Life Food & Drink

Monday 20 November 2017

A decade of dining

In the past 10 years, says Lucinda O'Sullivan, we've seen the arrival, and swift exit, of various UK celebrity chefs, the death of fine dining and obscenely expensive tasting menus, and the rise of gastropubs and street-food fare

Gary Rhodes
Gary Rhodes
Gary Rhodes
Jean-Christophe Novelli
Jean-Christophe Novelli
Gordon Ramsay
Gordon Ramsay
Lucinda O’Sullivan

Lucinda O’Sullivan

The cosmetic-surgery TV programme, 10 Years Younger, springs to mind when I think of the last 10 years of dining in Ireland.

Since 2004, the restaurant industry has been nipped and tucked, weeded and plucked, resulting in a much tighter and keener industry.

Big restaurants were “in” during the boom. Everybody wanted to see, and be seen, in the middle of overpriced, overblown bling and buzz; nobody wanted the honest little bistro and, basically, the food on the plates was not even the point. Diners were dictated to, as to when and for how long they could spend their money in such eateries.

The last decade also saw the Three Musketeers of the UK celebrity kitchen sweep into Dublin in a PR flourish —only to limp out without a whimper, their starry auras and food having failed to impress.

I speak of the Spiky One, the Sexy One and the Shouty One, in the respective forms of Gary Rhodes, Jean-Christophe Novelli and Gordon Ramsay. Gary Rhodes, with his signature high, spiky haircut, opened his massive RhodesD7 in Capel Street mid-2006, only to close it in early 2009.

Also in 2006, Jean-Christophe Novelli was to bring not only his je ne sais quoi sex appeal to La Stampa, but also his creative French food skills. That liaison didn’t last long, either.

I almost laugh when I think of when the Shouty One, the F Wordman, Gordon Ramsay, opened at the then Ritz-Carlton at Powerscourt; the performance on registering and booking was as if the Messiah was coming. However, he didn’t even make the opening night and, following my visit, I wrote “the real F Word—the food — needs an added X Factor.”

Foods and food styles have changed enormously in the decade. Tasting menus were all over the place. It was a case, almost, of pick a number —€120, €130, €140, up to €180 —for 6/7-course tasting menus. The more expensive it was, the better it must be! It was all about saying, “We had the tasting menu in Xyz.”

If you had asked someone in 2004 would they like a hanger steak, they would have looked at you blankly —back then, it was all about T-bones and filet mignons. The rib-eye edged in as a cheaper cut, but it became so popular that prices rose rapidly and a new “cheapie” was needed.

So, now you are seeing the hanger, skirt and bavette (flank) —which are traditional stewing cuts —being bigged up on some steak menus. Personally, I prefer a good-quality burger anytime.

Tapas are everywhere, some very mediocre, and they can tot up, as can tasting plates, which really can be a total rip-off. Even now, ask any normal man in the foodie world if he would prefer a couple of twee tasting plates every Saturday night or rib-eye steak, and I reckon we know the honest answer. Hence, the resurgence of good steak and seafood houses.

We have also fallen in love forever with spices. We have a younger generation of chefs and world-travelled consumers all too eager to enjoy, or provide, the excellent street-food-style eateries springing up. The arrival of modern Nordic food saw chefs and foodies fall on it like Bjorn Again Christians.

Overenthusiastic foragers can drive you cracked and, sometimes, you are faced with what looks like a forest, or Hampton Court maze, on your de rigueur slate or board. Some of these “foodies” never realised that Granny went out to pick the fruits of the forests and fields as a matter of course, whereas the next generation of mothers were so delighted with the idea of convenience supermarket foods that it seems little Johnny or Joan Foodie Forager missed out on the blackberry-picking trips in their childhood.

The same applies to the rise in cake baking. Who would have believed that the 79-year-old Mary Berry would have such a revival in her career that she is almost as ‘sexy’ as Nigella in terms of popularity.

 Formal dining has lost its allure, except, perhaps, to the suits, who kept it going in the first place on plush expense accounts, but now are not willing to pay for it out of their own pockets. This has hit some high-end restaurants. They need to rethink. A Michelin Star can be a weight around the neck, and the Best Restaurant in the World title is heading that way, too —where do you go after you are Number One? Only down the list.

Gastropubs have a lot to offer in terms of restaurant-quality food and craft beers. This idea is now being reversed, one might say, to the formal dining arena, with high-end restaurants around the world combating the ‘fine dining’ problem by loosening up their venues — out with the tablecloths, come as you are in denims and no tie —to experience really cool surroundings and high-end, experimental food.

Yotam Ottolenghi, and his style of Middle Eastern food, is hot. You can expect lots of butternut squash and pomegranate seeds glistening from the plates. Peruvian food is also hot, hot, hot, so, if in London, try Martin Morales’s Ceviche restaurant on Frith Street in Soho.

Halloumi cheese has taken over from mozzarella in being hip, while cavolo nero, or kale to you and me, is your green vegetable du jour. Calamari, sweet chilli sauce and goat’s cheese are still on every menu in the country —the latter updated with beetroot (which has almost run its course). Pulled pork is the new staple chow of the hipster, not to mention quinoa a la the “uncoupling” queen, Gwyneth Paltrow.

There are great “value” menus to be had, and I believe that you are better availing of them at source. Restaurants get very little out of the website-deal arrangements, so you will get what you pay for from those. I do wonder, too, when I see restaurants tweeting about how packed they are, how cool and hip, and celebrity-filled they are. It begs the question as to why they are rolling into my inbox on cut-price-deals’ websites every day of the week.

Restaurant areas are developing big time in Dublin. Parnell Street and Capel Street have become our sort of Chinatown, sans the bling; Camden Street is a quality fast-food corridor; South William Street to George’s Street is the Creative Quarter of ‘hot’ restaurants; Ranelagh is a dining village, while Haddington Road and Upper Leeson Street have become popular niche dining pockets.

There has been a vast improvement in restaurants and food since I started doing this jobmore than 20 years ago. Last December, looking back at the year, out of 50 reviews, in fact only four were mildly critical —that says it all.

There is no doubt that the recession, while very painful, brought out the competitive, innovative spirit in many young chefs, which is admirable, and which has been hugely beneficial also to the punter.

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