Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Memorable Meals - Part 2

No doubt you've all been on tenterhooks awaiting my top two most memorable meals, so here goes! 

2. The Sportsman, Kent, England 2008

It was quite literally a toss of a coin between this meal and the number 1.

Faversham is and hour or so from London Victoria on the train, and a further 20 minutes by taxi takes you Seasalter on the Kent coast. It may seem like a lot of hassle for a pub lunch, but this is no ordinary pub.

The Sportsman, on the face of it, is a modest old boozer located right on the beach facing into the North Sea. It is surrounded by marsh where the lambs they serve graze happily. This is one of the key features of Stephen Harris's cooking. The ingredients he uses are literally on his doorstep and are some of the best you will find anywhere in the world.
The Sportsman, Seasalter, Whitstable, Kent.
When compared to some of the more elaborate meals I've enjoyed, the cooking at The Sportsman may seem simple. The acid test for me though, is that six years later I still remember every bite of every dish as if I tasted it yesterday. 

Their tasting menu is available only on weekdays and as we were there on a Saturday, we chose off the รก la carte. To start, I ate one of the best dishes I've ever tasted. Their spider crab risotto packs an incredibly intense shellfish flavour from the brown meat, offset by mild sweetness of fresh white meat. The balance of salt, savour, sweetness and the almost bitter intensity results in a flavour hit that is not easily forgotten.

Spider crab risotto at The Sportsman, Kent
The food here is very much produce driven and the abundance of seafood on their doorstep means the ingredient quality is spectacular. My main course of grilled slip sole with seaweed butter needed nothing else. Perfectly cooked fish less than three hours old with a sauce which enhanced it's subtle flavour. Seems simple, but I've never encountered anything like it before or since. 

Sole with seaweed butter at The Sportsman, Kent

Meat dishes and desserts proved to be at the same impeccable standard as the fish, and the atmosphere was so warm and welcoming that it was a wrench to head off for our train. 

They make their own butter, ham, chorizo, salt & cheese, among other things. These guys were creating menus from local, sustainable ingredients years before Noma made the concept fashionable. 

The Sportsman won a richly deserved Michelin star a few years ago. On the basis that two stars are awarded for food which is worth a special journey, I can't think of a more fitting candidate.

1. Mugaritz, Errentia, Spain 2009

There are few high end restaurants in the world that divide opinion quite like Mugaritz. It seems that people either love it or hate it. As you can probably guess, we loved it.

San Sebastian is one of my favourite places on the planet, and a great destination for a short break. Whether it's the superb pintxo bars of the old town or any one of the plethora or multi starred restaurants, it's a must visit for food and wine lovers.

Mugaritz is located outside the town of Errentia, about 20 minutes by taxi from the city. The quiet farmhouse type location gives little away about the cutting edge molecular gastronomy going on inside. 
The exterior of Mugaritz, Errentia, Spain.
Before dinner we had champagne and snacks in the garden and were immediately impressed by the staff. Although extremely professional, they were relaxed and seemed to really enjoy their work. After their signature "edible stones" with aioli, we were shown into the calm, yet impressive dining room.
"Edible stones" at Mugaritz
The dining room at Mugaritz
We chose one of their tasting menus with matching wines and settled in for what was to be a stellar experience from start to finish. The professional yet friendly service continued throughout and the staff made us feel like they sincerely wanted us to have a night to remember.

Chef Andoni Adriuz is a disciple of El Bulli and since he opened Mugaritz in 1998 has pushed the boundaries of modern cuisine. His techniques are widely used now but he has continued to evolve and is still at the forefront of his genre. 

What impressed us most about his cooking was that in addition to being visibly spectacular, the flavours were bold and delicious. This was no exercise in style over substance.

Every morsel we ate surprised and delighted us in equal measure,  but a couple of dishes stand out in my mind. A "surf and turf" of sorts using crayfish, pig tails and Iberico ham was a carnival of flavour & texture, and their signature chocolate dish was the best I've ever tasted. 

