Restaurant review: Paolo Tullio at The Grasshopper Inn, Co Meath
A few years ago, Dylan McGrath introduced hot-stone cooking to Dublin in his restaurant Rustic Stone.
It's been quite a success and it's not hard to see why. The first reason is that this country enjoys its beef, probably because Irish beef is about as good as it gets, and beef works very well on a hot stone.
So the hot-stone system allows restaurateurs to offer a dish that their customers really enjoy -- steaks.
And there's another big plus: you won't get complaints.
When I was a young man, restaurants were fewer on the ground than they are today and their menus were a good deal less varied.
Steak and chips was by far the most common dish on menus and it came in a few varieties -- sirloin, fillet and minute.
If you remember those days, you may even remember the prevailing school of restaurant criticism which went like this: "I asked for my steak medium and I got it well done", or a variant of it.
Restaurants were judged almost solely on their ability to supply you with a steak cooked to your specifications.
The genius in handing your customer a hot stone and a raw steak is that you completely avoid this kind of criticism. If the customer becomes responsible for cooking his own steak, he can hardly complain if it's not done right.
But that's not the only benefit that comes with hot stones. Almost more importantly, it provides an element of theatre.
Look at the most successful restaurants and you'll see that, apart from good food, they always supply a hefty dose of theatricality. It could be through the decor, the service or the food.
That's why dry ice has its place, why flambé dishes were once really popular, why foams are omnipresent and why a good wait person matters to the general tone of the evening.
When we're not eating, we often need a little distraction and that's where that element of theatre comes in. To use a buzz word, eating the hot-stone way is interactive, both with the restaurant and with your dining companions, with whom you can share titbits as they cook.
I've been wondering how long it would take for the hot stones to become common. It hasn't happened yet, but this week I found a new place that offers the hot-stone experience -- The Grasshopper Inn in Clonee.
The Grasshopper Inn is what used to be called a road house, a large pub with ample parking that allowed travellers using the old N3 to pull in for a bite to eat either on their way into Dublin or on their way out of it.
Clonee has been bypassed now by the new and improved M3, so now you have to make a conscious decision to leave the motorway to find Clonee Village and The Grasshopper.
I went there to try out their version of the hot stones with my son Rocco and his partner Ruby Slevin, and we arrived at about 8pm.
You'd know you were in a pub -- there were plenty of tables surrounded by high stools and a few surrounded by chairs, which is where we chose to sit.
The menu was quite extensive, and our waitress pointed out that, being a midweek night, we could avail of an offer -- the 10oz sirloin steak for €15 instead of €20.
We could have eaten from an early-bird menu, but that didn't include any hot-stone dishes and we'd come specifically to try those.
There were a few starters listed on the menu, bar classics such as chicken wings, potato skins and breaded mushrooms. Rocco and Ruby chose spring rolls to share between them and I chose the prawn cocktail.
For our main courses, Rocco chose the fillet steak, Ruby the tiger prawns and I chose the sirloin steak -- all dishes designed for the hot stone. They included a choice of chips, wedges or mash, and for vegetables we could choose either onions, mushrooms or mixed vegetables.
There was also a choice of sauces for the steaks -- pepper, garlic butter or Bearnaise.
Our starters arrived, two spring rolls served on a salad base with a small pot of plum sauce alongside, and a half dozen or so tiger prawns served in a parfait glass on a bed of shredded lettuce.
The spring rolls and the plum sauce were good and Rocco and Ruby ate one each with pleasure.
The prawn cocktail was well done, the prawns firm and fresh, and the Marie Rose sauce had just a hint of spice.
Maybe it's time for this classic to make a comeback.
The hot stones arrived next. Ruby had eight big, fat prawns sizzling on her hot stone, while Rocco had the biggest piece of fillet I've seen in a while. I swear it looked bigger than my 10oz sirloin.
Between us we also had wedges, chips and vegetables, and Ruby had stir-fried noodles.
Hot-stone dishes can really only be judged on the quality of the raw elements and, I can tell you, the fillet was excellent, as were the prawns, while the sirloin was a little less successful, being just a bit hard to chew.
The other element that didn't quite make it was the noodles, which were also a bit chewy.
For drinks, we'd had four glasses of a Chilean Syrah, which were €5.50 each, and we'd had to buy water in small bottles, which meant that two-thirds of a litre cost €5.70.
Why do some pubs insist on selling water only in small bottles? It's an annoying and expensive way of doing it. This brought the bill for the three of us to €93.55.
The service was friendly and efficient, the prices fair and the food pretty good.
Mind you, not everyone thinks you should have to cook when you go out to eat, but it makes for a fun change.
The Grasshopper Inn
Clonee, Co Meath
Tel: 01 8251049
On a budget
The early-bird menu offers you two courses for €15.90, and although there are no hot-stone dishes, you could start with chicken wings or breaded mushrooms and follow that with fish and chips, a burger or the roast joint of the day.
On a blowout
Start with the excellent prawn cocktail at €6.95. The most expensive main dish is the surf ’n’ turf, which gives you an 8oz fillet with tiger prawns for €25.95. Like the other hot-stone dishes, it comes with a selection of sides.