Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Restaurant Review: Etto, Merrion Row, Dublin 2.

This is not a restaurant review blog.... for a few reasons. Mostly, because there are lots already out there and I don't think the world needs another one. Also, I have a lot of friends in the industry and I work with several restaurants, so in order to maintain those relationships, I think it's wise to leave the reviewing to others.

On that basis, this may well be my one and only review. I don't work with Etto, nor do I know the guys behind it so my opinions are 100% impartial and written purely as a punter. This restaurant is by no means perfect but gets so many things right that I feel compelled to share my views.

You've probably gathered at this stage that I like place, so I'll get the negatives out of the way first before I start eulogising about the food. 

They were not blessed with much space so the seating area is tight. I'm short and weigh less than ten stone yet still find it difficult to squeeze between the tables. I can imagine they've encountered some issues with more generously proportioned people. The tight space and hard surfaces also make it quite noisy which means that you have to talk loudly to be heard. With neighbours in such close proximity, this makes intimate conversation a no-no ( I heard way too much about a fellow diner's medical issues recently). 

So why do I like this restaurant so much? Mainly because I always leave there happier than when I arrived. This is my acid test for any restaurant. 

The menu changes regularly and they offer a set lunch at€20/€25 for 2/3 courses or an a la carte option of small plates and larger main courses. This will prove considerably more expensive than the set menu option but value has two elements; price and quality. The ingredients on the ALC are notably higher end. 

On the most recent visit we both chose the set lunch despite being tempted by the squab on the other side of the page. Nevertheless, the set lunch is so appealing that there are no losers in the menu roulette game here. I chose a vegetarian starter of beetroot agnolotti with goat's curd and cavalo nero. The pasta was silky with just enough density to hold the sweet, earthy beetroot filling. Toasted walnuts added texture and feather light, micro planed Parmigiano Reggiano combined with the fresh curd to add a salty tang. The cabbage added both flavour and nice hit of iron to give the dish more substance. A really well thought out, well executed dish in keeping with the excellent vegetarian offerings the always seem to have here.

A bad photo of a great dish. Beetroot agnolotti.

The other starter was that Piedmontese classic, vitello tonnato. I find this dish always tastes better than it sounds. Wafer thin slices of veal in a creamy tuna mayonnaise with capers. I told you. Thankfully, it's a delicious dish and this version was no exception. The capers were deep fried which transforms them into crispy taste explosions but also makes them less acidic. A minor gripe would be that the dish needed more acidity and fresh capers would have provided it. 

Vitello Tonnato. 
By now the space had filled but service from the three FOH staff never missed a beat. They've clearly figured out the flow of the room and glided around without a hint of stress, even when clearly busy. They were well versed and interested enough to answer any questions from their guests and seemed to really enjoy their work. 

Main courses were pork and hake. Pork came in the form of a thick organic chop which had been griddled on the outside and was perfectly medium rare in the middle. I've huge admiration for restaurants with the courage to serve pork pink as I know from experience how challenging it can be. The quality of the pork was superb and a punchy romesco sauce, which managed to be both rustic and refined at the same time, elevated the dish way beyond the sum of it's parts. Some beans and greens balanced the dish and roasting juices added meaty savour.

Organic pork chop with romesco sauce.
The hake dish summed up on a plate what this restaurant is all about. The fish was clearly spanking fresh and cooked just at the point, giving a buttery crust on the outside and translucent, barely cooked flakes in the centre. Sounds simple, but I encounter perfectly cooked fish rarely enough for it to stick in my mind when I find it. The bold accompanying flavours of brown shrimp and a velvety purée of trompette mushroom & truffle transformed the dish into a show stopper. Without question this dish was firmly 1* Michelin standard.

Hake with new potatoes, brown shrimp & trompettes.

The wine list here deserves special mention. Unsurprisingly it leans heavily toward Italy but the rest of the old world, especially Spain, is also well represented. Some very classy European wine makers are listed and while this is inevitably reflected in the pricing, there are some real gems if you know what you're looking for. 

As it was lunch time, we stuck to glasses from the short list on the board. It was a limited choice and my garnacha from northern Spain wouldn't have been my first choice with the pork but stood up well to the robust flavours. As I had some left, I chose the cheese of the day instead of dessert. 

Clonmore is a firm goats milk cheese from Cork and had a mild flavour that would have benefited from not being in the fridge. Truth be told, we'd have just as easily skipped dessert although the delicious warm greengages with toasted almond ice cream were comforting and moreish. A couple of short, perfectly extracted espressi rounded off a memorable lunch. 

