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  • Awkward customers

    October 16, 2009 @ 12:47 am | by Tom

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    It’s not that customers rarely have genuine complaints in restaurants, it’s just that too many people don’t know how to complain. And even fewer restaurateurs know how to respond. We, in Ireland, are a polite people by and large. By the time we actually decide to complain we tend to have built up a head of steam and the first salvo in the ensuing exchange ends up looking like a blast from a flame-thrower.

    Many readers of The Irish Times seem to decide that discretion is the better part of valour; they register a mild complaint and then email the restaurant in the cold light of dawn. Good policy, I would say. And good restaurants respond in a similarly measured fashion. In the end, both sides are happy. Occasionally, of course, the restaurant goes silent and the displeased customer tells all their friends what happened and customers, actual and potential, are lost. And they often copy me their complaint, for which I am most grateful.

    I have a huge file of emails containing correspondence between angry eaters and restaurateurs and I have developed what I think is a bit of a nose for people who go out looking for trouble and who are never happier than when they are complaining. They are a very small minority but they are pretty painful.

    I see that Neil Perry, one of Australia’s most celebrated chefs, has had his email correspondence with a disgruntled customer, placed in the public domain. This could be quite embarassing but, given that great chefs tend to be a touch temperamental and are not known for their PR skills, I think Perry acquitted himself pretty well. He’s a busy man and unlike a lot of celebrity chefs, e.g. Gordon Ramsay, he actually cooks.

    I can’t judge the rights and wrongs of this dispute, of course. But the secret of effective complaining is brevity and the avoidance of any suggestion that you might, just possibly, be considered a bit of a pain. On this occasion – and this is just my opinion – Perry’s email adversary seems to have erred in this respect.

    I’ve eaten Perry’s food on several occasions and it has varied between the near sublime and the overpriced and ordinary. But there’s no doubt that when he’s on song he’s brilliant. Mind you – and it’s been a couple of years since I’ve eaten in Sydney – I prefer to head out to Jared Ingersoll’s Dank Street Depot. Very different stuff, right enough, but more my bag. Food is fashion in Sydney, to a greater extent than in many cities, and you sometimes get a side order of “attitude”. Much of what Neil Perry has to say in his email correspondence is measured, witty and polite – especially when you consider that Australians are inclined to say what they think. Without a whole lot of subtlety.

  • Mea culpa…The Greens are still green

    October 13, 2009 @ 12:11 pm | by Tom

    Yesterday’s ruminations on news from the world of food included a rather shocking error. Because I missed any reports, I assumed that the Green Party had not made the GM issue a bargaining point with their coalition partner. But they did. And they seem to have secured some important policy changes. Had I read Deaglan’s piece in yesterday’s newspaper properly, I would not have been in the dark.

    Read the details here

  • In and out of the news

    October 12, 2009 @ 9:55 pm | by Tom

    There was a story in yesterday’s Sunday Times about the felicitously named Jorg Zipprick and his attack on Ferran Adria, arguably the most famous chef in the world, who cooks extraordinary dishes at his El Bulli restaurant in Spain (which featured recently in The Irish Times magazine). Adria’s customers, according to Herr Zipprick, a German food writer, are ingesting chemicals that are commonly used in the “molecular gastronomy” of which Adria is the leading exponent but which can, he argues, have unfortunate effects. These range, he claims, from a laxative effect (cf licquorice and artichokes) to more serious health implications.

    Herr Zipprick is reported as claiming that you will get 15% of your annual dose of food additives in one sitting at El Bulli. This, however, rather begs the question of how much processed food you eat on a regular basis but doubtless he has worked out some method of calculation over which he can stand. The book, which was quoted by The Sunday Times, is yet to appear on amazon.com, as far as I can gather, and I know next to nothing about Herr Zipprick. However, I can confirm that he is not a character in ‘Allo ‘Allo.

    Meanwhile The Daily Telegraph has reported that 17,000 doughnut-hamburgers were sold at a fair in Massachusets. As the name implies, this is a hamburger (with all the trimmings) served in a ring doughnut rather than the usual bread bun. This bizarre creation is estimated to weigh in at a mere 1500 calories and has been named the Luther Burger, after the late Luther Vandross and not Martin, the late divine who favoured the Diet of Worms. Given a choice, to be frank, I’d prefer to take my chances with Ferran Adria’s additives.

