Food: Winning wining and dining
Paolo Tullio reveals his highlights from the past year
GOLDEN PAOLO AWARDS 2013
53 Dominick Street, Galway.
091 535 947
Town Hall restaurant
Old Ground Hotel, Ennis.
065 689 2333
The Vintage Kitchen
7 Poolbeg Street, Dublin
(01) 679 8705
Looking back over 2013, I'm inclined to think that the worst of our recession is over. A couple of years ago, restaurants were closing at the rate of one a day, but thankfully that level of attrition seems to be over.
There's now a sense of stability, if not optimism, and there have been plenty of restaurant openings during the year. That surely is a sign that things are on the mend.
Another thing that seems to have stabilised is prices. All around the country there are set menus that offer the customer three courses for €24.
When you consider that only a few years ago that was the price of a main course alone, you can see just how far prices have fallen. But this bargain-basement price of a meal comes with a problem, and it's this.
At €24 for three courses, no restaurant can make money. So the money has to be made elsewhere, and that elsewhere is on the wine list.
It's getting ever harder to find wines in restaurants that are under €30, and even those wines that are under €30 are only just under.
The traditional way of pricing wine was to double the wholesale price, but these days three and even four times the wholesale price is becoming the norm.
So we've managed to arrive at a point where a restaurant makes almost no money on the price of a meal that takes a brigade of chefs much of a day to create, but makes big money on the simple task of opening a bottle. The proverbial visitor from outer space would find that a very odd way to arrange things.
Another trend has been the steady increase in tapas bars. It seems that this way of eating -- ordering many small dishes that are shared -- is one that suits our changing lifestyles. The trend towards tapas hasn't just been with Spanish dishes, but also with other cuisines.
But there's a bigger change in the offing, one that you can see happening in the area of Dublin that includes George's Street, South William Street, Clarendon Street, Drury Street and Fade Street. The most recently opened restaurants, and the ones regularly filled with Dublin's bright young things, have managed to combine being a restaurant with being a cocktail bar. Examples of this can be found in the Damson Diner, 777 and Fade Street Social.
The key to the success of this combination is that both halves must be good. The food offering has to be as good as the cocktail bar has to be smart.
What this allows is immense flexibility; it caters for those who want no more than an after-work drink as easily as it caters for those who want a three-course meal or those who want just one course and a glass of wine.
Put another way, it allows customers to spend from €5 to €50 or more. It also makes for another change in behaviour.
The once ubiquitous habit of first going to a pub for a drink and then on to a restaurant can now be replaced with a single visit.
After years of complaining about soi-disant Italian restaurants, I had some really good Italian meals in 2013, so perhaps my years of waiting for real Italian cookery to come to Dublin are coming to an end.
That's Amore, in Monkstown, is a charming little place that's like a real Italian trattoria, with simple, but well-prepared food.
Pacino's, in Suffolk Street, has now got a chef I admire, Luca Mazza, and you can enjoy his skillful cooking of Italian classic dishes.
I ate well in Bellagio, in Terenure, where a new and innovative menu has been introduced. And I had yet another fine Italian meal in La Forchetta, which can be found in the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Blanchardstown.
Thinking about it now, these meals were in many ways better than my review meal in Rome, where I ate in the well-known Felice a Testaccio.
There are still things that irk -- water available only in quarter-bottles, over-priced wine lists and sugar lumps with an espresso -- but on the whole, the quality of the cooking in Irish restaurants is continually improving, a fact that's mirrored by an increasing number of Michelin stars.
And so, to the 2013 awards.
For the first time in years, the majority of my most memorable meals were outside of Dublin. Perhaps that too is pointing to another change -- you can find good food now all over the island.
I really enjoyed my meals in Preston House in Abbeyleix; I was impressed not only by the food, but also by the fine old building.
Brasserie 15 in Carlow was quite a surprise, a really bright and buzzing eaterie with an equally vibrant pub alongside, creating what seemed to be Carlow town's hottest spot.
In Drogheda, the Eastern Seaboard made a fine impression, with interesting interior design, good service and excellent food.
The Kitchen in Gorey served another excellent meal. I did complain about the soggy white chips, but now I hear they're doing triple fried chips, as crispy as you can get them.
Of all the meals outside of Dublin, two stood out -- at the Town Hall in Ennis and Aniar in Galway. They were very different meals, but both were memorable.
I liked the seeming simplicity of Aniar; it's the kind of simplicity that looks easy but, trust me, isn't. Very skillful cooking and very careful sourcing makes a meal in Aniar a rare treat.
No wonder it won a Michelin star. So to Aniar I award the first Golden Paolo, for the Best Restaurant of 2013.
To the Town Hall, I award the second Golden Paolo, for excellent value. Our meal there was well above the ordinary, but priced the same as lesser restaurants.
We'll go back to Dublin for my third and last Golden Paolo, the award for Best Newcomer.
I spent no time thinking about this one, as there was such a clear winner.
This award goes to the Vintage Kitchen in Poolbeg Street. It serves superb food, and it's a BYO in two ways -- you can bring your own wine, and you can bring your own vinyl records (preferably 60s, 70s and 80s) which you can play on the turntable.
Of all the tapas bars, I have to single out Las Tapas de Lola in Wexford Street, which took me right back to my youth in Barcelona. Authentic and very good.
As I said at the start, not all tapas are Spanish.
The best ethnic meal of the year was undoubtedly in Indie Dhaba in Anne's Lane, which can best be described as Indian cuisine served as tapas.
Finally, I have to mention probably the best lamb dish I've ever eaten, which was in Darwins of Aungier Street.
Darwins has won awards for its meats, and now that I've eaten the most succulent rack of lamb ever, I can see why.
I leave 2013 a happy diner with plenty of good meals under my belt.
For 2014 I'm hoping to get no sugar lumps, better-value wine and no quarter-bottles of water.