Dining high spots of 2012
People are still spending money in restaurants, but they’re looking for better value and less pomp, writes CATHERINE CLEARY
A nother year, another 50 odd shades of dinner, and if there was a theme to 2012 it was inconspicuous consumption. The culture of flaunting wealth during the boom has been replaced with hiding it in a Penneys bag. People spent money last year but they didn’t want to be seen spending it, so fine dining was replaced with casual eating and everyone felt more comfortable.
Cash poured into mid-range restaurants in the millions, much of it flowing out of the pub trade and into the bite-after-work places which have opened in their droves in Dublin. According to one insider, one new Dublin restaurant this year took €115,000 in the first week of opening its doors.
Outside Dublin, the inconspicuous consumption crowd stayed home lots of nights, leaving rural and smaller city restaurants struggling to survive. It’s harder to pretend you haven’t a bean when you’re clinking Prosecco glasses in a small town or village.
The lovely O’Brien Chophouse in Lismore was the highest profile casualty when its summer tourist trade went through the floor and it closed before the winter lull could kill it stone dead.
The French food inspectors decided Ireland deserved two more stars, a surprise one for Locks on Dublin’s Grand Canal and the second for Galway’s Aniar. Like or loathe the Michelin system, Aniar’s star was a blessing from the sky that sets it on a firm footing. Its bookings are now coming from customers who would never have considered dining in this restaurant that looks like a coffee-shop before the red rosette for Enda McEvoy’s stellar food arrived.
The second theme was the deconstructed dinner. There were fewer starters, mains and desserts and more tasting plates, tapas, mezze, small stuff. It wasn’t all good or even interesting. Small is not necessarily beautiful.
So these are my restaurant oscars for the year, the magical mouthfuls I enjoyed from kitchen craftspeople who let the best (mostly Irish) ingredients speak for themselves. The places where it’s all about the food, not the celebrities or the largest profit margin or the franchise, gave me my happiest food moments. So long 2012 and thanks for all the fish ... and chips, and steak and risotto and beetroot.
Finnish chef Mikael Viljanen is a master of taking an ingredient such as celeriac and making it into the best, most memorable piece of celeriac you’ll taste. He did it this year with sliced duck hearts and a piece of celeriac that he dressed up like an aubergine with a dark rye skin. His cooking at The Greenhouse on Dublin’s Dawson Street is memorable.
The Greenhouse, Dawson St, Dublin 2, tel: 01-676 7015
A close second was Kevin Thornton’s four fat Dublin bay prawns in a fluffy prawn and truffle sauce in Thornton’s Restaurant on Stephen’s Green. Each prawn came with a pearly slice of white Alba truffle on top, mandolined thin enough to read through.