    And, as they say, in other news, here is the story that never happened. The Green Party, due to some curious oversight, did not make a GM-free Ireland a condition of continuing in government with Fianna Fail. I don’t want to go into the pros and cons of GM food here just at the moment (this is a debate that, in the old cliche, tends to generate more heat than light) but I’m just puzzled as to how green the Greens really are if they have joined the agnostic tendency on GMOs. Perhaps they think that the horse has bolted at this stage and that, as Herr Frick might have put it, resistance is useless.

  • Seeds of hope…and a right pear

    @ 1:33 am | by Tom

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    I don’t know what the going rate for an allotment is these days but a friend of mine has been offered 100 square metres of Wicklow hillside for €300 per annum and 45 square metres a bit closer to Dublin for the same. Both are rotovated and ready for planting (not that you would put in much at this time of the year – garlic and heat-treated onion sets, I suppose). This certainly beats farming in terms of income per square metre. We make less than that on five or six acres of hay or silage each year.

    However, it’s good to know that people are so keen to grow their own. I was ruminating on this as we sat outside in the sun for lunch today (it felt like a pleasant, if breezy, July afternoon), concluding that gardening is all about optimism. Perhaps some newly converted tillers of the soil will have been put off for life by the terrible summer we had this year but I’d be willing to bet that most of them are just hoping for better in 2010. Anything that encourages such a sense of hope, especially in these straitened times, has to be a good thing.

    Of course, there’s a fine line between hope and crazy optimism. At least in the sphere of growing stuff. This is the time of year that gardeners turn their minds to the new crop of seed catalogues and few of us manage to order enough packets to see us through the coming year and no more. Every gardener that I know has a backlog of seed packets and mine has come to the stage where it is developing an historical interest. I still have parsnip seeds from the last century, which is quite hopeless. Parsnip seed needs to be a fresh as a daisy to have any hope of germinating. And then there’s the kohl rabi from 2003 and the 2/3 full packet of swede seed from…oh…years ago when I grew a row of these charmless brassicas for a friend who has a weakness of the things. And why, oh why, do I still have an unopened packet of field beans (or possibly some other form of green manure) that has been past its sow-by date for at least five years?

    The one category of seed that accumulates in the inventory of thrifty gardeners is lettuce. This is because you get an awful lot of seed in a packet and anyone who is smart enough to sow them in modules or little pots will have enough to keep them going for decades. The trouble is that lettuce seed can suddenly stop working and much of it is thrown away. This is a terrible waste because lettuce seeds remains viable for many years. But if they go dormant they will stay that way, refusing to come up, until they get a good chilling. All you need to do is to put them in the fridge for a few days and they will spring, once again, into life. I made the mistake of sowing about 60 little modules with the over-wintering lettuce Montel only to find that nothing was budging. Putting them in the freezer overnight was probably not a great idea – but there was no room in the fridge. And, yes, I did enclose the lot in a big plastic bag for reasons of hygiene!

    Perhaps it was the lack of sun throughout much of the year but some plants have been reaching for the sky. The Jerusalem artichokes (which went in rather late) have now hit 3 or 4 metres and this week burst into flower, which is unusual. You can see from the yellow blossoms that they are closely related to the sunflower. And the pears, particularly the Doyenné du Comice, is shooting upwards like mad and will need to be topped during the Winter. This is a truly lovely pear if you handle it right. You need to pick the fruit when they are still hard but willing to part company with the tree without much tugging. Bring the pears inside and let them finish ripening for two or three days and you will be rewarded with luscious, juicy flesh of incomparable flavour. And, on a pedantic note, it’s Doyenné, not Doyenne. Seemingly it’s named after the Deanery not the Dean. Not a lot of people know that. And I certainly didn’t until the other day.

    It has been a poor season for eating apples in our part of the world. But the good old Bramley Seedling, the traditional Irish cooking apple, has done well. We stewed some last night with a few blackberries and that tart acidity made a pleasantly clean end to the meal. Soon it will be time to pick the medlars. Now, unless you like “bletted” medlars (you pick them and let them ferment inside until they bloat or “blett” and then eat them as you would a Kiwi fruit – a somewhat acquired taste) the only thing to do with this ancient fruit (known as cul de chien in French; look at them closely and you will see why) is to make medlar jelly. In the past, ours has been too runny. This year, we’ll use jam sugar and hope for the best.

