Lucinda's lookback: the culinary highs and lows of 2019
It was a year of small plates and big prices.
The big boys marched on undaunted, with a continual procession of 'House Beautiful' openings with mediocre food, pushing aspiring individual chefs to the suburbs. There were Michelin stars and Michelin strippings, and plenty of gourmet gossip, including the very surprising closure of one fashionable Dublin restaurant.
There was more excitement among Dublin's militantly 'suitable' foodie brigade about the opening of Uno Mas on Aungier Street, D2, than there ever was about The Ivy. However, like many siblings, it hit its older sister Etto a poke in the eye, as later in the year, Etto lost its Michelin Bib Gourmand, which Uno Mas picked up with glee. It has an almost groupie following, from chefs to media, politicians and theatricals, all chowing down cheek by jowl - watching and gossiping at a rate not seen since the Unicorn Minor days under the eagle eye of Miss Dom.
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Dylan McGrath's new Shelbourne Social in salubrious D4 attracted a lot of pre-opening comments as to its pricey steaks. Indeed, apart from the steaks, the menu was a convoluted Rubik's cube of mish-mash headings, including 'The Crudo', 'Nearly Cooked', and 'Starch', but the sight of McGrath at the table beside us slicing a modest duck at €100 (for two to three people) took the biscuit. "You're a very expensive quacker," I said. It felt like it was all fur coat and no knickers. Performance and presentation over substance.
Fed up of the samey formulaic restaurants from big groups, I headed to a small, quirky hipster restaurant called Variety Jones, in a former tattoo parlour in the uncharted territory of Thomas Street. Here, Greystones chef Keelan Higgs was cooking over fire with a small menu of sharing plates and small dishes. We loved it and, strangely enough for Michelin, so did they, giving it a star for 2020.
Legendary restaurateur Giorgio Casari, formerly of the Unicorn, took centre stage again, treading the boards of his new neighbourhood Italian restaurant, Gigi, in Ranelagh, which didn't take long to attract the legal eagles of red-brick D6.
Grano in hot, hot D7's Stoneybatter had the foodie brigade queuing up for 'Mama's' pasta; while in D2, restaurateur Jay Bourke opened Bart's in South William Street. However, despite serving some really top-notch small plates, before the end of the year, Bart's became Bloody Mary's bar, now serving vegan food.
The passion for pizza and Italian food continued with the Pizza Yard opening in the old Sandford Cinema in Ranelagh; while in Sandymount, the next generation of Dunne & Crescenzi, Ghinlon Wang and Sean Crescenzi, launched Crudo at Dunne & Crescenzi, serving stupendous contemporary authentic Italian dishes, and attracting a whole new clientele on top of their already loyal customers.
Damien Grey honed his 22-seater former Heron & Grey Blackrock Market space into a sleek, sophisticated sanctuary, taking his food to the next level with Liath, and reclaiming his Michelin star - actually, it should have been two!
Ramen Kitchen joined the Stoneybatter mob, doing some of the best ramen and sushi in the city; while a 'gang of four' restaurant guys, with Gareth Naughton at the stove, did up and opened Circa in Terenure. Their hard work was rewarded with a Michelin Bib 2020.
Following a flowery press release, I reviewed the Orchid Chinese restaurant in D4's touristy territory of Pembroke Road. It boasted of the new decor and dim sum at this "high-end Chinese restaurant" - however, with undercooked slimy scallops, and lukewarm dreary duck, we departed disillusioned, but not before visiting the loo, which had an old, stained toilet bowl. This was more wall nettle than orchid - the only thing upmarket being the prices!
However, nearby on Northumberland Place, The Eddison opened at the Dylan Hotel, with stunning decor, great food and amazing cocktails; while the shock of the summer was the sudden closure of John Farrell's cool Luna below Drury Street Car Park in D2. We also visited the Eccles Hotel in Glengarriff, Co Cork, where Pippa Middleton stayed, and where Chef Eddie Attwell should have been noticed by Michelin when it was awarding stars to Mews in Baltimore and Restaurant Chestnut in Ballydehob. Needless to say, they missed it again this year, but then local knowledge is a great thing!
The much-hyped Old Post Office Chinese Restaurant in Blackrock opened with stunning sea views. Dinner menus were outrageous at €70/€90/€120, with the kind of basic offerings you might find in a local takeaway. Leo Varadkar later visited for lunch, embellishing the guest book, "Thanks so much for a lovely meal in a wonderful setting". Well, he got the last bit right, anyway!
On the plus side, at the new Aimsir at Cliff at Lyons, English chef Jordan Bailey and his Danish wife Majken served an 18-course menu so seamlessly it felt like watching a performance of Marcel Marceau's mime artists. It now has two Michelin stars.
Visiting my childhood holiday haunt of Skerries in north Co Dublin, where fish and chips at the top of the strand had once been the height of the culinary offerings, I didn't go on the swings, but I did have a fabulous Sunday lunch in Cathal Leonard's new Potager in Terry McCoy's former Redbank Restaurant.
Having kept you updated on all the best places for summer dining at every level, from food trucks to seafood secrets, I took off to visit the elegant East Room in Plassey House on the amazing University of Limerick campus, which was a delight.
The Twitter glitterati were swarming over Nick Munier's new Le Perroquet. However, after a cocktail, some great small plates from Chris Fullam, with Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin groaning away in the background, I was won over by Nick's 'parrot'.
I can't say the same of Frank's on Camden Street, an eatery other foodie enthusiasts were gushing about. It's the sibling of Delahunt, which was graced by a honeymooning Meghan and Harry, but was unceremoniously stripped of its Michelin Bib in October. Sitting at a communal high-top, Frank's felt like the Emperor's new clothes - pretentious, with its reverse-snobbery, too-cool hipster notion of holding onto your dirty cutlery and wine glass between courses. It was overpriced, not to mention the revolting dish of 'cow fingers', which I complained about, but was still charged for.
The Press Up Group continued its takeover of Dublin with Doolally, which has a fab 'British Raj' interior. However, bog-standard curries, reheated, burned onion bhajis and lentil dumpling golf balls didn't exactly spice up our lives.
Casper & Giumbini, a revival of a 1970s grill bar in Dun Laoghaire, was good, apart from soggy Dublin Bay prawns and an undressed 'dressed crab'. Sole on the bone was ace, as were the bistro specials. However, the star of the year was in 'Loughrea 4', a small upmarket village called Bullaun in Co Galway, where young chef Danny Africano opened a stunning restaurant, Lignum, in the grounds of his old home, Slateford House. Doing great food, cooked on an open fire, in a very cool setting, there's a total lack of pretension. Michelin, take note.
I was in Bastion in Kinsale, which brought the first Michelin star to the Gourmet Capital of Ireland. Back in Dublin 8, Biddy Mulligan and I wondered how the locals would find the prices and portions at Stephen McAllister's Spitalfields gastropub in the Coombe. "Nice Biddy, but pricey". Meanwhile, Killian Durkin and Jess D'Arcy's new Mamo in Howth had the posh crew from Howth Head very quickly making it their local.
The dining year ended up at The Old Bank in Dungarvan, where fine feathers and frippery couldn't make up for what was a pretentious, chaotic experience of the Are You Being Served variety.
Merry Christmas & fine dining to all!
Sunday Indo Life Magazine