Restaurant review: Paolo Tullio at the Cinnamon Garden, Co Meath
There's a theory called the '10,000-hour theory', which I find interesting. The idea is that to become good at anything, you need 10,000 hours of practice.
Now, that's quite a lot of time -- it's 416 and a bit full days. If you practice for four hours a day, seven days a week, then it works out at 2,500 days, or close on seven years. That's how long it takes to be good at something. And when you think about it, it has a kind of intuitive truth about it.
It got me thinking about what I do. I wondered, is there anything that you learn doing restaurant reviews for many years? The answer I came up with is that as the years go by, you get fewer surprises; as experience mounts up, you get a feel almost at once as you look at a restaurant's entrance what's in store for you. Reading the menu nearly always completes the first impressions; after that there are rarely surprises.
Just to be sure, I looked back on the past few months of reviews. The only real surprise was a meal in Ballinskelligs Arts Centre that I wasn't planning to review; the others all matched my expectations.
But just to prove you need an exception to prove a rule, this week I got a surprise, or you could say even a shock.
I'd gone for an early supper with Gerard Carthy of tasteofireland.com to a restaurant in Ashbourne, Co Meath. Gerard had been urging me to go to The Cinnamon Garden for quite a while, so eventually we went together. It's on the main street of Ashbourne, but it's easily missed.
The dining room is on the first floor, which means that all there is at street level is a door. I walked past it twice, thinking it was Paddy Powers bookmakers, since that was the most prominent signage. You wouldn't stumble into it by mistake, that's for sure.
Going by the entrance alone, you could be forgiven for thinking that a trip up the stairs might not be worth it. But you'd be wrong.
When you find the door and go upstairs, you find yourself in a very pretty dining room, subtly lit and twinkling with myriad candles. A look around the walls and it's clear you're in an Indian restaurant, but the theming is understated and quietly elegant.
There was a mixture of tables and booths, and we took a booth, which had brightly coloured, sequinned scatter cushions, giving it a distinctly Bollywood feel.
I was impressed with the way the tables were set and with the cutlery, the crockery and glassware. Immediately, you got the impression that this was a dining room that was aiming to be more than your average Indian restaurant; this one was going for the fine-dining experience.
Even the menu itself had a high-quality binding, the kind you tend to get in French Michelin-starred restaurants. It's the accumulation of small touches like this that takes a dining room into the realms of the special.
The Ã la carte menu is long: two pages of starters, two of main courses, then three more pages listing tandoori dishes, rice dishes, naan breads and a children's menu.
There's also a set-menu page, where you choose from a short menu that starts with a mixed starter plate, then a choice of three chicken and two lamb dishes, then two desserts. They run from €15 to €25. Both Gerard and myself felt that this was a night for seeing what the kitchen had to offer, so we both chose from the Ã la carte.
The order went like this: a cinnamon lamb fry followed by a Goan seafood curry for Gerard, and the prawn zaffrani followed by rogan josh for me.
"Why are you picking a common dish like rogan josh?" Gerard asked me. "Because it gives me a yardstick," I answered. "It's a dish I've eaten countless times, so if it's unusually well done, I'll know"
To be honest, the wine list is a deal less impressive than the menu. Wine isn't the traditional accompaniment to Indian cuisine, but it is possible to choose wines that match the flavours and spices reasonably well.
The Cinnamon Garden wine list would do perfectly well for most restaurants, but it doesn't seem to have been chosen to match the food. It was very fairly priced, but in the end Gerard had just a glass of the house white and I had a Cobra beer.
Before the meal began we got an amuse bouche of a mango kulfi in a shot glass, and it was absolutely delicious. This was quickly followed by a tray of dips and poppadoms. A silver thali with five dips included mango and beetroot and mango and banana produced some extraordinary flavour combinations, which got my tastebuds tingling.
The starters arrived on two of the most beautifully presented plates I've seen in a while and, apart from looking amazing, both our starters -- prawns and strips of cinnamon-fried lamb -- were delicious. This was Indian cooking on a par with what I've eaten in Ananda and Rasam.
The high quality continued with the main courses, the Goan seafood curry subtle and carefully flavoured, and the rogan josh certainly better than any I've tasted before.
We'd also ordered some side dishes -- dhal, naan bread, crispy potato cubes, pulao rice and lemon rice -- all of which were good. The waiters know this menu inside out and are really helpful with advice about which dishes go together.
We finished with a couple of mango sorbets, light and fruity, which ended this excellent meal nicely.
Although you can eat in The Cinnamon Garden on a limited budget, this is a high-end restaurant producing excellent food. I'd advise anyone who tries this place to go Ã la carte and ask for help if you need it. The menu says on the front page "this will blow your tastebuds to paradise". That's not far from the truth.
Our bill came to €108.40.
VALUE FOR MONEY 8/10