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  • Some good news

    November 24, 2009 @ 10:15 pm | by Tom

    I am more than grateful to the Sydney Morning Herald (indeed, I am grateful to Sydney for being such a cheering city) for a round-up of stuff we didn’t know about so-called superfoods.

    Bacon and ice cream have significant benefits while apples may cause you to spend more time at the dentist’s. Or so they say. There is still nothing to beat a balanced diet, especially one that involves bacon and ice cream. Heston Blumenthal will be relieved.

    And red wine, according to recent research, is still good for you. One generous glass per diem is just the ticket, it seems. Mind you, Oliver St John Gogarty once said that “there is no such thing as a large glass of whiskey.” Perhaps he would have said the same of red wine, who knows?

  • Was everything alright?

    @ 1:02 pm | by Tom

    I spent some time yesterday with a gathering of restaurant and bar people and heard some interesting stories of how the recession is biting. We can take the pressure on margins as read, of course, but customer behaviour seems to be changing. None of my informants had been thrown from the bonnet of a customer’s car after a dispute over the bill, unlike an unfortunate manager in Bournemouth. However, it does seem that some people are trying to get something sliced off the bottom line.

    One woman complained that her pie was “too hot”. “Look,” she said, “it’s still bubbling”. The manager in question was so surprised by this that he sent a complimentary bottle of wine to the table. Some complainers, I was told, wait until they have eaten over 80% of a dish before whingeing and this, surely, must indicate that they are simply looking for a cut off the bill.

    Pure ignorance is a different matter. When someone complained that their vichysoisse was “stone cold”, the restaurant manager (in a rather grand Irish establishment) immediately offered a different dish as he didn’t want to embarass the customer. Instead, he was told, sharply, “just heat the bloody thing up!”.

    According to one maitre d’, the gambit of complaining in order to get a discount reaches its height at post-conferring lunches. He does not know why but is grateful that “they tend to be one-off customers”.

    I am soon to experience, for the first time, what it is like to wait on table. Paolo Tullio and I will be acting as sommeliers at a fund raising dinner in Dublin on 8 December. This is in aid of the Laura Lynn Children’s Hospice and Pat Kenny will be maitre d’. George Hook and Rosanna Davidson, amongst other luminaries, will be taking the orders. Dinner will be €250 per head, including some lovely wines, and there’s no cut for whingeing.

  • The end of Cadbury’s as we know it…

    November 23, 2009 @ 10:22 am | by Tom

    Cadbury’s, as you will know by now, has rejected the multi-billion dollar hostile bid from Kraft. But Kraft seem very determined and have upped the offer. Hersheys is counter-bidding. Could this be the end of Cadbury’s as we know it? Chocosnobs may sneer at Dairy Milk (I like the odd square with some scalding hot tea every now and then) but at least it’s chocolate. I’ve never been sure about Hersheys. Anyway, more importantly, what about the future of Cadbury-owned Green & Black’s, the organic chocolate pioneers? Hershey took over a high quality chocolate brand in the US some time ago and the consequences were interesting.

    Well, here’s a cautionary tale from The New York Times.

  • Tar in a jar?

    November 19, 2009 @ 1:24 pm | by Tom


    This morning dawned dark, wet and windy. And thanks to the howling gale that used our bedroom chimney as a kind of…er…wind instrument throughout the small hours, not much sleep was to be had. We live on a hill so we can watch the plain below getting flooded, but the downside is that we are buffeted by the virtual hurricane that continues as I write.

    It was a morning for a comforting breakfast, so I cooked the first batch of porridge of the Winter: pinhead oatmeal, water and a bit of salt, cooked and then eaten with a drop of milk. I resisted the temptation to add a splash of cream, something that translates this humble and cheap brekkie into the realms of luxury while, at the same time, taking some of the good and the virtue out of eating porridge in the first place.

    For some, there is comfort to be had, too, from Marmite, the love-it-or-hate it yeast extract which has been described as “tar in a jar”. My own Marmite history is unusual in that I acquired a taste for the stuff quite late in life. I think I was pushing forty by the time I embraced (rather a sticky business) the black, viscous stuff that was invented by Baron von Liebig, the man who did much to develop artificial fertilisers if I’m thinking of the right man.

    I gather from a straw poll that Marmite is not generally regarded as an acquired taste, i.e. one that you develop with persistence (like drinking Guinness; how many people think, on first draught of this other black stuff, “that’s like mother’s milk’?) The general feeling amongst those whom I asked about it was Marmite enthusiasm is essentially genetic.

    Although I steered very clear of the stuff for decades, I do remember a substance called Gye (which stood for Guinness Yeast Extract) and which was still around when I was just about learning how to sleep through the night. I remember having it on toast, and my mother putting into stews and soups. I have a feeling that it was a bit like the rather mild Vegemite from Australia and I suppose, having developed a taste for it, Marmite was just de trop.

    Fans will be glad to know that Unilever, who now own the brand, are producing The Bumper Book of Marmite in time for Christmas. Equally, they will be displeased to hear that Peter York, “the style guru” (I wonder is that what it says on his passport?), has declared that Marmite is not an iconic brand. Oh, come on Peter! How much more iconic can a brand be?

