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. 

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