I don't believe in bargains. When I see two-for-the-price-of-one deals, I can hear the retailer snicker at my naivete. There's always a ruse. What is benevolently given with one hand, is inevitably snatched back with two.
Discounts, concessions and loyalty cards sweet-talk you into spending more money, when you are trying to spend less. They distract you while their boss rifles through your pockets.
Now meet my nemesis -- The Home Economist. A woman who has styled her life around the principles of thrift and ingenuity. In her hands, a chicken carcass becomes the bones of a feast. Her purse (fashioned from a pig's ear) may be half empty, but her fridge overfloweth. I hang around her house in the hope that some of her domesticity might rub off on me. But all I come away with is a shopping list for Aldi and guidance on what do to with stale bread and the rind of spent lemons.
It was she who turned me on to LivingSocial.com -- an internet shopfront that offers seemingly impossible discounts on everything from bikini waxes to car washes. Obviously the Home Economist does both of these things for herself, so the referral came in the form of an email telling me I could have dinner for two in Il Segreto, from the à la carte menu, with two glasses of wine, for €39. I pored over the small print for a catch, then I printed it and scrutinised it some more, then I made a cup of tea, and read it again. Eventually, I clicked BUY, and walked away with an uneasy feeling that I was being had.
As it turned out, I was one of 1,702 people who purchased the Il Segreto deal, which might explain why I couldn't get a table on a Saturday night. They could, however, indulge me with a reservation on Sunday. I snapped it up and summoned the Home Economist to join me. Because we were first to arrive, we managed to score a well-appointed sunlit two-top and the undivided attention of a waiter, who showed no sign of discriminating against us as discounters.
My theory that we'd be presented with a scaled-back menu was debunked. The deal was genuinely à la carte. The starters were full of rich pickings: avocado, crab, duck, scallops and wild mushrooms. I chose the scallops, briskly seared to perfection. There was a pungent, wild note of garlic in the butter that glistened over the creamy, smooth potato mousseline, while tidy strips of pancetta added texture and salt to the mix. An impressive start, but I didn't get too excited until I checked how the Home Economist was getting along.
Turns out, she was faring even better than me with her duck salad. Pink, succulent slices of breast peeped out from beneath glossy young spinach leaves, accompanied by carefully peeled and poached cubes of almost-ripe pear. According to the menu the dressing was sherry vinaigrette, but to me it had the sweet, cloudy quality of an aged balsamic reduction.
The wine element of the deal amounted to a glass of either Sauvignon Blanc or Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. We had one of each, and liked the soft caramel notes of the Montepulciano best. Some people might be able to stretch one glass of wine over two courses, but not us. We ordered two more, which is presumably where Il Segreto stands to make some money on these deals. On this note, when it came to ordering our main courses, we hummed and hawed over side dishes, and were about to decide we didn't need them, when our waiter suggested chips. We went along with it. They were as moreish as good chips can be, but they were superfluous and inappropriate for what we'd ordered.
That quibble aside, our main courses kept up the pace. Beef fillet medallions were served exactly medium, juicy and bounding with flavour. They came with proper mashed spuds, gorgeously sticky caramelised onions, and deliciously feral-looking field mushrooms. Talk about a feast for a farthing -- this would normally set you back €27.50.
The portion of panfried cod fillet was humble enough, but it was firm and fresh and once again the precision of the cooking shone through.
We skipped dessert and finished up with a couple of well-drawn espressos. Our €39 voucher bought us €76.75 worth of food, but was worth up to €91, depending on how you order. Businesses who use discount websites have complained that subscribers come for the deal and then don't return. Il Segreto needn't worry, we'll certainly be back -- and next time I'll happily pay full whack.
Typical dish: Linguine with Dublin Bay prawns
The damage: €39 Living Social deal - two courses, plus two glasses of wine, for two people
On the stereo: Funk
At the table: Discounteers