Review - The Hungry Monk: 'To my mind, it's a restaurant that exists in a parallel universe'
The Hungry Monk, Church Road, Greystones, Co Wicklow (01) 2875759
Twenty years ago this week, the late Paolo Tullio reviewed The Hungry Monk in Greystones for the very first Weekend magazine and my editor had the bright idea that I should return for this anniversary edition.
Paolo liked the fact that he could drive down to Greystones from his home in Annamoe and park outside the door; we arrive by Dart - the restaurant is on the main street, a couple of minutes' walk from the station.
I suppose when a restaurant is called The Hungry Monk and committed to a monk-themed style of interior decoration scheme at the outset, it must be difficult to come up with a new look. And so the monk-themed artwork, the monk-themed geegaws, the monk-themed table mats and the monk-themed everything else - down to the monk-themed loos, with their 'convent' and 'monastery' door plates and piped Gregorian chant on a loop - remain.
Twenty years ago, Paolo said that the place reminded him of a Berni Inn. Younger readers may not know what a Berni Inn even was (the chain was sold to Whitbread in the mid-1990s; the one on Dublin's Nassau Street is now The Porterhouse) but inside they were all dark wood, red fabric and a general air of 'ye olde'.
Our table is in a dining room to the right of the main entrance and we have to squeeze through the gaps between the tightly packed tables to get to it. No one offers to take our coats, so we put them on a spare chair that's been pushed up against a wall. There's an overfamiliarity to the welcome and the piped music is gratingly awful. (At the end of our meal, my companion Rebecca says that she feels that she's been stuck in a lift for three hours, listening to the same tunes over and over again.)
The day before our visit, I read Paolo's review from 1997. I'd eaten at The Hungry Monk a couple of times in the intervening years and had a sense that it was stuck in a time warp. A quick look online confirmed some overlap between the dishes on the current menu and those offered to Paolo 20 years ago. There is probably more name-checking of producers now than there was back then - Fivemiletown goat's cheese and Ted Browne's crab from Dingle both feature - but there remains a cheerful unwillingness on the part of the kitchen to be restricted by notions of what should be on an Irish menu in an Irish restaurant, a matter that preoccupies many others.
As Paolo put it, all those years ago, in his inimitably positive way, "Freedom from the straitjacket of a traditional cuisine has allowed us choices that the French or Italians are denied in their restaurants, bound as they are by their traditions."
That means that at The Hungry Monk you'll find dishes such as Bombay breast of chicken curry alongside free-range chicken Andalucia, an abundance of sun-dried tomatoes and out-of-season green asparagus, something that's akin to menu heresy these days.
We order Wicklow lambs' kidneys Dijonnaise, in a creamy wholegrain mustard sauce with shallots and Cognac - one of the dishes that Paolo enjoyed - and agree with him that they were excellent, slightly pink and full of flavour. Smokies, on the other hand, one of the specials of the day, are dry and overcooked. (The benchmark for smokies remains the version that Eleanor Walsh used to have on the menu at the original Eden in Meeting House Square, also 20 years ago, and I've yet to encounter better.)
For mains, the pie of the day is Wicklow lamb with vegetables, a workmanlike iteration under a tired puff-pastry lid. Crispy Dublin Bay prawn scampi makes us wonder why, if you have fresh Dublin Bay prawns, you would cover them in commercial breadcrumbs and deep-fry the bejaysus out of them. It's a dish that belongs in a Berni Inn, back in the 1970s.
For dessert, we share a passionfruit crème brûlée with good surface crunch but no discernible flavour of passionfruit.
Twenty years ago, Paolo wrote that The Hungry Monk had an impressive wine list featuring over 550 different bottles. He drank a Chateau Musar 1989 from Lebanon and his total drinks bill came in at £19.95, which is enough to make one weep. The list is much shorter now and rather unexciting. When we ask for advice, feigning complete ignorance, as I sometimes like to do when 'working', we find the wine service patronising. We end up with a pleasant Fleurie.
One of the things that people often say to me about Paolo is that he never gave a bad review, but that reading between the lines you could discern whether he had liked the restaurant or not. He had some kind things to say about the food at The Hungry Monk, and the fact of its longevity in a fickle business is testament to how it must be filling a gap in Greystones (we bump into a friend of his who says that she comes in regularly for great steak au poivre) but I think Paolo was too cool for The Hungry Monk. To my mind, it's a restaurant that exists in a parallel universe, almost completely divorced from all the good things that are happening in Irish food these days. Our bill came to €114.95.
7/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
Portobello mushroom fritters followed by a chargrilled Irish heifer organic beef burger and passionfruit crème brûlée for two will cost €54 before drinks or service.
ON A BLOW-OUT
Tian of Ted Browne's Dingle crab and smoked salmon, and sirloin steak au poivre, followed by cheese for two will cost €84 before drinks or service.
THE HIGH POINT
Twenty years on, the Wicklow lambs' kidneys are as good as Paolo said.
THE LOW POINT
The themed loos (convent and monastery) and the patronising wine service.