Mastering the Dining Algorithm
How often has this happened to you on a Monday evening?
You are in a strange town, working and staying in a strange place, and you want something good to eat to solace the stress of the day.
But what to eat? And where to eat?
In theory, this is where internet searches come in. Just Google, and a world of choice opens before you. Or click into what the brilliant food writer Marina O’Loughlin calls ShitAdvisor, and there is another phalanx of possibilities. A world of choice!
Thing is, you can’t trust any of it.
Search engines work according to algorithms. According to Lorraine Daston, in her book Rules, “the core meaning of the word algorithm was the solution of specific problems by step-by-step procedures of calculation.”
By that definition, the very last thing you need in order to find something good to eat on a Monday evening in a strange city is a device powered by algorithms.
But you can’t call a friend and ask for a recommendation. What to do?
The answer is you have to master the algorithm.
This happened to us the last time we stayed in Belfast, holed up in rubbish accommodation, with our aged dogs. We couldn’t leave the dogs, so we needed takeaway, Chinese takeaway. Google and ShitAdvisor give dozens of possibilities, none of which we trusted because the internet companies have distorted the theoretical impartiality of algorithms to suit their commercial purposes.
On any other night, our choice would have been Macau, a much-loved Chinese restaurant and takeaway on the Ormeau Road, but one which only opens from Thursday to Sunday. In the past, we would have had other choices, but Belfast’s Chinese food scene, after a long period of excellence and stability, has been volatile over the last decade.
So, we start surfing, and scanning the comments. Reading what customers post to these sites is a useful way to control your appetite: not only are you no longer hungry, you just want to end it all.
How restaurateurs put up with this drivel is beyond understanding, and what makes it worse are the lots of people in Belfast who think 700- or 800-words is about the right length to tell you just what they think of Place X and how, ultimately, they found the experience “somewhat disappointing.”
Don’t give up, yet. Go into 3 or 4 search engines, scan the comments, and you will begin to see some truth emerging. This isn’t a quick scenario, however: what you are searching for is some semblance of accord amongst the comments that suggests authenticity and skillful cooking. If there are comments about a separate Chinese menu, that’s a start. If the comment is from someone who is from out of town but who found Place X to be good, that’s also good, because you are in that boat this evening.
If there are lots of comments describing the food as “disgusting”, then you know you are onto something, because Westerners often find the textures of authentic Chinese food to be alienating.
So, now you have some form of an edit. The food is disgusting: excellent. A traveler to the city had a good experience: excellent. They have menus in Mandarin: excellent.
Keep going. You are hunting for one final clincher, the thing that has always signalled a proper Chinese restaurant in Belfast.
And there it is: Disgusted of Malone Road writes that in addition to the disgusting food, the restaurant didn’t accept credit cards.
You are there. Disgusting food; menus in Mandarin; no cc’s; foreigners like it.
So, we got in the car, drove to the Dublin Road, got a parking space, and walked into The Chilli House to place our order. Apart from one couple eating in the restaurant, everyone else was Asian-Belfast. The staff had poor English. They told us it would take 20 minutes, and to go across the street to the Tesco to get cash because they didn’t take cc’s.
How good is that!?
Answer: not as good as the food from The Chilli House, which was excellent, and which salved our stressful Monday. Reader: we battled the algorithm, and we won.
Cork’s Paladar feels good, because it is a tribute, and not a tribute band.
Andy Ferreira and Richard Evans have created something sincere and respectful with their testament to South American food and drink. Even before the BBC's Bake Off team blew themselves up with their tone-deaf Mexican programme, most of the culinary forays into South American culture in Ireland never got much further than feeling like something Ted Cruz hoped to find in Cancun. Pastiche abounded, along with tall drinks crowned with paper umbrellas.
But you step off Bridge Street in Cork into Paladar, and you step into a room with the right vibe. The design is simply gorgeous, the sounds are right, and tequila, agave and mezcal are the foundation of several of the cocktails. Yes, there is a mojito and a daiquiri, but there is also the mighty Spitfire – Espolon Blanco tequila, Aperol, grapefruit, lime, chilli and cinnamon – and a concoction called Coffee & Cigarettes, invented by the mixologist Thomas Waugh, which could waken the dead.
