What is the collective noun for a gathering of food writers? Actually, forget that I asked: I can already hear some rather rude suggestions coming from down the back.
In London a couple of weeks back, I met up with Diana Henry - the Northern Irish writer whose most recent cookbook, Simple, topped many 'best of' lists at the end of last year - and Ella Risbridger, who writes a wonderful food blog called Eating With My Fingers, which is so much more than recipes. Her first cookbook will be published next year by Bloomsbury. Ella's food could not be more different from that of her namesake, Ella Mills née Woodward, aka Deliciously Ella, and I mean that in a good way. Ella R also writes a column ostensibly about lipstick but really about her life with her boyfriend, The Tall Man, during his prolonged illness, for online magazine The Pool. Their joint memoir will be published by Picador, also next year. Ella is 24 and her writing is exceptional.
I booked a table at The Clove Club a few weeks ahead, which was just as well because in the interim it was named the best restaurant in the UK by a national newspaper and it may be harder to get into now.
The Clove Club started out as a supper club/pop-up collaboration between Daniel Willis, Johnny Smith and chef Isaac McHale, and moved into its permanent home in the former Shoreditch Town Hall in 2013. In the way of modern 'fayn dayning', the food is ambitious but the surroundings in which it is served are relaxed and contemporary. Bastible, which I reviewed here last week, is an Irish example of a restaurant that also eschews stuffy service, dress codes and tortured formality in favour of an ambience conducive to having a good time. Others that fall into this category include Aniar and Loam in Galway, and Ox in Belfast, all of which hold Michelin stars. Forest Avenue is another.
At The Clove Club, there is a choice of a five- or 10-course tasting menu, and also an à la carte, which is what we go for. We share a few snacks to start. Haggis buns, little filled doughnuts, are playful and light, while a smoked duck kielbasa (a Polish sausage) served warm is complemented exquisitely by a blob of prune mustard.
Buttermilk fried chicken and pine salt is McHale's signature dish: ultra-tender chicken in a crisp crumb presented on a bed of pine. Diana says that the morsels are like "grand chicken nuggets" and she can't detect the pine element, despite the presentation. A little cup of warm chestnut and oyster broth with wild Scottish seaweeds which arrives at the table as an unexpected extra course is delectable.
I mess up on ordering and end up with Musselburgh leeks, Montgomery cheddar and watercress as a starter, which is fine but probably the least interesting option on the menu. (I wish that I'd ordered the Scottish langoustine roasted in bay leaves and brown butter, and my mouth is watering even now just thinking about how good that dish might have been.) Diana's raw Orkney scallop with hazelnut, clementine and winter truffle is not a successful dish, she says, the delicate scallops overwhelmed by the unannounced squid purée. Ella loves her little buckwheat pancakes with suckling pig and devilled spices.
The others both choose slow-cooked Hereford featherblade with salsify, horseradish and parsley by way of main course. Diana describes it as "a plate of soft lusciousness and total comfort", adding that she could have managed a larger portion. My sautéd French rabbit with layered celeriac, smoked bacon and tarragon is a gorgeous dish with (literal) heart, a vibrant vegetable purée (spinach?) and mustard leaves. It's a demonstration of technique and of an elevated understanding of flavour.
A dessert of Yorkshire rhubarb with sheep's milk yoghurt and rose is as pretty as a picture. The rhubarb still has texture and the dish balances creaminess, sourness and rose beautifully, although the dried rhubarb dust on top catches in the throat. British cheeses are in impeccable condition.
As we leave, there is a delivery of two lamb carcasses into the restaurant and these are examined by the chefs on the stainless steel counter at one end of the room in full view of the customers. If you are someone who prefers not to think too much about the connection between the meat on your plate and the animal from which it derives (or, indeed, if you are a vegetarian or vegan), then you have been warned.
Lunch for three, including two bottles of Zweigelt (£33/€38) from the lower end of a wine list that offers plenty in the way of serious temptation; one additional glass of wine; water, and tea, came to £302/€350 including optional service. (Did I mention that I wished I had ordered the langoustine? I'll definitely go back and hope to find it on the menu next time.)
7/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
Persons of restraint could lunch for £27.50/€31 a head if they opted for the leeks, cheddar and watercress dish to start, followed by pot-roast cauliflower with cinnamon, bay leaf and toasted bread sauce.
ON A BLOW-OUT
The 11-course tasting menu is priced at £110/€127, with a 'prestige' wine pairing for £110/€127; £440/€254 for two before service.
THE HIGH POINT
The smoked duck kielbasa with prune mustard.
THE LOW POINT
The Instagram response to Diana Henry's pictures of our lunch was that the portions were small.
A few weeks ago, a colleague e-mailed to suggest a new restaurant that I might visit to review. He explained that he is married to a Greek woman, and that EatGreek was the restaurant that the Greek community in Dublin had spent 15 years waiting for. He went on to describe some of the dishes that he'd tried and urged me to go. It was, he said, the real deal.
A few weeks back, I wrote about a little restaurant in Blackrock Market, Heron & Grey, which had just been awarded a Michelin star. There's nothing very glamorous about the market, and the accolade for Andrew Heron and Damien Grey's establishment has been seen as a sign that the tyre company is starting to shake off the shackles of conformity, and to recognise and acknowledge exceptional food regardless of the premises in which it is served.
Years ago, when I lived in New York, there was a restaurant called La Lunchonette (sic) on Essex Street between Rivington and Stanton on the Lower East Side. The chef was Jean-Francois Fraysse and he was good, bringing a punk sensibility to classic French bistro dishes.
The first people that we see when we arrive at Bastible for Sunday lunch at the civilised time of 3.30pm on a wet and blustery afternoon are James Sheridan and Soizic Humbert with the staff of their terrific restaurant, Canteen in Celbridge, Co Kildare.
Food & Drink
The last time that I ate at Gregan's Castle, the chef was Mickael Viljanen, who has since gone on to win a Michelin star at The Greenhouse in Dublin. That must have been five or six years ago, perhaps longer, and I recall a meal that was exciting, innovative and unlike anything that I had ever eaten in an Irish hotel dining room. We don't expect our hotels to challenge culinary norms, and the majority are happy to go along with our expectations, to be all things to all men and women, to make a decent fist of Sunday lunch, or a wedding lunch, or a conference dinner.
When a restaurant opens after a whole lot of hype, expectations weigh heavy. I'd been hearing about Hang Dai for almost a year before it opened, first from restaurateur, John Farrell (he's the man behind 777, Dilllinger's, The Butcher Grill, Super Miss Sue, and Luna), who has been involved in the concept and interior design (the space is kitted out as a subway carriage), and latterly from co-owners, Will Dempsey and chef Karl Whelan.