    Anyway, my mission (should I decide to accept it – and I’m afraid there’s not much choice in the matter) is to go out to our woods and use a shovel to divert an impromptu stream which is moistening a neighbour’s winter barley to an unacceptable degree. I shall return, wet and windswept, and tuck into toast and Marmite. Then I’ll tackle the slow-roast shoulder of lamb (I got the joint for a fiver this morning) and get back to my real work.

  • Not a time to worry about Michelin stars…

    November 16, 2009 @ 1:32 pm | by Tom

    According to a report from the Restaurants Association of Ireland one in three Irish restaurants are in grave danger of closing. It also confirms what many of us have believed for quite a while: that some 80% of restaurants are trading at a loss.

    The RAI are not putting forward any glib solutions to the problems that restaurants face but they are calling for a reduction in the minimum legal wage from €8.65 to €7.65 per hour and, somewhat bizarrely, for the abolition of VAT on drink in restaurants. The first suggestion makes a great deal of sense. The level of our minimum legal wage is a relic of times that are now dead and buried and we will not see their like again (or, if we do, we should be very worrried) and needs urgent revision. But the chances of getting the Government to exempt restaurant drinks from VAT are nil.

    According to the RAI, Ireland is the most expensive country in Europe in which to run a restaurant and I can well believe it. They describe “food input costs” as being a whopping 24% higher than the EU average. And given that we have the highest rate of duty and VAT on wine (including an extra-punitive tax on sparkling wine) it’s a wonder that there are any restaurants left at all.

    Having said all that, this is probably the best time ever to eat out. Certainly in Dublin, where there is just about a critical mass in terms of population. Prices are keen, expecially if you get your timing right, there has been a spate of interesting new openings in recent months, more restaurants are taking more care about sourcing, and, while imagination is still a bit of rarity, there is now a very gratifying choice of styles and cuisines out there.

    However, if the RAI is right and there is going to be a massive cull of restaurants (and it does seem that there are actually more restaurants in Dublin now than there were at the height of the boom), we can only hope that it will be the less deserving ones that vanish. Given the addiction of The Fates to irony you can be pretty sure that some of the casualties will be restaurants that are doing a very fine job. And that some toxic extablishments will still keep their heads above the flood.

    Meanwhile, thanks to The New Yorker, we learn something (not a whole lot, really) about how Michelin inspectors work. The timing is ironic. I guess there was never a time when chefs in Ireland gave less of a damn about Michelin stars. It’s credit rating, not Michelin rating that matters just now.

  • 700 things we shouldn’t do in a restaurant…

    November 14, 2009 @ 2:31 pm | by Tom

    You may have seen the list of 100 things that restaurant staff should never do. Now restaurant staff have hit back with 700 things that we customers should never do. Yeah, 700. I think there’s just a hunt of an imbalance here. Or are we customers (you know, the people who actually keep restaurants in business) really that bad?

  • The Dubliner decides…

    @ 2:22 pm | by Tom

    It seems a bit incongruous. Here I am sitting in the Crawford Gallery Cafe in Cork, and enjoying the essential Ballymaloeness of the place (that lemon cake with butter icing, for example) and browsing through The Dubliner 100 Best Restaurants 2010 which is just out. Maybe it’s a good way to contemplate Dublin, from somewhere in which the realisation, for a native Dub, that there is – in Coriolanus’s words – “a land elsewhere” and that it’s pretty good, is always at the back of one’s mind. Sorry! I’ll try to keep my sentences shorter…

    When I was a cub wine writer I once interviewed a supremely aristocratic head of one of the great Sherry families in his palatial office in Jerez. This was about 20 years ago and I had heard that one of the company’s brandy warehouses had burned down the night before. So I offered my commiserations and the old man shrugged and said “Pah! Democracy!”

    Which put a bit of a damper on the conversation. It’s not a phrase that I’ve ever used myself, even when the present Government got in, but having read to the end of The Dubliner’s “People’s Choice Top 10″ I was wondering if voting is ever a good idea. Not that the list is way off, or anything. In fact, the 10 are all places in which I would happily eat but it’s such a mishmash: Here it is:

    1 Green Nineteen
    2 L’Gueueleton
    3 Honest to Goodness
    4 Chapter One
    5 Jo’Burger
    6 Dax
    7 Chez Max
    8 Bar Pinxto
    9 The Unicorn
    10 One Pico

    Hmmm. Jo’Burger is fine except for occasional outbreaks of terrible service. Bar Pinxto has obviously come on a lot since my last visit. And The Unicorn? In the top ten? Well, well, well. I mean if I were voting for my top ten and were to leave the food aside, The Troc would come in ahead of The Unicorn.

    The Dubliner has dropped quite a lot of places, most them understandably (and some of them due to the demise of the business). But why give La Mere Zou (right on song, in my view) the push? And The French Paradox? And The Mermaid Cafe? And The Silk Road Cafe? I can understand the deletion of The Wild Goose if this was based on a visit some time ago. Actually, the food here is very good now – for the first time since it opened.