    The Fruit Project for next year will be persuading the quinces to set fruit. They produce lovely flowers in the Spring and then nothing at all. We will try feeding and mulching and TLC. We may even talk to them, giving them an occasional pep talk, perhaps even a veiled threat…

  • Advice to a newly appointed Ceann Comhairle

    October 6, 2009 @ 11:33 pm | by Tom

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    I’ve been slow in catching up with my radio listening and it was only today that I listened to Pat Kenny on the issue of John O’Donoghue’s expenses. Pat seemed to be rather exercised that the CC, who is to resign shortly, had clocked up a bill of €293 at Shanahan’s, the celebrated steak restaurant on St Stephen’s Green, while entertaining his deputy, the Leas Ceann Comhairle, some time ago.

    Now, I’m a little handicapped in commenting on this as I believe that I am barred from entering Shanahan’s, or so I’m told. I am certainly barred, as I know from personal experience, from Les Freres Jacques in Dame Street but I have never tested my putative exclusion from Shanahan’s. I’m not sure that I will get around to doing so any time soon.

    Shanahan’s does a fine steak, at a price, and it offers a great opporunity for anyone who likes to worship at the altar of Irish Americanism (you can genuflect in the direction of JFK’s rocking chair, which is in the bar, if you are so inclined). And in the boom times, Shanahan’s afforded an opportunity for the newly wealthy to relieve some of the pressure that built up incessantly within their wallets, to lance this financial boil and splurge on the kind of food which, well, which they actually liked. Rather than having to pretend to like foie gras and truffles at Guilbaud’s and Thornton’s. Shanahan’s found itself perfectly placed for the conspicuous consumption which marked the more excessive years of the late Celtic Tiger.

    What surprises me about a man like John O’Donoghue, who is such a delicate creature that he requires a limousine to take him between terminals at Heathrow, is that he managed to run up a bill of only €293 at Shanahan’s. As Pat Kenny seemed to imply, as he elucidated the menu, the Ceann Comhairle was not even trying. I reckon I could rack up €400 at Shanahan’s wihout breaking a sweat, provided, of course, that it’s the tax-payer’s treat.

    Now, given that Mr O’Donoghue is about to retire as gracefully as he can, might I just suggest a few places where his successor could dine in fine style and save a lot of money? We don’t know what the CC and the LCC ate and drank at Shanahan’s for €293 but his successor could eat very well, and drink very adequately, for €150 for two at the following restaurants which are adjacent to Dail Eireann: Town Bar & Grill, Bentley’s, Bang, One Pico, La Maison, La Mere Zou, Pichet, L’Gueuleton… The list goes on… But Shanahan’s and John O’Donoghue do seem to be made for each other.

    Shanhan’s does a generous steak for one for €52. La Maison does a vast one for two for €58. Shanahan’s does something called “Death By Chocolate” (for €12.50). The other restaurants, mentioned above, don’t.

  • Food intelligence

    @ 12:57 pm | by Tom

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    Well, there goes Gourmet magazine. Publishers Conde-Nast have decided to close this landmark US periodical (along with Modern Bride, not a title with which I’m familiar). This is sad news because, despite the twee and old-fashioned title, Gourmet is an intelligent publication that deals with food in the round – not just as a form of entertainment. This is largely thanks to Ruth Reichl, formerly of The New York Times, who transformed the magazine from a rather stodgy, dated menu of predictable stuff to the smart (as in fashionable) and clever (as in intelligent) publication it is today. That is, until November, when it folds for good.

    Gourmet sells almost a million copies but it seems that its advertising has slid further than that of its stablemate, Bon Appetit (yes, they do rather go in for toe-curling titles) which has been spared the executioner’s axe – at least for the time being. Bon Appetit is a considerably shallower publication, perhaps rather more old-fashioned and the kind where you suspect they have a battery of harassed cooks desperately trying to think up new recipes that are…er…new.

    So, nothing new there. The smart and clever publication gets the chop while the…well, let’s just say bland…one offers better prospects to the publishers while the global economic situation remains depressed.

    Watching Professional Masterchef last night and getting irritated at the exaggerated facial expressions and overplayed cold severity of the judges I was rather hoping that at least one of the competitors would greet the judicial questions with a snarling “**** off! Can’t you see I’m busy?”