Pork & crayfish at Mugaritz
The signature "Chocolate Bubbles" dessert at Mugaritz
There was a playful side to some of the dishes with items on the plate turning out to be radically different than they appeared. This created an interaction between staff and guests and helped foster the relaxed and convivial atmosphere. 

On a tour of the kitchen I will never forget how calm and quiet it was, especially given the number of chefs. Mugaritz seems like a great place to work, and Andoni Adriuz seems like a genuinely nice man. In my opinion, this is one of the key factors which made our experience so unforgettable.

As I mentioned at the outset, the most memorable meals are usually the result of multiple factors falling into place, but at the core of every single one are the basics....great food & service. Trends may come and go, but these fundamentals will never go out of fashion.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Memorable Meals

What makes a meal memorable? I've pondered this question for years and have yet to come up with a definitive answer. From the time we were old enough, my significant other and I worked, saved, travelled and dined. She is still putting up with me some 24 years later, and we've clocked up a lot of great meals in that time.

For me, there are a lot of variables which contribute towards a memorable dining experience. Context and expectation are certainly key factors, as is the mood of the diner. For example, the same plate of jamon and olives is likely to taste infinitely better with a warm Spanish breeze in your face than on a rainy Tuesday somewhere off the M50! Also, when dining whilst on holiday, you are more likely to be relaxed and overlook small issues that may irritate more easily if you had to be up for work in the morning.

Over the course of this post and the next, I will attempt to list my top 5 most memorable meals, in reverse order. It's a bit like naming your favourite albums, in that it could change easily depending on how you feel at a particular time. I've eaten some simple meals that have personal significance and are memorable for reasons far beyond what is on the plate. A tomato bruschetta in San Gimignano springs to mind. For that reason, I've tried to pick meals where the food was at a similar level, and the overall experience was very special. As rough criteria go, it's the best I can come up with!

So here goes....before I change my mind again.

5. Thorntons, Portobello, Dublin 2001

Before moving to The Fitzwilliam Hotel, Thorntons were located on the canal at Portobello. At the time, the front of house was headed up by Olivier Meisonnave more recently of Dax. A young Graham Neville, currently head chef at Restaurant 41 was behind the stove. 

Thorntons Portobello : First 2* in Ireland. Source - Thorntons Website

The restaurant had just won it's second Michelin star, the first in Ireland to do so, and we went to celebrate our anniversary. 

It was one of those perfect nights where the planets lined up, and everything fell into place. We ordered the tasting menu and as we knew Kevin & Muriel, a couple of extra courses arrived from the kitchen. The food and service were at a level we had never experienced in Ireland before. The stand-out dish that lingers long in the memory was scallops & foie gras with ceps and black truffle. In the wrong hands it could have been overpowering, instead it was flawless cooking and the perfect balance of rich and delicate. 

Kevin Thornton is one of the best Irish chefs of all time and anyone who is interested in food but has not experienced Kevin's cooking, should put that right as soon as possible.

4. El Cellar de Can Roca, Girona, Spain 2010

We went to Girona for a weekend on the recommendation of our friend and food journalist, Corinna Hardgrave. At the time, Can Roca had 2 Michelin stars and were pushing hard for a third. Since then, they've gone on to reach 3* and No. 1 in the World 50 Best.

The earliest reservation they accept is 9pm and it was unusual to be only diners in the room at 9.05pm...especially with a long, multi-course menu to come. They had a choice of three tasting menus, which by international standards were cracking value. From memory, the one we chose was 10 courses plus extras for about €100.

Dinner started with a bonsai olive tree being wheeled to the table. Hanging from the tree were caramelised olives stuffed with anchovy gel. The slight crack of the coating yielded an umami hit of warm anchovy that kick-started the taste buds into life. This was followed by a series of snacks before the first course from the menu arrived.

Over the next four hours, we enjoyed course after course of technically perfect, beautifully balanced food. As with most tasting menus, some dishes stood out more than others and even now I remember the sole. It was deceptively simple yet near perfection. Immaculate fish coupled with strong flavours that managed to elevate but not overpower.  

Sole with Mediterranean flavours at El Cellar de Can Roca

The restaurant is located in an unassuming suburb of Girona but once inside the gate, the stunning courtyard building and cool, contemporary setting set the tone for a very special experience.

