Paolo Tullio: 2015's must-visit restaurants
If 2015 gives me as much pleasure eating out as I got from 2014, I'll be a happy bunny. I hope the move towards good food at affordable prices continues, that artisan produce continues to find its way on to menus and that once again we take pleasure in the gifts of the sea. Last year didn't throw up any major surprises for me and the general tenor of gradual improvement in our restaurants continued unabated.
There were quite a few new restaurants which I look forward to returning to this year and I love the emphasis on natural, artisan foods which have become increasingly evident on menus.
Probably the most delicious and the most skilful meal of the year was in Amuse, a newly-opened restaurant on Dawson Street. The chef/patron is Conor Dempsey, who was head chef for many years in Dax, one of Dublin's better restaurants. In Amuse he gets to design and cook his own menu, filled with dishes of intriguing flavour combinations and elegant presentation. For me, what sets this restaurant among the best isn't just the exquisite food, it's the fact that chef Dempsey has kept it all affordable. You can splash out and have a seven-course tasting menu for €76, with accompanying wines for €50, but you can also enjoy two courses for €35 - brilliant value for food of this standard, so it's a good one for the month of January.
Making affordable good food is very much on the mind of many chefs as we continue to bump along, waiting for growth and prosperity to return. Another newcomer to Dublin city centre following this philosophy is Saison. It's where Town Bar and Grill used to be, underneath Mitchell's in Kildare Street. The menu is priced affordably and the food is both inventive and cleverly flavoured, so it's one that I want to return to in 2015.
Another trend I noticed is that careful sourcing and novel combinations of flavours are coming to the local restaurants. Etto in Merrion Row may be a city centre restaurant, but it behaves like a local eatery. Unusually, it managed to gain a Michelin bib gourmand after a mere year's trading. That's an award that comes between a listing and a star, and it's one of only 12 in Ireland. Here you'll find great care in sourcing ingredients, simple but effective use of those ingredients and, best of all, affordable prices - another one to put on your 'must visit' list.
The Artisan Parlour, just as its name suggests, aims to showcase the best of Irish artisan produce. There's passion and enthusiasm in spades, making this little eatery a big plus for Ringsend. This kind of passion and enthusiasm goes a long way to making a restaurant succeed.
After visiting Brioche in Ranelagh and Mayfield Eaterie in Terenure, I came away thinking about how far gastronomy has come in Ireland in the past 40 years.
Read more: Eating out: The Artisan Parlour and Grocery
Outside of the city, there's exactly the same kind of improvement. Perhaps the best ethnic meal I ate in 2014 was in Leixlip in Sanjay's Kitchen. The eponymous Sanjay has been heading up the kitchen of some of Dublin's best Indian restaurants for years, places like Rasam and Indie Dhaba.
In Leixlip he gets to design and cook his own menu and, when it comes to affordability, it also hits the mark. You'd find it difficult to discover value like this for such quality cooking.
While we were shooting the new series of The Restaurant in Glasson's beautiful Wineport Lodge, I had a chance to investigate what Athlone has to offer. I was delighted to find Thyme, a restaurant that usually opens only for dinner, but in the run-up to Christmas was also open for lunch. This was a meal that needed no allowances for being outside the capital - it was as good as anything you can find there and it's an ideal place to stop if you are in the midlands or heading west. There's really good food, well presented, well served and priced like all the others I've mentioned - affordably.
One of the most unusual meals I had in 2014 was a visit to The Fishman - a fish shop on Wicklow's South Quay where, once a week on Tuesdays, the owner Alan Hegarty and chef Keith Kenny get together to demonstrate what can be done with fish and seafood - and then you get to eat the result with a few glasses of wine.
One last memorable meal was in Tankardstown House in Meath.
The restaurant there is called the Brabazon Restaurant and it's been created out of an old cow byre in the yard, all stone and wood with open fires and a warm, welcoming feel to it.
More importantly, it's a restaurant that has allowed the chef freedom to explore his own repertoire, so there's an abundance of interesting dishes on the menu. A tasting menu for €65 is a real treat. Happy New Year!