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Bang on trend

Tastes change and Irish restaurateurs are quick to bring the latest global food fashions home

 

One of the anomalies of the recession was the unexpected reinvigoration of the Irish dining scene. Dublin city centre has more eateries than ever with change-of-usage building developments and expansion of existing restaurants leading to an increase of over 1,250 new restaurant seats in the past 18 months. The recovery is slower to show itself beyond the capital in terms of restaurant openings but up and down the country existing restauranteurs are embracing new ways of securing their place in diners’ lives. So, who’s eating where, what are we ordering and how do our restaurant trends compare with the international dining scene?

1 Casual dining
Today’s diners want good food but without the fuss and pomp of formal dining . Bord Bia’s recent PERIscope 2013 report ranks “Quick Service Restaurants” as the strongest food-service sector, now and until 2018 at least. Old-fashioned fast food is being re-invented with the global move towards “ fast good ”, often with a focus on a single-item menu.

First burgers got a makeover, then burritos and now sausages are big news thanks to restaurants such as Dublin’s Worscht and Fritehaus and Cork’s Sausage Grill .

2 Blurring the lines
How, where and when we eat out is up for grabs. High-end US department stores are reintroducing in-store eateries to encourage “dwell time ”, while galleries, bike shops and boutiques are using in-house cafes to increase footfall. Think Lennox at The Visual, Carlow or Dublin’s Coppa Cafe at the RHA Gallery, Rothar Bike Café on Fade Street and Tamp & Stitch in Temple Bar. Casual places in Dublin include Pitt Bros BBQ on South Great Georges Street, and Pizza e Porchetta on Grand Canal Quay which offer all-day food service, meeting the demands of our increasingly fluid lives . Flexible dining menus like those in Etto on Merrion Row, are based around small plates and welcome shared experiences . And as the Irish pub tackles its identity crisis, bars such as The Taphouse in Ranelagh , Deasy’s in Clonakilty, and Bierhaus and Eat @Massimo Bar, both in Galway, are answering the call for craft beers and food to share .

3 EATertainment
The shift from expense-account spend to leisure spend sees restaurants pitting their skills against the entertainment business . Ground-breaking international chefs are interrogating how sensory stimuli affects our food experience, from silent suppers and dining in the dark to the Spanish venture, El Cell er de Can Roca’s Il Somni – a 12-course opera-based banquet exploring culinary history , landscape and poetry at El Cellar de Can Roca restaurant in Girona, Catalunya.

The trickle-down? In Dublin a chef’s table in Chapter One’s kitchen and Forest Avenue’s tasting menu hand-delivered by chefs . News of the Curd supper club decamping to Ballinlough castle , Co Meath to host a magical banquet at this summer’s Body & Soul festival .

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4 Craft beers and classy cocktails
Irish restaurants traditionally made money on wine mark-ups rather than food margins, but recent duty increases have squeezed the consumer’s wine spend, making the traditional model a challenge. Many restaurateurs are opting to upsell on cocktails (tapping into a thirst for experimentation and affordable luxuries); on craft beers, local or otherwise (even imported craft beers carry a story and sense of authenticity); or both (the US flirtation with sour beers and beer cocktails has hit these shores in the likes of Vintage Cocktail Club) . Newcomer Opium on Dublin’s Wexford Street gives customers a polaroid souvenir of their cocktail to capture the moment .

5 Healthy eating
In Bord Bia’s PERIscope survey 2013 comparing 10 European countries, Irish diners proved the most health-oriented, with eight out of 10 of us boasting healthy diets .

The “free-from ” brigade hold economic sway and home-grown companies echo the US success of Veggie Grill, and Chop’t and Tossed. Meanwhile, as UK institutions such as children’s hospitals and schools rethink their food offer, healthy kids meals are becoming de rigour, especially for family-focused dining. Brasserie le Pont’s current campaign to reinstitute Sunday lunch is a good example.

6 Root to stalk
Forget nose-to-tail eating: from micro-herbs adding wow and lesser-used ends taking centre stage (think brussel tops or parsley root), embracing the humble vegetable is where it’s at now. Protein-lite mains with “flexiterian ” appeal are filtering down from Paris’s l’Ardege via Belfast’s Ox to menus throughout the country, while foragers and kitchen gardens reign.

Meanwhile Ireland’s Heritage Potato Collection (a nomadic project headed by Dermot Carey and David Langford which had temporary outposts in Sligo, Donegal and Dublin) has been hogging headlines thanks to the joint-patronage of Dublin’s Urban Farm and Boxty House.

7 Looking outwards

Local sourcing remains high on the agenda but coupled with a curiosity for international flavours. Mexican has more to give the world at large, from chia (a superfood seed) and chiccarones (crispy pork rind) to moles (complex curry-style casseroles) . Middle-Eastern cooking is only getting into its stride, with the Ottolenghi-effect boosted by the growing profile of Beirut restaurateur Kamal Mouzawak who recently cooked a pop-up dinner at Galway’s Ard Bia. But we’re not done with Asia yet, by a long shot. Asian fusion sees the likes of nam plaa (fish sauce), srirachi (sour chile sauce) and shichimi togarashi (Japanese seven-spice) going mainstream in Western dishes, while cultural hybrids such as Vietnamese banh mi (filled baguette) tick all sorts of boxes. Asian restaurants are popping up over the island, from Limerick’s Taikichi to Galway’s Asian Teahouse and Dublin’s Faat Baat.