I note that Etto won "Best Casual Dining" at the Food & Wine Awards recently. I'm not sure that this category does justice to what these guys are doing. The staff and setting may be casual and relaxed but make no mistake about it, this is a serious restaurant. I mentioned in a blog post recently about the rise in "casual fine dining" in London. I predict that we will see a lot more of it here over the next few years and restaurants like Etto & Forest Avenue are leading the charge. I know that there is Michelin pedigree in the kitchen at Etto and this clearly shines through in some of the dishes. It may be too soon for them this year, but they could be an outside bet for a star in the future. For me, their food is certainly worth a special journey. You heard it here first!

Monday, 18 August 2014

Is the customer always right?

The short answer to this is yes. Except for when they're wrong. This piece in Bon Appetit magazine spells out some of the situations where the customer may not be always be classified as "right". I've experienced some of these first hand but can happily report that they are very much the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of guests dine out to enjoy themselves and when they are met half way by staff who are keen to make that happen, the foundations of a long and happy relationship may be laid.

The key point here is that it's a two way relationship. Paying customers have the right to expect good service and restaurateurs and service staff have the right to expect good manners in return. The most common area where this breaks down, is when guests arrive late or do not show up, without letting the restaurant know. 

I used to find this particularly stressful around Christmas time. I recall a particular incident when we had turned away over 100 customers as we were fully booked, only for a party of 20, who were confirmed earlier in the day, not to show up. 

A Galway restaurateur took to twitter recently to make his feelings known about no-shows during race week. The matter was picked up by the local newspapers and sparked a lot of debate about the issue, and how it was handled. Personally, I didn't agree with the way he went about it, but I could certainly sympathise with how he felt.

Many people in the industry feel that credit card deposits should be taken to secure reservations and only refunded if the table is cancelled. This is fine in theory but I know from experience that it's tough to implement in practice. In addition to this, the market is so competitive that very few restaurants are prepared to risk alienating potential customers. 

In order to combat the problem of no-shows, some high end restaurants in the U.S are now selling tickets for a reservation. Nothing like payment in advance to focus the mind when it comes to fulfilling a restaurant reservation. I'm not sure this would work anywhere else in the world other than the U.S. Some restaurateurs Stateside seem to get away with far more than most people would be prepared to put up with as guests.

This review of 3 Michelin Starred Brooklyn Fare on the website Fine Dining Explorer, illustrates exactly what I mean. Cesar Ramirez clearly runs his operation with an iron fist and prioritises his own ego over the paying customers who keep him in business. When you include tax and tip it's about $300 per head for food alone. Regardless of how good the food is, I don't think I'd forgive myself for paying that amount of money to be treated like that. I've been lucky enough to eat in a few 3* restaurants and have always encountered the highest standards of service and professionalism.

Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare... Zero Tolerance Dining. Source:

David Chang's Momofuku Ko has a reputation for similarly hostile service and lack of respect for their guests. I've had a few experiences myself  in New York restaurants where service staff were abrasive to the point of rudeness. I think it's a New York thing and locals accept it. 

They have such a strong culture of dining out in NYC, and have no problem queuing for 2 hours to get a seat in the hottest new restaurant. In order to do so, they put up with a certain amount of being taken for granted. The demand/supply relationship in Ireland is the opposite way around, partly because we do not have such a strong eating out culture. This may go some way to explaining why you hear more about the disrespectful behaviour of customers rather than restaurants in Ireland. Also, we just wouldn't put up with it here!

The overall point that I am trying to make is that neither customers nor restaurants get it right all of the time. There is a happy medium which needs to be struck in order for both parties to get the most out of the relationship. Customers should feel valued and welcome from the moment they first contact the restaurant. In return, they should notify the restaurant of a cancellation when they can't make it, and be polite and civil to the staff when they can. It doesn't sound like much to ask from both parties. 

Friday, 8 August 2014

Do restaurants get a raw deal from the media?

This recent article in The Guardian got me thinking about the media's apparent obsession with the restaurant business and how journalists often seem to write about the subject with a slightly negative bias. I get that it's an industry which grabs the public's imagination. The miriad television shows based around it confirms that. What I don't get is where the suspicion and mistrust in much of commentary emanates from. It must come from somewhere, right? No smoke without fire and all that?

There are countless numbers of books written by "experts" who promise to lift the lid on what really goes on behind the scenes in restaurants. I've part- read most of them ( I only ever seem to get 20 or so pages in before giving up ). They generally trot out the same tired old nuggets of wisdom like "don't order fish in a restaurant on a Monday". Ground breaking stuff. The reality is that what happens behind the scenes in restaurants is not anything like as glamorous or shocking as the books or newspaper articles would have you believe.

