand at the dark art of making risottos.
Well, I call it a dark art because making risottos has been often mystified, but the truth is that a risotto needs nothing more than care and undivided attention.
You can't make one and go off and do something else while it cooks. It demands total commitment -- you need to stand over it from the start to the finish.
Il Primo has been around for a while. It was started by a German called Dieter Bergmann, who began a love affair with Italy when he was a wine importer.
His love of Italian wine slowly mutated into a love of Italian food and wine, and Il Primo was the result.
Dieter has been out of Il Primo for a long time now, but its Italian heritage remains, both on the menu and on the wine list.
In many ways, it's more Italian now, since Anita has begun risotto nights using the Italian name risotteria -- being a place where you get risottos -- or, if you want to be Italian, risotti.
Downstairs there are a couple of tables in front of the kitchen designed for quick visits, as they are surrounded by high stools.
We elected to eat upstairs, where the tables are surrounded by chairs with backs to lean against.
I liked the menu. There were a lot of dishes on it that I was happy to try. Some were available as starter or main-course portions, so I decided to do something I don't normally do -- I had three starters.
To give you a flavour of the menu, the starters included monkfish cheeks, pan-fried sirloin strips with rocket and Parmesan, and roast quail.
There were seven pasta dishes and my eye was caught by the tagliatelle with a game ragu, then there were six risottos, which all looked good.
Main courses listed baked sea bream, spatchcocked chicken and dry-aged sirloin steak.
As you can see, there was plenty to choose from.
Our final order was a pizzetta (a small pizza) for Tom, followed by pot-roasted pork and cider risotto, while, rather greedily, I ordered the monkfish cheeks to start, then a starter portion of the smoked haddock risotto and finally another starter, the fried sirloin strips.
The wine list has a fine selection, all Italian. It's fairly priced with plenty to choose from in the €20- €30 bracket, for example the excellent Pieropan Soave at €29, and for the cash rich some wonderful super-Tuscans such as Rampolla's Sammarco and Antinori's Solaia.
I let Tom pick wines for us and he chose a glass of Roero Arneis white for himself and suggested a sherry for me.
I liked that idea and chose a palo cortado, a variation of a fino. I swear it took me a while to notice it had arrived. It came in a seriously tiny glass, the sort of size that eye baths used to be.
At €8 a glass, you'd make a fortune from selling a bottle in such minute measures. A single gulp finished it, so I joined Tom and had a glass of the Arneis.
I enjoyed my first course of monkfish cheeks, which were crumbed and fried, but what really pleased me was the quality of the dressing on the accompanying salad -- truly excellent.
Tom enjoyed his little pizza, which was topped with goat's cheese and came with toasted walnuts and a red-onion jam.
The next two dishes to arrive at the table were our two risottos, a full-size one for Tom and starter portion for me.
It turns out to be true what I'd heard: if you want to taste a risotto made as it should be, you'll need to go to Il Primo.
Both my risotto and Tom's, which I tasted, were cooked to a creamy perfection. The wrong, but fairly prevalent, idea that a risotto should be 'al dente' doesn't hold sway here, where the rice is properly cooked.
Had I been a greedy person, it would have been very easy to eat a lot more of either of these two dishes.
My last starter arrived, the strips of sirloin, but the truth is I shouldn't have ordered it as what I'd eaten had filled me well.
Just like my first dish, the strips of sirloin were tasty, but the real star for me was the excellent dressing on the accompanying salad.
We decided to share a dessert, the polenta and ricotta almond cake. Tom ordered a glass of Vin Santo to go with it, a traditional accompaniment.
The cake was good, but Tom had the same sense of disappointment that I'd had when his Vin Santo arrived in one of those tiny little glasses. I'd love to see a Tuscan's face if his beloved Vin Santo arrived in a glass that size.
We finished up with two well-made espressos that came with a good-sized head of crema. I did the sugar test and it performed perfectly, supporting the sugar for a while before it sunk into the underlying coffee.
Sadly, when the coffee reached my palate my pleasure evaporated. It was a bitter, sharp roast that even a spoonful of sugar couldn't disguise. Such a pity, it could so easily have been excellent with a better-quality coffee.
The bill for our meal came to €111, of which €43 was wine, leaving just under €70 for six courses -- very good value.
Street, Dublin 2
Tel: 01-478 3373
On a budget
The pre-theatre menu offers two courses for €23 or three courses for €26, but you can eat for less at lunchtime, where the lunch menu offers two courses for €16 and three courses for €19. The new ‘risotteria’ menu is available for lunch and dinner.
On a blowout
Only three dishes on the dinner menu cost more than €20, so a major blowout on the menu isn’t possible. I’d suggest a blowout on the wine list, which has some very good wines and is fairly priced.