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Opening night at The Greenhouse

I was lucky enough to attend the opening night of The Greenhouse on Dawson Street in Dublin yesterday.

Over dinner as we talked, we couldn’t think of another fine dining restaurant to have opened in Dublin in a long time. Possibly since Dylan McGrath’s Mint in 2008? Can that be right?

Either way, The Greenhouse and Finnish chef extraordinaire Mickael Viljanen will have a lot written about them in the coming weeks, so I’ll just leave you with some pictures from last night, taken on my phone. The quality isn’t great, and diminishes as the meal progresses because the natural light in the room faded.

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Overall, I was pretty impressed. In my (not particularly important) opinion, there are one or two small things with some of the dishes that I think could be better –  I just don’t like sea buckthorn for instance, and find it extremely sour — but it would be churlish to focus on them. Overall, it was a great meal. The pollock was particularly good, as was the lamb. Viljanen is a seriously good chef doing something interesting that isn’t currently being done in Dublin, and along with owner Eamonn O’Reilly, he should be encouraged for taking the leap from Gregan’s Castle to Dublin city centre.

For those interested, a five course meal here costs €58 while a seven course tasting menu (the one pictured above) costs €78. Considering that there are actually ten seperate plates of food in the ‘seven course’ option, that means each plate averages out at €7.80. Matching wines cost €35 and €45 for each menu respectively and there is no service charge included. Lunch of 2 courses costs €45 and 3 courses €56.

That’s astonishing value in a city which isn’t used to it, for interesting and exciting food delivered with skill and at a high level — and that will keep this place busy I’d say. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I didn’t pay for my meal last night as I was a guest – but I happily would and will to go back. The Greenhouse will make a worthy addition to Dublin’s fine dining scene.

Bizarre instant sushi sweets

This comes courtest of @Kajuiter on twitter, who in turn picked it up from @ElizabethOnFood.

Bizarre stuff.

Recipe: Porcini risotto, because it’s that time of year

I’m a sucker for mushrooms. Probably something to do with being a vegetarian for a long time, but there’s just something about the earthy chewyness of fresh wild mushrooms that’s just irresistable. I eat them on toast, in omlettes and in soups, but when it comes down to it, none of those ways of enjoying shrooms come close to the rolls royce of flavour vehicles – the risotto. A well-made risotto is just the pinacle of what can be done with mushrooms, and with the right combinations you can make something that really is special.

A mushroom risotto, made with roast chicken stock, carnaroli rice,
pecorino cheese, eryngii and girolle mushrooms.

I credit my growing confidence in actually eating the mushrooms I pick to Bill O’Dea, ace mycophagist and all-round mushroom fan, who has been giving talks on mushroom hunting and gathering for years in Ireland and abroad. (Look him up on twitter under the username @mushroomstuff or on the web at

A Wicklow Penny Bun mushroom, also known as a Cep or Porcini

Here’s a lovely penny bun (aka porcini, aka cep) I picked yesterday while out walking the dog in Wicklow. A lovely specimen, fresh, dense, sweet and really tasty. Probably the best quality mushroom I’ve ever found. I’m going to cook it into a risotto, so I thought some people might be interested in the method I use.

Making a good risotto really isn’t hard, but as a rule I almost never order it in restaurants. Why? Well, at the risk of being controversial, I’ve almost never had one done properly from a professional kitchen, and the reason is that it’s a labour intensive dish to prepare. It’s not technically hard, it just requires someone to look after the pot and in a commercial kitchen, it’s hard for them to spare a chef just for that task. There are obviously going to be exceptions, but unless I’m somewhere where I think the chef really cares, I tend to avoid it.

This is one of those dishes that a home cook can often do better than restaurant chef, as long as they know what they’re doing. They have the crucial ingredient the pro chef doesn’t – time.

So to the method. As always, your dish will never be better than the ingredients you start with, so try to get the best.

Girolles, also known as chanterelles, with some garlic, butter and parsley

You can use many different kinds of mushrooms for risotto – chanterelles or girolles are particularly good, as are trompette des morts, but you can’t beat porcini.

