Tuesday 15 October 2019

Lucinda O'Sullivan: 'Merciless Michelin can crush hopes and dreams to stardust'

Michelin got their thrills by stripping nine Irish restaurants of awards, writes restaurant critic Lucinda O'Sullivan

BIG SUCCESS: The Greenhouse chef Mickael Viljanen — pictured here with Sarah Morrissey launching an Irish International Fashion and Food Summit — was awarded two stars
BIG SUCCESS: The Greenhouse chef Mickael Viljanen — pictured here with Sarah Morrissey launching an Irish International Fashion and Food Summit — was awarded two stars

Lucinda O'Sullivan

It took me all of two minutes to decide I wasn't going to waste time and money in accepting Michelin's invitation to the unveiling of their 2020 Stars for Great Britain & Ireland.

It seemed a long way to go for a 'drink before and a cocktail after' when they were live-streaming the awards on Facebook anyway, and I certainly wasn't going to be photographed in all my glory beside the giant white rubber 'Michelin Man' at a dreary west London convention centre just so I could scream "here I am" on Twitter.

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Having watched last year's remarkably tedious ceremony, I wasn't surprised by 40 minutes of farcically laboured speeches or the excruciatingly painful interviews with each chef - with the microphone nearly stuffed down their throats.

I wanted to shout, give them the bloody awards and get on with it - the only excitement being caused by Mickael Viljanen, as he went up to collect his long-awaited two-star award for The Greenhouse. In his enthusiasm, he scooped up Raymond Blanc in a bear hug and the two of them went crashing to the floor. He blamed a late night with Richard Corrigan.

We've largely been ignored by Michelin in the past, but, with the rise of the World's 50 Best (who also ignore us - I know, I was a judge for three years) snapping at their heels on the international scene, Michelin seem to be making a concerted effort to push their brand overseas - lucky us, I suppose! They already use other people's photos for their marketing, but now they've announced a competition for the winning chefs to submit their photos for use by Michelin and maybe win a gold plaque, which didn't elicit much response from the audience. Smile everybody!

It seems that every young chef dreams of having Michelin recognition, but once received it's a weight around their necks because they live in terror of losing it. There's a constant invisible Blithe Spirit-like Elvira figure looking over their shoulders, watching to see if they break any of its finicky rules or commit any Michelin sins. It's almost like being indentured to the guilds of the Middle Ages, doffing caps to the vagaries of the master, and quaking each year as the new set of awards are announced. Will they lose their star or bib if their tuile is too thick or they use cheddar in their souffle, as was alleged in the case of French celebrity chef Marc Veyrat, who was stripped of his third star and reduced to a mere two. Saying he has been "dishonoured", he's currently suing them, but hey, it's more publicity for Michelin.

They're merciless when it comes to stripping chefs of their accolades. As we know, Kevin Thornton was stripped of his star when he was at the top of his game. But who cares? It caused controversy.

Michelin got their thrills this year by stripping nine Irish restaurants, who must've dirtied their Bib Gourmands in their eyes. They never explain, but the criteria is "good value, good quality cooking" - generally taken as two courses plus glass of wine or dessert for under €40.

The nine who were de-bibbed included Barry Fitzgerald's Bastible, which turned the run-down Leonard's Corner in Dublin 8 into a cool address; Delahunt on Camden Street, where we didn't hear any complaints from Prince Harry and Meghan when they visited just after their wedding. Etto on Merrion Row, the darling of the media crowd that can apparently do no wrong (their new little sibling Uno Mas got a new Bib - give one, take one back?); The Restaurant's Stephen McAllister's longstanding Pig's Ear on Nassau Street - he's just opened Spitalfield's in the Coombe - my review is coming up; Philip Yeung's Craft, which shines like a beacon in the otherwise barren Harold's Cross; and the chic Forest & Marcy on D4's Upper Leeson Street, a sibling of John and Sandy Wyer's Forest Avenue, which had Ciaran Sweeney at the stove until very recently.

