Paolo Tullio: Star performance
The Fitzwilliam Hotel, St Stephen's Green, Dublin 2
Tel: 01-478 7008
Here's the question that's been on my mind this week: what do we mean by 'expensive'? Clearly it's not based only on cost. I mean, a car for €3,000 wouldn't be expensive, but a handbag at the same price would be.
We usually relate our expenditure to the perceived value of what we buy, but when it comes to eating in restaurants we have a skewed view of value, because we don't expect to pay much for the best.
With anything that we buy there's a range of prices. You can buy a pair of jeans in TK Maxx for €20, or you can buy a pair in BTs for €300. There's a spread from the cheapest to the most expensive that could be 10 or 20 times the cost of the cheapest.
But there's one area where that range doesn't apply and that's restaurants. Yes, we expect the best to cost more, but not much more.
And that's odd, because the amount of sheer effort and skill that goes into making the best really ought to be rewarded properly. I've been thinking about this, because this week I went with Marian Kenny to Kevin Thornton's restaurant on Stephen's Green. Kevin has the unique accolade that he is the only Irish chef to be awarded two Michelin stars, and that at a time when Michelin stars were few and far between in Ireland.
Kevin's restaurant is in The Fitzwilliam Hotel and you can get to it either from the hotel lobby or from its own entrance and up the stairs. As you come into the restaurant there's the main dining area to your right, which looks out over the Green and the Luas station, and on your left is a bar counter and another, smaller, more intimate dining area.
We took a table by the window in the main dining room, which has seen some changes since I last visited. A new ceiling creates a more intimate space, and the tables are spaced enough for privacy, but not for isolation. The whole effect is one of quiet elegance and calm.
There are a couple of menus to choose from: the set dinner of three courses at €75, or the tasting menus of five or eight courses, which cost €95 and €125 respectively. When you eat in a restaurant like Thornton's the obvious choice is always the tasting menu, which gives the chefs a chance to show off, so Marian and I decided on the five-course tasting menu, giving the chefs a free hand in choosing the courses, with the proviso that Marian got no shellfish.
I spent a bit of time looking through the enormous wine list, page after page of wonderful wines. You won't find any on this list under €30, but the quality is there. For example, a Grand Cru Riesling from Sipp Mack is €72, which is actually good value for a wine of that quality. If you were there with a large party then the Jeroboam of Billecart Salmon Champagne -- that's the equivalent of eight bottles -- works out at €70 a bottle. This was an academic exercise for me since neither of us were drinking; instead we had a variety of fruit and vegetable drinks with each course of our tasting menu.
I could go on at length and describe each tasty element of each dish, but instead I'll tell you about one course in detail, because it'll give you an idea of the sort of gastronomic brilliance you'll find in Thornton's.
It was our third course and it was mi-cuit foie gras rolled in truffle powder. Those are two of my favourite foods, so getting them together was a real treat. Alongside the plate was a tiny bone spoon, the kind you might use for mustard, and on the very tip of it was a tiny quantity of white powder.
Before you say "Peruvian marching powder", it wasn't. Our waiter told us that the chef's suggestion was to eat this first before starting on the foie gras. Together we lifted the tiny spoon to our mouths and then the explosion began. It was the most intense and prolonged taste of truffle -- it was truffle essence, the very quintessence of truffleness, and it was just wonderful.
Later, at the end of the night, I was talking to Kevin and I asked him what kind of alchemy had reduced truffles to a tiny amount of white powder. Turned out it had something to do with dehydration and the process takes several months, but that's about as much as I remember. It was without doubt the most extraordinary thing I've put in my mouth for a long time.
Another perfectly delicious course was Toby beef. Toby was a bullock reared by Kevin, fed on Guinness mash, massaged twice a day and played soothing music, much as the Japanese make Kobi beef. You get the reference? It says a lot about Kevin's approach to cooking: he's prepared to go right to the source to ensure that he gets only the very finest of ingredients.
Apart from faultless service, a meal like this is the very pinnacle of gastronomy. Not only are the ingredients carefully sourced, they're also prepared with immense skill. It may not be the sort of dining experience that you'd want every week, but for a special occasion, for a treat, it's something that anyone with an interest in food should try at least once.
It demonstrates the huge gulf between the ordinary, the pedestrian, the run of the mill and the highest levels that culinary art is able to achieve. And I use the word 'art' precisely; at this level of gastronomy it is an art form.
And I really have to mention the sea urchin course: it came on a ice bucket filled with dry ice so it was pouring carbon dioxide smoke in a most dramatic way, while on the table a box decorated with shells and sea greenery concealed a speaker that emitted the sound of waves on a sea shore. Now that's theatre.
Our bill of €225 was perhaps twice what I'd normally spend, but this was more than twice as good as what I'd normally eat. So, on that basis, I'd say it was good value as well as being exceptionally skilful.
Value for money: 9/10