However, the first thing to remember about risotto is that it’s all about the stock – at the moment, I’m a fan of roast chicken stock. Whenever I roast a chicken, I use the leftover roast bones to make a deep flavoursome stock.If you don’t have a good stock, you can use an instant one – knorr makes an all right jellied stock, but really nothing you can buy compares to a proper fresh one.

Anyway, you want a mild flavoured stock, as you’ve going to use a fair bit of it and it’s going to reduce in volume as it cooks into the rice and hence strengthen in flavour. Bring your stock to a simmer, and if you like, add some dried porcini to the stock – as they rehydrate they’ll give the stock a lovely mushroomey flavour – but remember, your stock is going to end up massively reduced, so you don’t want to be too strong at the beginning.

Now for the risotto – heat some butter and good quality olive oil in a saucepan and soften a generous amount of finely diced shallots. There are very few ingredients in this dish, so the shallots make up an important part of the finished flavour – use more than you think you need to. After three or four minutes, add a generous couple of tablespoons of finely chopped garlic and fry for another minute. (It’s important the garlic gets cooked but doesn’t start to burn or take on any colour – that would totally change the flavour.)

Throw in your risotto rice – Arborio is fine but at the moment I seem to be using more Carnaroli – and fry the rice mixture in the butter/oil/shallots/garlic mixture for a few minutes, stirring to make sure each grain of rice is coated in the mix and is slightly toasted but not coloured or obviously not burnt. Throw in a generous glug of a good white wine – a sauvignon blanc works well, or also you can use a glass of a dry vermouth – either are good. (The better the booze, the better the final flavour.)

The rice mixture should be hot enough to bubble and spit when you add your liquid so when you add your wine/vermouth, it should be absorbed pretty quickly. As it’s doing this, turn the heat down to medium and as soon as the wine is fully absorbed start to add your stock one ladle at a time.

The next stage takes about 10/15 minutes – standing by the cooker adding the stock one ladle at a time and constantly stirring every 30 seconds or so. This is the secret to a good risotto – the constant stirring breaks up the starch as the rice cooks and you should end up with a creamy unctuous risotto at the end.

It also allows you to make sure your risotto doesn’t catch on the bottom of the saucepan and burn. Cooking a risotto is a balancing act between adding stock and cooking it out and then adding more but never letting the rice dry out or burn.

After 15 minutes or so, the rice should have increased in volume significantly but will still be a little too underdone when you taste it. Keep adding the stock until the rice starts to taste done – experience is the best way to judge this but a general rule of thumb is that Arborio rice takes around 15 minutes and Carnaroli takes a little bit longer. Carnaroli will also have a bit more bite to it when it’s done – tasting a bit more al-dente.

After 18 to 20 minutes in total, turn the heat off and move the pan off the heat. The risotto is almost done but needs to ‘rest’ for a few minutes to finish. At this point add a generous fistful-and-then-some of freshly grated good quality cheese and several knobs of butter.

Parmasan is the traditional cheese but I prefer a good aged pecorino – Sardinian if you can get it but Romano is fine. Stir it all in and leave it to sit for a few minutes. Three or four is fine – it’s at this point that the risotto is almost totally done. Add fresh cracked pepper and some salt, but taste it first as the cheese can be very salty and sometimes commercially prepared stocks can also have a lot of salt in them – remember, you can always add more salt but you can’t take it out if you overdo it.

While the risotto is resting, heat a generous amount of good quality olive oil in a small pan and when it’s nice and hot throw in some freshly chopped wild mushrooms -porcini taste fantastic, have a great texture and really make this a star dish. However, in Ireland it’s extremely hard to buy fresh porcini – picking them yourself is by far the best way to source them.

So there you go. Be sure to let me know how you get on if you make it.

A day at RPG in pictures

It’s always a pleasure to get to see behind the scenes in a great restaurant, and I’m lucky in that I’ve been able to do this a few times for various work projects. Elsewhere on this blog you can read the article I wrote to mark the 30th birthday of Ireland’s only 2 michelin star restaurant, Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, but I thought some readers might be interested in some of the pictures I took myself during my day with the guys in the kitchen.

