Paolo Tullio: Think inside The Box
A few weeks ago, I chaired a meeting of food professionals and food journalists in Eamonn O'Reilly's One Pico restaurant. We were there to discuss the findings of a multi-nation research project organised by Unilever's Food Solutions, which asked consumers what they wanted from restaurants.
What emerged was that consumers in all the surveyed countries wanted more information about the nutritional qualities of the food in restaurants.
Over the past five years or so, there has been a movement in restaurant menus towards providing information about the provenance of the food on offer. Suppliers are listed, vegetable growers are listed, the meats are traceable, the fish sustainably sourced. It's not a big step from here to providing information about the nutritional qualities of the food.
This is not just a theoretical exercise. The EU is already drafting legislation that will require restaurants to provide that information. From what we heard, it seems that the new legislation will require very detailed information, right down to the calorie count for each dish.
If this future comes to pass, you may end up looking at 50-page menus in years to come. Unless, of course, restaurants find a common strategy to give information to customers before the EU brings in legislation.
In a small way, it has already started -- Dylan McGrath's menu in his Rustic Stone and the menu of Bay in Clontarf already supply a great deal of nutritional information on their menus.
There's no doubt that this information is really useful to people with food allergies and unusual dietary requirements. They don't have to call attention to themselves if the information they need is already on the menu.
But, for other people, this does raise the question of what we want from restaurants. Do we go to them for a healthy meal, or is that a secondary consideration? If we only go occasionally to restaurants, then is it crucial that we know the calorie count of each dish? An occasional blowout won't affect us if our daily diet is healthy.
Over the course of a new-style menu, one where the dishes all had a calorie count beside them and a menu that didn't allow you more than a 1,000 calories no matter what you chose, I learned from Eamonn that he will shortly be introducing a menu that gives a lot of nutritional information, and also that he'd opened a restaurant in Stepaside called The Box Tree.
Eamonn has had a long and successful career catering in Dublin, from his flagship One Pico to his Bleu Bistro Moderne in Dawson Street and the now-closed but critically acclaimed Pacific in Temple Bar. A new venture by Eamonn was surely to be added to my reviewing list.
I went there with Lisa McMullan, who used to be head chef in my restaurant many years ago. She lived near Stepaside in her youth, so we were going to her old stamping grounds. The Box Tree is in a new building, a remnant of the Tiger Years, and there's a bar and a restaurant with separate entrances. The menus are slightly different in each, but all the food comes from the same kitchen.
The interior is well laid out and the colour scheme is the same as in One Pico, a kind of soothing greeny-grey. There's a sense of space as the tables are further apart than they might be in city-centre bistros and the lighting is gentle and unobtrusive.
We took a table where I had a view into the kitchen, where four young chefs were hard at work, servicing both the restaurant dining room and the bar.
We looked at the menus and Lisa said, "I suppose you'll be ordering the ham hock terrine and the wild mushroom risotto". Am I really so predictable? That's exactly what I intended to order. She, on the other hand, decided to start with the Castletownbere crab salad and followed that with the fillet of beef.
There is a decent wine list and many of the wines are available as bottles, half-litres and quarter-litres. These days, as we all have to be aware of drinking and driving, having a reasonable selection of wines in quantities less than a bottle makes a lot of sense. I picked a half-litre of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, which was listed at €17, and we ordered a large bottle of sparkling water at €4.
When the starters arrived, it was clear that The Box Tree is aiming high. The presentation of both my ham hock terrine and Lisa's crab salad was of the kind you find in more expensive restaurants. Not only the presentation on the plate, but the crockery itself was above average in looks. Although the interior might make you think simple bistro, the quality of the food on the plate was saying 'restaurant', as indeed were the prices, which are comparable to city-centre prices.
I enjoyed both the starters. The ham hock had been set and pressed into a mould with a cabbage-leaf lining and tasted very good, while Lisa's crab salad arrived in a tian that was creamy and had plenty of crab taste to it. It came with a curried crème fraîche, which accompanied it very nicely.
Service was quick and efficient, and we both felt that we were in the hands of professionals who knew their job.
The main courses were just as successful: Lisa's fillet steak was perfectly tender and my mushroom risotto was very good, the rice creamy and the mushroom taste was heightened with a splash of truffle oil. A poached egg, crumbed and deep-fried, topped the risotto, which was accompanied with buttered leaf spinach.
We chose a dessert to share, the plate of mixed ice creams and sorbets. They were all good, but the sorbets were exceptionally good, especially the mango sorbet. The five scoops were served on a slate rather than a plate, a touch that seemed somehow a little outdated. Two good espressos finished the meal, which brought a bill of €91.85.