The stunning dining room at El Cellar de Can Roca
Obviously this is very much a special occasion destination and for most people, myself included, probably a once in a lifetime meal. If the opportunity ever comes your way...grab it with both hands.

3. Gregan's Castle, County Clare, 2010

I'd never heard of Gregan's Castle until friends of ours, who really know their stuff, raved about the food. County Clare is one our favourite places in the world so we needed little persuasion to hit the M7.

The hotel has real charm and we immediately felt at ease. We'd been advised that in order to really experience the talent of chef Mickael Viljanen, we should opt for the tasting menu. 

Gregans Castle Hotel, Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare

When we took our seats in the modest dining room, it was difficult to foresee the gastronomic treats which lay ahead. 
The savoury beetroot meringues with smoked eel set the tone for what was to be a game changing dinner. 

Much of the cooking was rooted in the French classics but the techniques and processes were like nothing we'd seen in Ireland before. Every dish managed to be original and inventive, but most importantly, the flavours worked and each mouthful was utterly delicious. It's rare to find a tasting menu without a single bum note, but this was flawless.

Mickael Viljanen's cooking - Inventive, modern, but always delicious
Mickael has since departed the Burren for The Greenhouse in Dublin and continues to push boundries. For my money, he's the most talented chef working in Ireland at the moment. 

I'm going to wrap up this post now as it's getting a bit long. Stay tuned for the next post which will follow shortly, and feature my top two most memorable meals. 

Monday, 6 October 2014

The facts about restaurant no-shows

I started working in a restaurant at weekends and school holidays when I was 15 years old. It may come as a surprise to some given my *ahem* youthful appearance, that this was all of 27 years ago!

The problem of people making bookings, confirming on the day, and then not turning up, was as big a problem then as it is now.  The difference now is that it gets reported more thanks to social media. This may just prove to be an important factor in reducing the problem over the long term.

The first reaction of most people when they hear about it is "why not take credit cards and charge a fee for no-shows?" This is a perfectly reasonable suggestion but difficult to implement in practice here. The reason is that there are specific economic factors which need to exist in order for this to succeed. Demand must exceed supply. This is the case at Christmas time which enables restaurants to requests deposits and credit card confirmations.

My own view is that we do not have a large enough pool of diners in this country, nor do we have a sufficiently well developed culture of dining out. It has certainly improved but I still think that too many Irish diners are indifferent about their choice of restaurant. Price is the biggest driver for many.

Like most restaurants, we had a big issue with no-shows in Alexis. We decided to pilot a scheme for four weeks in 2011 to try combat the problem. We planned to take credit card details with every booking and charge a fee of €25 per person for confirmed bookings that were unfulfilled. It was a spectacular failure and we abandoned it after two weeks. We found that regular customers only very reluctantly gave their details, while others were outraged and simply went elsewhere. It appeared that we succeeded only in getting our customers' backs up.

I've read a few suggestions on Twitter and various other media recently about what can be done to eradicate the problem here. Most are unworkable, mainly for the reasons outlined above. International destination restaurants such as Grant Achatz's Next in Chicago can get away with selling tickets. I suspect that Irish restaurants fighting for business to survive would have a harder job.

So what can be done to solve the problem in Ireland? I don't believe there is any one "quick fix" solution. In my opinion, the best chance of reducing no-shows in the long term in education. The more the issue gets highlighted in social and mainstream media, and people become aware how damaging it is for small businesses, the better chance of it eventually becoming frowned upon and socially unacceptable. 

In the meantime, restaurants can look to take credit card details for peak times like Saturday nights to ease the burden. In addition, they can over book to compensate for inevitable no-shows. This has to be carefully managed however, and must never penalise guests who arrive on time for their reservation.

The restaurant business is tough enough without having to deal with this unnecessary and avoidable problem. Genuine issues can always arise, but in many cases it is caused by people either staying in the pub or else booking several restaurants and deciding last minute which one to go to. 

Every time I read restaurants tweeting about it, I remember how disheartening it was. It's one of the very few things I don't miss about the business.