There was a professional photographer there for an hour or so as well, but these are strictly amateur shots (taken with an iPhone) – but even so I think they show the kitchen off well. Special thanks to Kieran Glennon (head chef), Guillaume Lebrun (executive chef) and of course Patrick for letting me in to do this.

The first nine shots in this gallery are courtesy of Kieran Glennon, and depict a step by step preperation of a seabass dish, from the hot plate to the pass – the rest are just a general selection from the day. Enjoy!

Stars and stripes: 30 years at Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud

Recently I got to spend a 12 hour day in the company of Kieran Glennon and Guillaume Lebrun behind the scenes at Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud. The restaurant is 30 years old this year, with an astonishing record having maintained a record of two michelin stars for 16 years.

It’s a very impressive restaurant serving some fantastic food, prepared by some really dedicated and interesting people.  If you get a chance to vist, grab it.

Here’s the piece that appeared on the cover of Agenda Magazine in The Sunday Business Post Autumn Food Special. Enjoy.

Stars and stripes: 30 years at Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud
Published Sunday October 9th, 2011, in The Sunday Business Post, by Alex Meehan

Running a sophisticated restaurant in Ireland has not always been easy, but Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud has certainly earned its stripes

When Patrick Guilbaud opened the doors of his eponymous restaurant in Dublin 30 years ago this month, his goal was to sell high-end French cuisine in a fine dining setting to the Irish public. There was only one problem. The food he was serving was so alien to the average customer that they just didn’t know what to make of it.

‘‘We did very classic, high-quality French cuisine, but nobody knew what that was, so we had to explain it to them. They were used to quantity, not quality, so when they saw our small portions they were perplexed,” says Guilbaud.

‘‘It didn’t help that we didn’t put salt and pepper or butter on the tables. We didn’t think we needed to, because the food was already perfectly seasoned. In the end, we had to adapt to our customers, but the learning curve was steep.”

Today, Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud is the only establishment in the country to hold two Michelin stars – it earned its first star in 1988 and its second in 1996. It is now surrounded by scores of other busy restaurants, but when it opened in 1981, fine dining was a new experience for many people.

‘‘Thirty years ago there were very few restaurants in the city – there was Le Coq Hardi, the King Sitric, ourselves and maybe one or two others. Then Whites on the Green appeared, and more. Today there are bars and brasseries everywhere, which is great, but when we opened we had to help people understand the difference between going out to feed themselves in a casual environment, and going out to enjoy a fine meal with an element of theatre to it,” he says.

Braised atlantic turbot, ragout of peas, smoked bacon, pearl onions

Guilbaud is charming, impeccably dressed and looking young for his 60 years when we meet in the Merrion Street restaurant. A trained chef himself, he manages the business affairs of the restaurant while his partners, Stephane Robin and Guillaume Lebrun, look after the day-to-day running of the restaurant and the kitchen, respectively.

‘‘When we opened in 1981, I was determined to do everything properly. I wanted the restaurant to be the real thing, with no compromises and no corners cut. But it wasn’t easy,” says Guilbaud.

‘‘When I went to the market to buy vegetables, I found you could get lots of potatoes, cabbages and parsnips, but not much else. There was no lettuce and nobody knew what a shallot was. There were no fresh herbs either.”

Other challenges have come and gone over the years – and in the case of recession, have come back again. Making money in the restaurant business is notoriously difficult, but doing it with a high-end fine dining establishment when the rest of the world is tightening its belt is even more challenging.

‘‘We’ve had our problems over the years. In the early days we had a lot of borrowings and problems with cashflow – the economy was in turmoil, interest rates were high, duty on wine was sky high. There were PAYE and PRSI obligations, and the tax on margins was as high as 57 per cent. It didn’t help that dining out could no longer be claimed as a business expense,” says Guilbaud.

‘‘But a restaurant is built on its customers, and ours are faithful to us. They come to us because they like what we are doing, and we try to listen to them and work with them. We try to bring things to a new level and make sure we are constantly moving on, and that’s why we’re still here.”