    Of course, Masterchef, just like our own The Restaurant, is all about entertainment, pure and simple. Such programmes are not meant to be particularly instructive, they are supposed to amuse and keep you watching. Which is what they do. The fact is that virtually all food television (and I think The Restaurant is bloody marvellous) operates at the Bon Appetit end of the spectrum. It will always be a small minority (outside of France, Italy and Spain, on the one hand, and famine-stricken places on the other) who regard food as a matter of life and death.

  • Tum tax

    October 5, 2009 @ 12:04 am | by Tom

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    It has been suggested that if those States in the USA which do not already levy a tax on sugary drinks were to do so they would raise $10 billion annually, enough to wipe out their budget deficits. This would be on the basis of charging 7 cents on the typical can of soda as they call fizzy drinks over there. However, the reasoning is not fiscal, but rather health-based.

    The proponents of the soda tax argue that it could curb the obesity epidemic and the rise in related diseases such as diabetes. And, of course, the manufacturers are disputing that there is anything but the weakest of links between the consumption of soda sweetened with corn syrup and people getting fat.

    I’ve long believed that we should have a sugar tax. I’m not against sugar. Far from it. But I believe that we would be better off consuming a lot less of it. Here’s an opportunity to discourage people from consuming vast numbers of empty calories and making a few bob for the Exchequer at the same time. Surely, it could be done?

    Now, personally, I would tax lots of things that I don’t like but I’m not sure how I’d argue the case. Take instant coffee, for example. The world would be a moderately better place without it. I’d slap a whopping tax on the stuff.

    And bags of mixed salad drenched with chlorine. And ready-grated cheese. And things, with the exception of olive oil, that aim to replace butter. None of these would be missed, except by the very lazy in the case of the former two, and by people with an odd sense of taste in the latter.

    Even though I prefer bottled water to the chlorinated stuff that comes out of the average tap, I think I’d slap a few cents on there too because moving H20 from the mountains of France or, worse still, Fiji, to Ireland is environmentally Not A Good Thing.

    As for boring restaurant menus (slow-roasted belly pork, anyone?; duck confit?; more creme brulee? even more sweet chilli sauce?), I’d just impose a heavy fine…

  • The Restaurant List

    September 29, 2009 @ 12:48 pm | by Tom

    Just a quick but heartfelt thank-you to all those who have said kind things about The Irish Times Restaurant List 2009.

    As I predicted in the introduction, we live in fast moving times and some things have already changed. Augustine’s in Cork is closed pending relocation (an event that will really be worth waiting for) and, I’m afraid, Marc Michel’s organic cafe in Co Wicklow slipped through the net when we were checking details of opening hours. It has been closed for over a year!

    This is not due to lack of business but to the attitude of Wicklow County Council which, bizarrely, appears to believe that running a cafe specialising in organic food (and located on an organic farm) is not appropriate to such a sensitive area (cf the nearby industrial estate?) Apologies to those whose hopes I raised but Marc tells me that he is still fighting to get up and running again. He has huge support locally and from the wider community and I wish him the very best of luck. Perhaps if you feel strongly about this you might consider lobbying Wicklow County Council (visit www.wicklowcoco.ie).

    As expected, there have been a few emails complaining about certain omissions, many of them somewhat justified. By way of explanation, some of the more high profile omissions were down to the sheer pressure on space, especially in Dublin, and some because my last visit and/or trusted report was too long ago to be in any sense current. And, of course, since I dotted the last i and crossed the last t on The List, I’ve discovered several terrific restaurants which would have been included had I found them in time. Such is life…

    One of the more hysterical emailers seems to believe, to adapt a phrase from a different sphere, that there is no salvation outside the Guide. How daft can you get? To take just two examples of fine establishments which were not included (and of which I’ve had detailed reports in recent days): Restaurant No. 32 in Dundalk and Les Gourmandises in Cork.

  • Nostalgia. And the opposite…

    September 22, 2009 @ 11:04 am | by Tom

    A strange chain of thought was set off the other day – as a result of reading Basket Case by Philip Boucher-Hayes and Suzanne Campbell and, oddly enough, a review of Diarmaid Ferriter’s Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland. The review was by Mary Kenny.