    But that’s the thing about restaurant guides. They are very personal. In my recent Restaurant List (not a “guide” as I stressed at the time), I had room for – I think – 123 places throughout the entire country. And some of my choices were regarded as eccentric. The Dubliner has to choose 100 restaurants in Dublin and some of the choices strike me as a bit odd. Zaytoon, for example. And Shanahan’s. I’m not sure about Peploe’s. Three question marks is not bad.

    I only spotted one mistake (as against three in my own effort) which is remarkable. (Martin McCaffrey is multi-talented but he has surely not stepped into the kitchen at his Hole in the Wall pub and become head chef? Have I missed something?)

    And, as always with The Dubliner 100 I have found several places which I want to visit. Le Bon Crubeen, for example. And HerbStreet. It has even prompted me to return to The Pig’s Ear.

    At €5.99 this little book is a steal. The writing is not quite as acerbic (or borderline actionable) as it was when Trevor White was in charge but it’s still pungent and pithy. But it made me realise that the words “foodie” and “eatery”, with both of which I have sinned, from time to time, now make me want to throw up. Other than that, it’s a useful little volume with which I would be prepared to be seen in public. In fact I’m flaunting it just now but, this being Cork, nobody has noticed….

  • Iveagh League

    November 13, 2009 @ 12:47 am | by Tom


    My first visit to The Storehouse at the Guinness Brewery in St James’s Gate (or “The Brewery as my grandfather called it) this evening and I have to say I’m not surprised that this is Ireland’s leading tourist attraction. The self-guided tour is quite brilliant and the Gravity Bar at the top, with panoramic view of Dublin, is a simply stunning space. Everybody has known this for ages, of course. I’m just a bit slow.

    The occasion was the first public showing of a film by Arthur Edward Rory Guinness, 4th Earl of Iveagh, an affectionate history of what was, until comparatively recently, the family firm, and a reminder of how the Iveagh Trust, which still provides low cost housing for people on small incomes, started as the first Earl’s Bull Alley project. Shocked at some of the worst housing conditions in Europe, he set about building the Iveagh flats in the 1890s.

    “The Guinness family has been very good to the people of Dublin,” Brendan Behan (a big customer) once said. “But the people of Dublin have been very good to the Guinness family,” he added. Well, it wasn’t just the people of Dublin, of course. You could argue that Guinness was the first brand with a real claim to be global.

    I mourn the loss of Guinness Brew 39 which was an astonishingly lovely take on the original Uncle Arthur: given its unique and fragrant character by what I think is called “late hopping”, which is not a dance. But I tried Guinness Mid-Strength this evening and loved it. True, it lacks some of the body of The Real Thing but at – I’m guessing here – about 3% abv it’s a great pint. Served a bit too cold, as all Guinness seems to be these days, but quite refreshing. I wonder if there’s anywhere left that serves the Black Stuff at something nearer room temperature.

    When I was small, I had an obsession with trucks and vans and I still treasure a copy of The Observer’s Book of Commercial Vehicles (1966 edition). So you can imagine how pleased I was to find a Bedford TK 1979 artic parked outside, with the proper old Guinness blue and gold livery and three of those huge grey cannisters that were used to send Guinness across the water before the launch of the MV Miranda Guinness.

    This boat was named for Ned Iveagh’s mother, Miranda Iveagh who had a bad fall last week and was not able to come to Dublin for the event this evening. But his brother Rory was there along with Moyne cousins Kieran and Desmond and the more distant Straffan branch was represented by Robert Guinness of Steam Museum fame. This is starting to sound like a social column, so enough of that.

    But not before mentioning that Ned got one of Guinness’s retired brewers to taste the two beers which he produces in his “great-grandfather’s potting shed” at Elveden in Suffolk. The verdict on the stout was “you need more CO2, but, actually, just stick with the ale.” Elveden Ale and Elveden Stout are sold locally in East Anglia.

    Ned’s film Guinness: A Short History by the Earl of Iveagh is available on DVD and part of the proceeds will go to the Iveagh Trust.

  • Coffee?

    November 12, 2009 @ 2:36 pm | by Tom

    I like coffee. I like it too much, indeed, and have to ration myself. What kind of coffee? An espresso after a meal, a proper cappucino (strong coffee, shaving foam on top), turbo-charged plunger with hot milk on Saturday morning, an occasional macchiato as a pick-me-up. I’m not a coffee snob and can’t detect those subtle notes that so exercise the more excitable barristas. But I know what I like.

    What I don’t like is Starbucks. What don’t I like about Starbucks? Let me count the ways…

    On second thoughts, let Will self do it for me in the New Statesman.

  • For those who wait…

    November 11, 2009 @ 12:57 pm | by Tom

    I have just come across 100 tips (of the non-financial kind) that all waiting staff should bear in mind. It’s an American list, mind you, so there are a few that relate specifically to that culture but most of them are very sound (and some of them are very obvious). Any suggestions for additions or subtractions?

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