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14 August 2009

The Blackboard Bistro, Dublin

Jean and Pierre are doing all the right things in Dublin's little Blackboard Bistro.
Caroline Byrne admires the cooking and the value.

I went here last Thursday for my weekly early bird with my brother and I was very pleasantly surprised by this little place. Even my brother said it was his favourite of all the French places I’ve brought him too, and that’s really saying something coming from him!
It has the kind of cosy, little-French-bistro-atmosphere that would happily accommodate a couple on a special night out – of which there were a few – but also the right tempo for a group of friends catching up over dinner – also present the night I dined.

The food reminds me of what I ate when I travelled in France during college years – simple, inexpensive but really good. Think tabouleh, risotto, butter beans and Mediterranean/Provençal flavours that you find everywhere from Nice to Nancy. Although it offers French classics, such as French onion soup and pan-fried pigeon, it serves a lot of Mediterranean or north African inspired food, which is indicative of its Mediterranean influences and the wide mix of cultures and cuisines that exist in France. From the a la carte, mains range from E16 to E28 and the starters are between E7 and E12. There’s great value to be found on the early bird, which offers two courses for E20, and they also have a value menu for lunch.

Given the value and the perfectly interesting selection on the early bird we both chose from there. Creamy smoked bacon and leek risotto was scrumptious and just the right side of al dente – although we both noted that the portion could have done with being a little bit more generous. And the “baby lasagne” was cheesy and light, with a single sheet of pasta (not fresh) and a tasty meat sauce underneath. It did exactly what it said on the tin, although many have failed to where this dish is concerned, especially at the less expensive end!

For mains, Adrian’s beef burger (cooked well done because the establishment doesn’t do medium) was served atop a mound of mash and crowned with onions in a red wine sauce, with a fried egg on top. I had fat strips of perfectly chargrilled chicken fillet on couscous with grilled vegetables and a light sun-dried tomato pesto, finished with torn fresh basil.
As with the starters, our plates were taken away spotless, which says it all. Everything was tasty, well cooked, well presented and we felt we’d had a very nice experience, yet again, for great value.

Including one dessert of passion fruit sorbet with macerated red berries, and one glass of aligote (chosen from a concise but good selection of wines all by the glass or bottle) the bill came to E47. I don’t know whether I’m looking for the best ‘value for money’ place or the best French, or both, but I think I keep getting closer all the time.

The Blackboard Bistro
The Basement,
4 Clare Street,
Dublin 2

T: 01 6766839
Tue - Fri (lunch and dinner) Saturday for dinner only and closed Sunday and Monday

The Irish Times, August 2009

New Age Ageing

On a crisp Saturday morning, my wife, my sister and I joined our friends Harro and Gisi on their 1895 boat, the Grainne, in Ahakista pier for a spot of mackerel fishing.
Harro and Gisi are the sort of confident boatpeople who are expert at looking after those whose sealegs are not so well established.
“Hold on here”. “Give me your hand and step down onto this”. They also had the mackerel lines all ready, and the picnic was prepared and the rosé wine cooled. After we started hauling in the fish, Harro showed us his filleting and gutting technique, whilst scores of seagulls clamoured all around the Grainne hoping for the fish guts.
Fourteen mackerel and three pollock later, and we were back in Ahakista with Harro and Gisi helping us off the boat, looking after us as if we were keen, but slightly infirm, pensioners.
Of course, we aren’t pensioners, but Harro and Gisi are. Hale and hearty, and happily in their 70’s, they ooze health and wellbeing. Maybe it’s all that fresh fish.
Next day, I sat down to waste a few hours whilst Tom Watson, his face a strange mixture of grimace-meets-bemusement, came within a ten foot putt of pulling off what would have been the most astonishing victory by any sportsman in a blue riband sporting event. At 59 years of age, Watson was, until the very end, stable where younger men were erratic, calm where the youngsters were equivocal. He didn’t win, and it’s a genuine shame that he didn’t.
And then on Wednesday we took the train to Dublin to see Leonard Cohen. Like everyone else who missed his 2008 Kilmainham gigs, we have grown tired of the stories about those “spiritual” events, and so had to see for ourselves what Lenny was up to.
Well, what Lenny is up to is simple. He is, typically, writing his own life script in his own hand with his own melody and rhythm accompanying him as he goes along. Aged close to 75, Cohen sang every word with a passionate conviction that was bewitching. At the interval, and before he came back for the five encores he and his band played, he bounced and danced offstage like a kid.
Whilst singing, he hunkered down in the sort of knee bends that one associates with the late James Brown, not the Canadian bard of melancholia. His focus, his concentration, his stamina and his communication with the audience were so remarkable that you had to conclude that, in the middle of his eighth decade, Leonard Cohen is actually in his prime.
Just think of what a new paradigm that is: in your prime at 75. Your 70’s may not be socialist, but they will be social.
And just think what these examples mean for our society, where the demographic of the country is changing rapidly, and where we are expecting a smaller working population to support a growing ageing population.
That demographic will bankrupt the country and overwhelm our health services, unless our 70 year olds can skipper boats and catch fish like Harro and Gisi, play golf at the competitive level of Tom Watson, or sing and dance like Leonard Cohen.
And the way to do this, I suggest, is through the Healthy Eating Pension Plan.
Like any pension plan, the HEPP (for hepp cats, see?) works best when you start it young. Like any pension plan, it’s about prudence, and recognizing what you need for when you get older.
With each meal, you are putting aside a little for that rainy day, by eating fresh oily fish, by eating food rather than foodstuffs, by eating lots of green plants, by staying away from heavily processed foods in favour of fresh, naturally-grown, local foods.
So ask yourself what part of your meal is working to avoid the illnesses of ageing. Are there good dairy products to ward off osteoporosis? Are you drinking some red wine to keep the arteries lean? Are the foods you eat fuelling your health, and building up reserves that you can dip into when you are just about to beat your grandchildren at a game of tennis? Are you walking and golfing and sailing so that arthritis is kept at bay, and so that your weight is optimal?
Or are your mealtimes doing the opposite?
Is your weight going to be a problem as you age? Will you be worried every time you walk down stairs, or step onto a boat, that you are going to slip and bust a hip because your bones are brittle? Are the arteries lean, or unclean?
With a good HEPP supporting you as you age, you too can peak at 75 years of age. You too can be as cool as Leonard, or Tom, or Harro and Gisi.
We think of pensions as involving nothing more than money, and the investment of money. But it is our health that is our wealth, remember, so make sure you have invested well, and are wealthy in the way that really counts. That way, you will have reserves for when you really need them, for when you hit your real peak.
Otherwise, you just won’t manage that fifth encore.