When I publish my book entitled " What really goes on behind the scenes in restaurants", I don't expect it to make the best sellers list. Chapter one, "Dishwasher", will go into detail about how the dishwasher has broken down for third time in a month and the repair man is late, despite having promised to be there at 10am sharp. The chapter is balanced on a knife edge going into the final page as we find out whether or not it was repaired in time for lunch service. Things really start to hot up in chapter two when the new waiter doesn't turn in for his first shift. You get the picture. This is what really goes on behind the scenes in most restaurants.

So, back to my earlier question...where does the idea that restaurants are out to fleece their guests come from? I'm guessing that there are spurious tactics employed by some restaurant chains ( independents, in my experience, do not put anything like that amount of planning into menu psychology etc). It has all the hall marks of large scale strategic planning in board rooms by faceless people in suits. I'm further speculating that whistle blowers over the years have divulged these strategies to anyone who will listen and the whole thing has snowballed from there.

That is not to say that selling techniques do not exist in the restaurant industry, as they do in most industries. The difference is that journalists do not consider it newsworthy that a bicycle salesman has convinced someone to purchase a lock to go with their bike. If a waiter sells a side order with a main course however, it's deemed to be part of some Machiavellian scheme to shakedown diners.They seem to forget that it's a business. If I'm a restaurateur and I buy 20kg of fresh fish today and it doesn't sell tonight, then I'm going to put it on as a special tomorrow. I'm running a business. I'm not about to throw out an expensive commodity that will still be perfectly good to eat tomorrow. I genuinely don't understand why is that the genesis of so many newspaper articles and books.

So, before I get savaged by all the hacks out there lining up with examples of sharp practice in restaurants, let me add that I fully accept that there are exceptions to every rule. Some restaurants, especially in tourist destinations where they are not reliant on repeat business, go out of their way to rinse as much money as they can out of their customers. However, the overwhelming majority of restaurateurs, and I know many of them in this country, work extremely hard to survive and value every single guest who comes through their door. They wouldn't survive long if they engaged in some of the shenanigans suggested in the Guardian article and countless others filling column inches with increasing regularity.

Now I'm off to finish my book. If I manage to sell the film rights, I'm hoping Kevin Spacey will play the man who comes to change the filters in the kitchen extract.

Friday, 1 August 2014

The Next Big Thing

I've seen lots of food trends come and go. From the 90's penchant for CalMed i.e tall food, pesto, sun dried tomatoes and tapenade to the current leaning towards foraged ingredients and new Nordic cuisine. In between we've seen gourmet burgers, bangers, bbq, and burritos. As I've mentioned in an earlier post, Dublin tends to follow London, usually with about a five year lag. So what's the next big thing for Ireland? That's the question that canny operators are asking themselves and trying to steal a march on the competition.
The following graphic charts trends over the last 12 months and, if you'll forgive the pun, gives plenty of food for thought.

Breakfast/Brunch has now firmly established itself as strong market and is clearly being taken more seriously by most operators. Small plates and sharing boards seem to be lasting longer than most people predicted. It appears we've realised that "tapas" as a concept can not really work here so we've developed an improvised version that suits us better. All the indications are that bbq is still hot, despite pulled pork having achieved ubiquity...the food equivalent of cocktails in jam jars.
Our consumption of chicken continues unabated, I suspect driven by 16-20 year olds who seem have an appetite for little else. UFC and KFC go hand in hand. All day dining is proving very popular and when coupled with speciality coffee seems to be a recipe for success. As we all become a little more health conscious those catering for specific dietary requirements and providing super food options appear to be thriving...yet still like a sly "dirty burger" now and again.
Large scale ventures which a friend refers to as "disco restaurants" seem to be thriving in Dublin City Centre, I'm not sure they would survive elsewhere.
Ingredient specific ventures such as Burger & Lobster, Duck, or Pizza & Porcetta are becoming increasingly popular. The predictability of this model make them very attractive for investors.
So to return to my earlier question, what will be the next big thing here? As the economy starts to grow over the next few years, I predict that casual, affordable fine dining will catch on here. This a big trend in London right now and the success of Forest Avenue suggests that the appetite is already here. I've been banging on for years about the lack to top quality casual Italian here that doesn't involve pizza. Places like TrulloBocca di Lupo & Artusi. I'm surprised this hasn't caught on here. Maybe next year will be the year my prediction comes true...even a stopped clock is right twice a day! I also see the increase in pubs serving good food and craft beer continuing, although the quality of both is a little inconsistent at the moment and needs to improve if it's going to stay around for the long term.
It's a very exciting time for the restaurant industry in Ireland at the moment and I feel we'll be heading into the next upturn with a more established base of people who eat out. As we become more discerning about our food and drink choices, the quality of what's available should continue to improve. That can only mean good things for diners and operators alike.