The food served in Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud today is no longer as strictly French as it once was. Executive chef and part-owner Guillaume Lebrun prefers to call his food modern French contemporary cuisine, and his menu includes influences from Japan, China and North Africa.

Slow braised cheek of milk fed veal, lemongrass, kaffir lime, grilled gambas prawn

‘‘We are obviously heavily influenced by French cuisine, but if we can add a bit of Japanese or North African influence to our food and it makes it better, why not? The customer’s level of understanding has improved massively in 30 years. In the 1980s things were tough, and people expected huge amounts of food on the plate. Now they’ve travelled a lot and they are much more interested in food,” says Lebrun.

‘‘You’ll still get the one person in a group who wants a well-done steak and a pile of potatoes, but I find that is happening less and less. And, of course, they can have their meat done whatever way they like it – I don’t like meat cooked that way because I think it has no flavour and is tasteless – but the customer is the customer.”

According to Lebrun, in the early days some dishes simply didn’t work for an Irish audience, and had to be taken off the menu.

‘‘Things like lamb brains. My God, what a waste. Nobody ordered it.”

That’s unlikely to be an issue with the current menu, which manages to be exciting, innovative and traditional all at once.

Dishes include lobster ravioli with coconut scented cream and a split curry dressing; mellow spiced Wicklow lamb served with aubergine and harissa; and cod with lapsang souchong broth and almond viennoise.

Together with head chef Kieran Glennon, Lebrun runs a traditional kitchen, where the most notable characteristic is silence.

The chefs who work there are expected to do so quietly, concentrating fully on the job in hand – Lebrun thinks this is absolutely essential when it comes to maintaining strict standards.

For Lebrun, his customers are far more important than Michelin inspectors. ‘‘Many chefs work for Michelin, but I’m not one of them. I work to please my customers, to fill up the restaurant,” he says.

‘‘You can’t pay your electricity bill with Michelin stars; you have to have happy customers. Of course I’d like a third star, but if it comes, it comes. In the beginning we really wanted a star and we tried hard for it, but it didn’t come. I got fed up and decided to cook for my customers instead. Then the following year, the star came. I continued to do my own stuff, and the same thing happened with the second star.”

Lebrun says he’s inspired by simple, fresh produce. ‘‘When you get really fresh, tasty produce, that excites me. It doesn’t have to be something expensive like truffle – it can be a tomato from Italy or a strawberry from Wexford.”

Granny smith vacherin, green apple parfait, pistachio ice cream, bourbon vanilla espuma

For Guilbaud, it’s important that the restaurant is not seen as an intimidating place to eat. His message is that at the end of the day it’s only food, and that we’re all experts on our own preferences.

When asked about the relative cost of eating in his restaurant – main courses on the a’ la carte menu are on average around €50, and one lobster dish costs €76 – he replies that, to the best of his knowledge, Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud is the cheapest two Michelin-star restaurant in the world.

In addition, for many years the restaurant has offered an extremely popular lunch menu, with two courses priced at €36 and three courses at €48.

‘‘It costs a lot of money to make the food we produce, and the value we offer is excellent,” he says. ‘‘We only use the best produce and the best ingredients, and that costs a lot of money. A restaurant’s food will never be better than the quality of the raw ingredients it uses. Everything is done from scratch in-house here by very skilled people, and that costs.”

‘‘For me, money was never the big aspiration. You don’t go into the restaurant business to make money – if you want to make millions, you do something else. You can make a decent living, but the amount of time you have to put into it makes it a very poorly paid way of earning a crust.”

When the restaurant opened in 1981 it was located at St James’s Place East, just off Baggot Street in Dublin, in a premises designed and built by noted architect Arthur Gibney. According to Guilbaud, it was the first custom-built restaurant in a capital city anywhere in Europe.

‘‘It was a great location, but after around 15 years we’d outgrown it. We were offered a new location at 21 Upper Merrion Street by Martin Naughton and Lochlann Quinn, who were in the process of restoring Mornington House and a number of Georgian townhouses to create the Merrion hotel,” he says.