    Philip and Suzanne’s book is, amongst other things, a lament for a vanished era when our diet was simpler, more natural and largely produced in Ireland. And Mary Kenny’s review was a kind of a lament, too, for a time when, despite the excesses of Catholic authoritarianism, things were, in her view, not too bad (I’m paraphrasing) all things considered. (She digresses, at one point, to say that while masturbation does not cause blindness, there is some evidence that it can cause vision problems. She doesn’t go on to explain why this should be confined to the Onanistic or DIY form of sex, rather than the mutual sort, but this is probably just as well).

    Well, you can imagine, reading dear old Mary K (I sometimes wonder what I would do if I had to choose between being stuck for hours in a lift with either Mary Kenny or Nell McCafferty; It would be tough but I think I end up opting for Mary), I could not but imbibe some of the sense of nostalgia for a time of Peggy’s Leg, Lemon’s Sweets, Cuticura Soap, Rinso, industrial schools and the Magdalen Laundries.

    I was ten when the 1960s came to their sudden end and I came from a home where food was taken seriously. Now that I come to think of it, we were physically surrounded by Catholicism: Rosminians in front, Vincentians to the west and the south, Carmelites to the north. I served as an altar boy with the Carmelites who, after midnight Mass at Easter, would put on a fine spread of ham sandwiches (with and without mustard) and fruitcake with lashings of hot tea for us youngsters and the chaplain.

    My main food memories of this era concern the perennial roast beef on Sundays, the smell of hot flour and sweet fruit as my mother baked apple tarts, having to import Opal Fruits from Britain, removing loose milk teeth by chewing something called a Bobby Bar, buying a fizzy drink called Mirinda to have with jam doughnuts on the way home from school, discovering asparagus, smoked salmon at Christmas, prawn cocktail from tinned prawns, the distinctive taste of peaches from a can, mandarin oranges from ditto, caramel custards, boozy Christmas puddings, Three Counties cheese spread (toasted), Tuc crackers on a Saturday night in front of The Late Late Late Show, oxtail soup in the refectory at school, fairy cakes, fizzle sticks, sherbet fountains with real liquorice, batch loaf, the smell of Sunday breakfast rashers grilling…

    On other hand. There are so many things that we have now that should, in an ideal world, make us happier people. To take a mere ten of them…

    1. Croissants. Yes, I know they vary but not even the bad ones crossed my palate when I was a child.

    2. Parmesan in a lump. Not in a packet – grated and musty and smelling of vomit.

    3. Olive oil. Proper olive oil not the rancid stuff that my poor mother used to buy in tiny bottles as if it was a medicine. (Actually it was a medicine; that’s why they sold it in chemist’s shops)

    4. Capers. If there were capers in Ireland in the 1960s they must have kept very much to themselves.

    5. Australian Riesling. There was something called Emu Burgundy but I was too young to taste it. I guess I’m fortunate in that.

    6. Real cheese. I grew up on processed stuff and it took me years to adjust to the proper stuff.

    7. Garlic. There was a time when you would have to go to Smith’s on the Green for this dangerous stuff. Possibly with a prescription.

    8. Ginger. It used to come only in powdered form for those deluded enough to think that it, and a glacé cherry, would cheer up a slice of melon.

    9. Chorizo. There was a jelly-like form a salami, I think, when I was little but nothing like chorizo and its deep, smoky, spicy flavour.

    10. Salad. This used to mean a few limp leaves of damp butterhead lettuce, some hardboiled egg (with blue-grey ring around the yolk) and a dollop of salad cream. Now we have actual salad.

    Any further suggestions?

  • Children eating out

    September 21, 2009 @ 9:41 pm | by Tom

    The problem is probably simple. Grown-ups have a rough idea of how to behave at table because they are, well, older and more experienced. But if families don’t eat together around a table, at least a few times in the week, how can we expect children to know how to behave in a restaurant?

    Some parents seem to expect their children to know anyway. Or think that restaurant staff will keep their kids in order. Which is mad and just plain bad manners (on the part of the grown-ups).

    I know I have touched on this issue before but it’s something that exercises a lot of people. My own belief is that too many parents don’t eat in a civilised manner at home – with or without children – and this explains why restaurant staff have to deal with so many people, of all ages, who are not conversant with the social graces. In the US they have “master classes” in table manners. It’s only a matter of time before we have them here. (And, given that American society is, essentially, polite, we probably have more need of them).

    The key point, however, is this: The French, Spanish and Italians don’t seem to have the same problem. I wonder why?

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