Food Guides Recipes Buy The Guides Feed Back Food News 100 Best Search Bridgestone Food Guides Bridgestone Guides - details about food lovers and 100 best books

15 April 2009

Elizabeth Field in Dublin

Many Irish food lovers will regret that Elizabeth Field, whose writing on Irish food proved to be so enlightening and enlivening when she lived in the city, has returned to the 'States to be a happy bunny, thanks to having Barack and Bo in the White House in place of the former criminally-inclined occupants.
Happily, Elizabeth was in Dublin for a few days a couple of weeks ago and managed to catch up on a few places for the Bridgestone guides.
Any wannabee food critics out there? This is how you do it...


Green 19 is exactly what Dublin needs: a lively, smart, hip-but-family-friendly restaurant with great prices. The abbreviated menu offers just a handful of crowd-pleasing choices including club sandwiches, Caesar salads, burgers, fish and chips, pot roasted chicken and vegetables, Irish bangers and mash, etc. The great thing is that all the hearty and well-prepared mains are priced at a wonderfully recession-busting €10.
We started with a salad of fresh, seasonal greens and a saucer-sized meaty, wine-and cream-napped roasted portobello mushroom served on a thick slab of toasted focaccia – easily substantial enough to constitute a light lunch dish. The burger, made from organic Irish beef, comes with pickles, onions and homemade ketchup, while the lightly battered haddock is fresh and delicate. The homemade chips are addictively thin, crispy and greaseless. We ordered a glass each of a Chilean cabernet and a Rioja – perfectly serviceable “hamburger wines.”
It’s easy to choose desserts because only two (at €5 each) are offered: a sweet (to me, overly sweet) and moist apple crumble with a minty, lime-laced, pale green mojito ice cream, and a deeply satisfying warm chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream.
Quibbles? I ordered my burger medium-rare, and it arrived well-done. (I would have liked to savour that organic Irish beef, which is a treat compared to American meat.) Other than that, this buzzy, two-floor eatery makes the case for simple, well-prepared food at excellent prices – a winning formula in modern Dublin.


With its soft lighting and flickering candles, tall windows facing onto Dame Street, subtle nautical-style décor and cool background music (Joni Mitchell, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Terence Blanchard, etc.), the Mermaid is arguably one of Dublin’s most atmospheric restaurants. Its core values – presenting timeless, elevated comfort food in a great setting – are uncontested.
However, confirming some of the feelings I experienced when living in Dublin for six years, the Mermaid is sadly uneven.
On our recent visit, there were some stand-out dishes, including a starter of succulent seared foie gras, pan-roasted potato and duck cake, and baby onion jus, and a truly fabulous dessert of pecan pie, piled high with nuts, sticky with treacle, and served with a large scoop of maple ice cream to complete the burnt-sugar theme.
But Bruce’s apple and celeriac soup was overpowered with coriander, drowning out rather than enhancing the understated flavours of apple and celeriac. His pan-roasted sea bream had seen better days – the fish was limp and moving toward off-tasting. My hake was slightly better, though not spectacular, although the accompanying buttery poached spring onion bulbs and steamed asparagus were delicate and evocative of spring. Joanna’s pan-roasted chicken with mash was comforting and homely, but her starter salad of buffalo mozzarella and raw carrots was nondescript. Our two other desserts – a moist apple cobbler and a blood orange tiramisu – an interesting take on the classic Italian sweet – were pleasant, but nothing stellar.
I suppose that if money grew on trees (or one was on a perpetual expense account), the Mermaid could get by on its atmosphere alone. But the chances are too high of ordering something not-so-great to justify its hefty price of roughly €60 per person (with wine). These lean times demand a greater attention to detail and consistency in order to make the diner feel that s/he is getting her money’s worth.


Accessible by walking through the Daintree paper shop, and following a flagstone pathway to its cheery, sunny interior, this utterly delightful café has a kind of “Secret Garden” quality to it. (In fact, I ran into one of my oldest Dublin friends here – someone who I hadn’t seen in 4 years – what a nice surprise.)
With its tempting countertop displays of cakes, brownies and whimsical lavender-iced cupcakes, it combines the homeliness of a village bakeshop with more sophisticated café-style fare. (There are 21 types of exotic tea, a decent little wine list, and hot chocolate made from Valhrona chocolate – how decadent is that!)
We satisfied both breakfast and lunch cravings with a bowl of homemade granola served with fresh fruit and Killowen natural yoghurt, and homemade lemonade (Joanna); an earthy parsnip and celery soup and a buttery sautéed leek and goat cheese tart with a glass of Macon-Lugny (Bruce), and a bowl of genuine Irish oatmeal with cream and cinnamon-laced pear compote, and two cups of very good cappuccino (myself). We couldn’t resist taking away a few iced cookies and chocolate brownies to eat later in the afternoon.
Baked goods depend on the finest ingredients, and the café uses free-range eggs, butter, cream, etc., sourced from small Irish producers. You can really taste the difference. The café draws a mixed crowd of mothers and tots, arty types, city professionals and chattering friends of all ages. Prices are very fair. What an original addition to Dublin in the age of Starbucks!