‘‘We moved here on two conditions – first that we had our own front door, and second that we would be totally separate from the hotel and its kitchens. It’s been a good move, but we have to be careful not to lose our identity or get swallowed up by the hotel. But there’s no doubt that being located here has been great for us. Last year we started doing package deals with the hotel, where people paid €300 to stay in the hotel and eat here, and it was a great success.”

Over the decades, Guilbaud has seen many competitors come and go, but he says he is happy to see other restaurants make names for themselves and win Michelin stars.

‘‘When other restaurants get acclaim from Michelin that’s a great thing – it’s great for us, it’s great for the city and it’s great for Ireland. The quality of produce we have in Ireland is the equal of anywhere in the world, and you can now see the level of gastronomy rising to match it.”

A new book by Susan Ryan with photography by Barry McCall, Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud – The First Thirty Years, will be available from October 17 in Avoca stores, Brown Thomas, Dubray Books, Fallon & Byrne, House of Fraser, the Irish Hospice Foundation and the restaurant itself at 21 Upper Merrion Street. Priced at around €50, profits go to the Irish Hospice Foundation.

Recipe: Autumnal Italian beans, girolles, spinach and samphire

This is based on a really nice Tuscan bean dish I had years ago at a restaurant in Pisa, Italy, (which from memory I think might have been called Il Campanile?) Anyway, they served it there as an accompaniment and I was blown away by the depth of flavour in it. I haven’t seen a recipe for it anywhere since – I’m sure there probably are some, just I haven’t seen one – but it’s bascially a variation on a dish called something like white-beans-boiled-in-oil. Anyway, it’s a great store cupboard meal that makes a good accompaniment to meats or fish, or which can be dressed up into a great vegetarian main course.I use canned cannellini beans for this and recommend you do the same. I used to use dried ones but canned are just so much more convenient. You need to find a good brand though – in some of the cheaper ones, the skins remain a little tough after cooking, which ruins some of the texture. It’s also important not to salt the dish until the end of cooking, as salt can make bean skins toughen.Start with some good extra virgin olive oil and lots of it. Heat this and then add a good handful of sage leaves and wait for them to crisp a little. Then add a similar handful of smoked garlic, pealed and chopped but not too finely.

Let the oil take on the flavours of the garlic and sage but don’t let the garlic burn. As soon as it starts to colour a little, add your beans to the pot and mix it well around. Next add water to cover the beans, lots of freshly ground pepper and bring the contents of the pot to the boil. Once there, turn it down to simmer and let it cook away – this stage should take around 20 to 25 minutes, depending on how big the pot is, what quantity of beans you’ve used, etc.What you’re looking for is a specific texture to the beans – you want the liquid to cook slowly away, leaving beans softened to the point that vigorous stirring breaks down the beans, like in the pictures. This is a bit like making a risotto – you want a creamy smooth finish, but with lots of semi-whole beans. Don’t over do it. Remember the chunky chopped garlic? The reason to leave it that size is that you shoudl be able to squish it against the side of the pot and beat it into your creamy bean mixture. This can then be seasoned with lots of good sea salt – I prefer Maldon – lots of cracked fresh pepper and a good generous glug of oil.

To turn it into a full meal, you can sauté some wild mushrooms with butter, garlic and herbs to go on top, and serve the beans with some wilted spinach and samphire. The contrast is really excellent. It’s not fine dining, but it is a really hearty dish that would be great for a wintery evening. It’s also cheap – the only pricey parts are the wild mushrooms and samphire, but you don’t need much of either. In theory, you could also collect them for free – both grow wild in Ireland.

Portugal, and beyond.

Just back from a relaxing week in Portugal, a place I’ve visited quite a few times in recent years. This time around, I got to do and see some interesting foodie-related things, so here are a few pictures to keep you informed. Igot to visit the lovely Herdade Dos Grous, makers of one of my favourite Portugese wines, and also eat in some really impressive restaurants.

This blog should see a fair bit of activity over the coming months, as I have a lot in the pipeline that will be of interest to people interested in food matters in Ireland. At the moment, I can’t post details (newspapers don’t like other newspapers to know too much about their plans in advance for commercial reasons) and in other cases, it’s because I don’t want to say I’m doing something if it turns out not to happen. Either way, thanks for reading.