Paolo Tullio: The winners are...
Looking back over 2010, it's tempting to wallow in pessimism. After all, this was the year when a restaurant a day closed its doors. Actually, bad as that figure is, it's not as bad as 2009's figure, so embedded in that bleak statistic is some cause for hope. And that's not the only optimistic way of seeing things: this has also been the year when new and successful restaurants have opened.
A trend that started in a big way in 2009 was the introduction of value menus, which you'll find under a variety of names, such as a set menu, an early bird or a tourist menu, many of them running all nights except weekends. These are designed to offer diners an opportunity to eat at very competitive prices, so they're not menus that list fillet steak or langoustines.
If you're careful in your choice, you can find good, well-prepared food all over the country at prices that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
But this race by restaurants to offer the cheapest menu on the block does skew things more than a little. It has taken the price loading from the food and placed it on the drinks.
Restaurants need to make money to stay in business, so they need to make a profit somewhere. The problem is this: you can now pay so little for a meal that there's almost no profit in it at all for the restaurant, but you'll pay handsomely for a bottle of wine.
This is a crazy state of affairs. A meal that takes a brigade of chefs hours to prepare carries almost no profit, yet the 30 seconds it takes to uncork a bottle of wine makes a big profit. It would be hard to think of a more peculiar way of pricing a meal, yet this is increasingly becoming the norm.
Wouldn't it make more sense to charge more for the food and less for the wine? The final bill would be the same, but the chefs' hard work would be recognised in the price. Still, we're on this road now and I doubt that anything will change.
So to last year's dining. Despite the fiscal difficulties of falling numbers, smaller margins and increased costs such as insurance and rates, restaurants are still managing to keep standards up.
This year, I ate in four restaurants that have been in business for a long time -- Paul Flynn's The Tannery in Dungarvan, Bistro One in Foxrock, Ballymaloe House in Shanagarry and Thornton's in Dublin -- and also in a lot of restaurants that have been around for a few years, and a few newly opened restaurants.
The big names in the chef world were back with new ventures: Dylan McGrath in his Rustic Stone; Conrad Gallagher in Le Salon des Saveurs, and Kevin Arundel in his Chop House in Shelbourne Road. Although different in many ways, these three restaurants did have one thing in common, and that was a high standard of cookery combined with moderate prices.
And if there was a trend that marked a theme in 2010, that was it: good food, carefully sourced and well prepared, served at prices just about anyone could afford.
This same theme turned up in a variety of other restaurants, where chefs with less well-known names but with equal talents have made their mark; good chefs who had made their names in some of the better kitchens have started out afresh chasing the bistro market.
Padraic Hayden's Camden Kitchen is a good example. Padraic has a long CV listing most of Ireland's great restaurants where he worked, but now he's using his expertise to cook simpler dishes.
Thomas Haughton, the chef behind Harvey Nichol's Dundrum restaurant, was cooking simple and inexpensive dishes in Pinots; Troy McGuire, who had been cheffing in Locks, is now in Coppinger Row, and a young front-of-house and kitchen team from Bentley's have set up in Capel Street as Wolfes.
That's definitely a trend, a kind of down-trading, where chefs who honed their skills in high-end kitchens are now cooking simpler, plainer dishes that can be sold at much lower prices.
It makes sense -- that's what the market is looking for right now.
When it came to ethnic cooking, I had some good meals this year.
I found excellent Asian food in Fuchsia House in Ardee, Co Louth, and in Lemon Tree in Blessington, plus good Italian food in Via Veneto 2 in Gorey, Wexford, in Woods of Roundwood, and in Ristorante Morsiani in Wicklow Town.
I had decent pizzas in Oliveto in Dun Laoghaire and in Base in Terenure, good sushi in Michie Sushi of Ranelagh and some good Spanish tapas in Bar Pintxo in Temple Bar.
- Best pub grub goes to The Fatted Calf in Glasson, Co Westmeath. Newly opened by chef Feargal O'Donnell, ex of The Wineport Lodge, this restaurant is in The Village Inn.
- Best value for money goes to the three-course dinner in Le Salon des Saveurs. There are several menu options in Conrad Gallagher's new restaurant, but the dinner I ate for €24 was exceptional.
- Best hotel meal goes to Mash in the Osprey Hotel, Kildare. Quite why it took me so long to discover this culinary jewel I can't say, but the food is very good indeed.
- Best menu initiative goes to The Healthy Habits Café in Wicklow Town. Not only is the menu here vegetarian, but it's raw as well. It's amazing what this community-run café manages to do with such a limited palette.
- Best seafood restaurant goes to Deep in Howth, but I ate a perfect lobster in Ouzos of Blackrock.
- Best gastropub goes to Dublin's Exchequer. Another new venture of 2010, this one hit the ground running and has been widely praised.
I had no bad meals in the course of 2010, at least not in Ireland. I did get a bad pizza in Naples, which was unexpected to put it mildly.
It seems that we've arrived at a point where the bad restaurants have gone. The standard of service is far higher than it used to be, and, in many cases, the cost of dining out was much the same in 2010 as it was in 2005, and you can't say that about many commercial enterprises.
It's probable that there will still be closures, but I really believe we have weathered the worst of it. What I do expect to find a lot more restaurants sourcing their raw ingredients locally, or even growing their own vegetables. It's gets us back to eating foods in season and sourcing food that has food yards, rather than food miles.
My guess is that 2011 may bring us back to old-fashioned food and cooking styles, with the emphasis firmly on three epithets: local, seasonal and fresh.