We ended our Bridgestone marathon on a delicious note. Based on our lunch at Town Bar & Grill, I’d venture to say this may be one of Dublin’s top restaurants.
I was worried at first that the atmosphere might be snooty or intimidating, but it was nothing of the kind. The basement location is elegant in a non-fussy way: natural and white-washed brick walls, mushroom-coloured ceiling, wide rice-paper hanging lamps, and white linens. Our waiter couldn’t have been more helpful in describing the specials, and a simple glass of the house wine, a fruili, took us nicely through the entire meal.
My starter was spectacular: a beautiful presentation of fat green and white grilled asparagus spears gilded with a light lemony hollandaise sauce, and topped with a slice of prosciutto and a perfectly poached, farm-fresh egg. A few mache leaves were a lovely garnish.
Bruce’s red pepper and tomato soup did what most versions of this dish do not: taste like summer in the sun, exuberantly celebrating the sweet full warmth of roasted red peppers with back notes of tomatoes. And all this on a cold March day.
My grilled sea bream was crisp and golden on the outside, sweet and flaky within. It was perfectly complemented by a sauté of smoky-woodsy oyster mushrooms and pancetta, and a mild cauliflower puree. Bruce’s spaghetti verde with garlic greens, peas and shaved black truffle could have used a bit more seasoning to enliven the flavours, but it was a lovely delicate dish. And dear Joanna, bless her heart, ordered the char-grilled Hereford rib eye steak – a massive slab of beef that despite being cooked well-done as she prefers it, was meltingly tender. It came with a sage and mustard mash – a nice savoury complement to the buttery beef.
We finished up with a refined version of apple and pear crumble with cinnamon ice cream, and a delicious baked custard tart, reminiscent of crème brulee in a buttery pastry shell, with a tart-sweet winterberry compote. All in all an exquisite meal, and at €23.95 for a two-course meal and €27.50 for three courses (with tea or coffee) an absolute steal. I hope I get to eat here again.

The Temple of Tempura in Tokyo

A most arresting quote, from Nick Lander's column in last Weekend's FT, stops us in our tracks.
Mr Lander is quoting the chef Tetsuya Saotame, who has cooked tempura in Mikawa restaurant in Tokyo for the last 33 years. Mr Saotame says;
“I'm not frying, but baking in oil and my role when the fish is in the pot is to calculate the right combination of air, water and batter”.
“I think that I am able to see the scales on the fish that other people cannot see and then just coat each piece in the appropriate amount of batter. After that, the trick is simply to count the seconds the fish should be cooked for”.
Such precision, such poetry, such philosophy...

Mikawa, 3-4-7 Nihonbashi-Kayabacho, Chuo-ku, Tokyo

02 April 2009

The Omegas...

If feedback is proof of what folk are concerned about, then the balance in our bodies between Omega-3s and the nasty Omega-6s is something that is of much concern to people today.
After our piece appeared, Audrey Deane and Penny Doyle sent us a copy of The Top 100 Omega-3 Recipes, published by Duncan Baird publishers.
This is a useful book, very cleanly and simply laid out, and it shows, above all, how easy it is to get the omega-3s into your diet: smoked trout and poached egg on toast; tapenade bruschetta; crab cakes; mackerel fillets with citrus salsa. The book is really useful at giving a broad range of dishes that will get those necessary Omegas into your system.

Barrie Rogers then wrote to us from Waterford, enclosing some MILA; The Miracle Seed, a product he has started importing into Ireland from the Lifemax company. Mr Rogers personally claims many health improvements as a result of using MILA, which is the seed Salvia Hispanica L.
Mila claims to have the highest combination of Omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, fibre and phytonutrients of any food on the planet – 7 times more Omega-3s than salmon, they say. It's a tiny, tasteless seed which you can sprinkle on your porridge or mix into a smoothie. I can't claim personally to have noticed a marked improvement in energy levels as yet, but let's give it time.

01 April 2009

Speech to the Restaurants Association Conference

RAI Conference 2009, Maynooth. “Successful Strategies for 2009 – A crucial time to share ideas”

Creating successful strategies in difficult times begins by listening carefully. L:ike this...

Heard the one about the man who walks into the doctor’s and says “I'm having trouble hearing things”

Doctor says: “Can you describe the symptoms?”

The man says, “Eh, well, ok then. Eh, Homer is the fat bald guy, and Marge has this big blue hair....”

You need to be listening very carefully right now to what the customer is saying to you. I would suggest that what people are saying is that in many areas we need the restatement, the re-affirmation, of first principles: sound money; community spirit; political will, and good food. I want to talk about those first principles today.

The Restaurantness of a Restaurant

“Cooks can be placed at the focus of society. Cooks command the kitchen of culture. They work at the maelstrom at the centre of our world: they stir the mighty pudding of civilization”.
Michael Symons, A History of Cooks and Cooking.