Fontanta in Co Down also got the chop, as did The Copper Hen, which moved from Fenor to Tramore, and Bar and Grill at James Street South in Belfast. These are small, popular family-run businesses, that work hard to deliver a great experience to their customers, and have been embarrassed and had their hearts broken. Some are so good, in fact, that there was speculation online that maybe they were being elevated to a one-star level.

These deletions seemed to overshadow the five new Bib Gourmands awarded to Circa in Terenure and Uno Mas on Aungier Street - the sibling of the 'stripped' Etto; Julian and Katia Wyatt's new Land to Sea in Dingle - I landed on their doorstep just as they were hearing the news; John and Tara Coffey's Thyme in Athlone, and Balloo House in Co Down which now has Danni Barry waving the pots and pans.

Last year, there was great excitement when three restaurants in Co Cork were awarded stars - Mews in Baltimore, Chestnut in Ballydehob, and Ichigo Ichie in Cork. It's said that one star increases business by 20pc, and two stars by 40pc, but, after the first burst of excitement with people dashing off to try them, does it all die down?

All three retained their stars for 2020. Mews in Baltimore, owned by Rob Collender and James Ellis, closed for the season at the end of August, with no information yet on when they will be re-opening. Head chef Ahmet Dede told me: "Mews closed for its end of season and no further decision has been taken at the moment."

Rob Krawczyk's delightful little 18-seater Chestnut opens for 10 months per year, and its website says October dates are currently open for bookings, while November-January bookings open tomorrow from 10am.

According to Takashi Miyazaki's 25-seater Ichigo Ichie's booking portal, they seem to have tables available on most nights up to Christmas, serving a traditional Japanese Kaiseki 12-course tasting menu, which was €95 when I reviewed it in May last year, but is now €120/€135 depending on whether you are at a table or at the kappou counter observing the chef.

As to this year's new stars, a fourth was awarded in the Rebel County, this time to Scottish chef Paul McDonald and his wife Helen's Bastion in my second hometown of Kinsale - undoubtedly the gourmet capital of Ireland! Bastion already does well, as do other restaurants in town, with a lot of high-spend visitors from the Old Head Golf Club, corporate business from Cork, and local pharmaceutical businesses such as Lilly, but this award has delighted Kinsale, and is the cherry on top of a food-driven town which has its 43rd Gourmet Festival this weekend with visitors from the USA, Canada and the UK.

The new Aimsir at Cliff at Lyons, run by English chef Jordan Bailey and his wife Majken Bech Bailey, who deliver a 15-course tasting menu at €115 in what seems like a theatrical performance of Marcel Marceau's mime artists moving silently in sequence and harmony, tweezers in hand, each player intent on his own part, as Bailey conducts proceedings, was, as I said in my review back in May, clearly aiming for multiple stars. Two stars were being mooted, and they pulled it off.

In Co Limerick, or maybe Barbados, JP McManus will no doubt be smiling benevolently over his cornflakes this morning as his chef Mike Tweedie achieved one star for the luxurious Oak Room at Adare Manor, where they serve a 3-course menu at €90, or a tasting menu at €110, while Jurica Gojevic also got a special sommelier award.

Damien Grey's Liath in Blackrock rightly gained back the one-star accreditation it had when it was previously Heron & Grey. Liath is one of the finest restaurants in the country, a sleek dark-honed little 22-seater jewel, serving an 8-course tasting menu now at €96, and a 5-course lunch menu on Saturdays at €64. Grey creates a great energy and vibe, it's always fun as well as sublime food. I would be mooting two stars for it.

In Belfast, the very popular Muddlers Club got one star. But, the big surprise for me was Variety Jones on Thomas Street, in Dublin's Liberties, where Keelan Higgs skilfully cooks delicious food over fire, and certainly breaks the traditional Michelin mould. I hope he doesn't change his format. It's a smashing spot and this will blaze the way for more good restaurants to follow his lead in opening in the area.

Nobody lost a star this year - but I guess enough damage was done with the bibs.

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