Twenty years ago, pubs were the centre of our socialising culture. Today, it is restaurants that are the centre of our socializing culture.
How did this happen? Because pubs took customers for granted, and all but abolished the idea of service.
Why did restaurants seize the high ground?
Because they offered service to a people who were rapidly becoming both more sophisticated, and more demanding.
People today may have less money than 2 years ago, but they have not become less sophisticated, or less demanding.
This is why those restaurants that cater for their customers will succeed, despite the present difficult circumstances. That is how restaurants that can adapt to the present realities will survive, and even thrive.
A few years back when I wrote the second edition of my book, “How to Run a Restaurant”, I wrote that “restaurants fail because they neglect the almost unquantifiable elements that make people want to socialise in a particular room in the first place”.
The food writer and publisher of the great quarterly The Art of Eating, Edward Behr, has written that “Only some restaurants share the animating spirit, the restaurantness of a restaurant”.
Too many pubs in Ireland lost that “animating spirit”, and they failed.
Appreciating and accentuating that “animating spirit” will ensure you succeed. Restaurants for the last decade may have been largely centres of celebration, but they are no less effective as centres of consolation.
In fact, in this regard they may make themselves even more important: the person who cooks the meal and pours the wine in hard times is a true friend, not just someone you are paying to carry out these tasks.

The Narrative of the Food: “Recipes are the core of culture”: Michael Symons.

Too many restaurants tell us too little about the food they cook, and how they cook it.
Either the food is presented as a fait accompli, where you are meant to simply admire the skill that brought it together, and then enjoy it.
Or else there is too much irrelevant detail, by which I mean the menu description that tells you that the duck was “lovingly strangled before being oven-roasted and placed on a bed of freshly hand-gathered pasture-style salad leaves anointed with David Llewellyn’s lovingly concocted apple balsamic vinegar”

Both are failures in explaining the narrative of the recipe and the narrative of the food.

In their book “The Elements of Taste”, Gray Kunz and Peter Kaminsky tell us that “A recipe is more than a mere combination of ingredients and techniques. There is a fourth dimension to every recipe. It is put together over time and it is experienced over time. Like a story or a song, it has a beginning, middle and end: it has a narrative”.
Are you explaining the narrative of your work to your customers? In a meaningful way? Do your staff convey the effort and consideration that has brought the dishes together?
Put it this way; you spend three hours at the dinner table in a restaurant. You spend 3 hours at the theatre. Would you sit down at the theatre without a synopsis and a cast list and the name of the director?
Successful restaurants tell you this narrative, but they convey it simply, efficiently and methodically, and at their very best this narrative is almost invisible, but it is ever-present.
Of course, you can’t present every customer with your CV – though you can on your website.
But what you can do, through the greeting, the service, the interaction – is to let them know the narrative of your place, your food, your restaurant.

The Signature Style

There is too much fashion in food, and too little true personality. The latest fashion, as we all know, is for ramshackle, bricolage-style, thrift-shop chic. Shebeen Chic. Made in Belfast, to name but two.
Fine, but I know restaurants that have truly been created on a shoestring, and with bits and pieces from thrift shops. So, when I see the latest trend, I know it’s no more than a fashion.
But the restaurants I know that have been created on a shoestring have been some of the most successful restaurants in Ireland over the last twenty years.
Take three examples, which features three of the most respected – and published – cooks in Ireland.
Bernadette O’Shea of Truffles in Sligo, author of “Pizza Defined”. Denis Cotter of Café Paradiso in Cork, whose three books are amongst the finet ever written by a working chef. And Carmel Somers of Good Things Café in West Cork whose first cookbook will be published in a month or so.
Those restaurants are not fashionble, they were fashion-breaking, each of them broke the mould because they were a true expression of personality, they captured a signature style. But they were created on a shoestring.
And, because they were created on a shoestring, they were restaurants that were seriously profitable, because there were no expensive loans to pay back, and no designers to be remunerated for advising you to do what everyone else was doing.
Having the confidence to do things your own way is the surest road to success. In a perfect restaurant world, no two restaurants would be alike, simply because the people running them are each and every one of them different. Don’t copy other people’s ideas: learn from them and adapt them to create your own thing.

The Cooking Animal

Man is the cooking animal. Politics is much less important than food: it’s really no more than showbusiness for ugly people.
It is cooks who, as Michael Symons says, “command the kitchen of culture. They work at the maelstrom at the centre of our world: they stir the mighty pudding of civilization”.

That mighty pudding may be a little less rich than a couple of years ago, but it still needs cooks to stir it, and to enrich it with their narrative, with their signature, with the dignity of service, as these three quotes show:

“Ultimately, service is a hallmark of civilization”.
Kurt Sorensen, Charlie Trotter’s restaurant.

“I realized food was a matter of civilized achievement. The fruit of civilization”.
Myrtle Allen, Ballymaloe House

“The secret of success is the passion for what you are doing”.
Otto Kunze of Dunworley Cottage, quoting Jane Grubb of Cashel Blue cheese.