Oisin Wolfe curates the list of 14 cocktails, and if you only went to Paladar to sit at the bar and have a Tropical Itch, life would be good. But the cooking also has a clear-eyed focus, even if it wanders all over the South American recipe atlas, offering ceviche and tacos al pastor and empanadas side by side. We enjoyed our unusual empanada, filled with beef, olives and egg, and the pao de queijo, a dainty little burger bun filled with pulled pork, was bang-on. The anticuchos were two skewers of beef with corn salsa and garlic oil, and the picanha cut was sweet and smoky. Only the ceviche felt like a tribute band rather than a tribute: it’s a formidably difficult dish to get just right without the freshest wild fish.
Matt O’Donovan works the floor, and he is one of the best front-of-house dudes in Cork city, explaining, guiding, suggesting, his enthusiasm utterly winning and worth a million bucks. Paladar feels good.
Here’s a fun experiment to try next time you are in Dublin’s Note Wine bar for dinner: order from the menu, but do it upside down, from bottom to top.
Start with butterhead lettuce with vinaigrette, then sardines with preserved lemon, then some pork and duck terrine, and finish with the sublime pickled courgettes.
The list of dishes in Note is not so much a menu as a manifesto: here is what we like to cook and eat: ancient and modern, formal and informal, rustic and slick, osteria and cutting-edge.
The cooking has no fixed centre, so some dishes are paysan simple – ricotta with baguette and olive oil; pasta e fagioli; lemon posset – and some are archly modern – smoked eel with beurre blanc; crab with crumpet; scallop with aguachile.
The team at Note have turned things upside down, or at least turned them back-to-front. The wine and drinks list does the same. Note is singing from a different hymn sheet, and it’s a thrill, one of those rare spaces that shift the dining paradigm.
Back in 1992, for example, when Roly’s Bistro in Ballsbridge opened, it changed the Dublin dining game by creating a room in which women felt comfortable dining with other women. Roly’s worked because female guests weren’t patronised by the wait staff, as happened in most other Dublin dining rooms.
On the Thursday evening we ate at Note, almost all of the tables were filled by women, in pairs, in groups, at the bar, at two tops and four tops. What’s the draw?
We suspect it’s the fact that Note never relaxes into cliché, it’s a room whose attractiveness is diffuse. It’s formal, but informal. It’s correct, but funky. It’s rigorous, yet it feels laid back. It’s stylish, but also comfortable: you don’t have to suffer for their design. And Essa Fakry’s cooking is bang on point, yet it has a spontaneous aura, an improvised, I-just-made-this-up energy. Andy Collins and Essa and Acky Fakry have turned things upside down in Note, and shifted the dining paradigm. You can have Note anywhichway you want. And that’s why everyone loves it.
Cyprus Avenue, Belfast
At night time, when the canopy roof slides over across the courtyard of Belfast’s Cyprus Avenue Restaurant, and the lights glitter and gleam, this is the place where everyone wants to be.
In fact, Cyprus Avenue is the place where everyone is already. Richard McCracken’s restaurant is a phenom, jammers from breakfast to dinner, with a menu that runs confidently from the Cyprus Avenue cooked breakfast at 9am, to the lasagne of Corndale chorizo and Young Buck cheese, with garlic bread and tomato salad, at 9pm.
It helps that Cyprus Avenue is in the well-heeled zone of Ballyhackamore, in East Belfast. But what is unusual about the restaurant’s success is the fact that the cooking never plays safe. You can begin dinner with ravioli of smoked beef with cheese custard and onion broth, and follow it up with Atlantic ling with furikake, prawn and seaweed broth and violet rice balls. The vegetarian menu offers five starters and five main courses. Even when Mr McCracken plays it with a straight bat, in a dish like beer-battered fish with coronation mayo and fries, he upsets the apple cart by serving it with spiced mushy lentils. No mushy peas? Nope.
Every Belfast restaurant review mentions how good the waiting staff are. In Cyprus Avenue, the team are better than good: engaging; funny; droll; charming; efficient; up-for-it. They seal the deal on one of the best Belfast experiences.
Heron’s Vs Hen’s
West meets east this Sunday, when Connemara’s sublime Misunderstood Heron comes to Blackpitts for a one day collaboration with the sublime Hen’s Teeth.
For very many food lovers, what Kim and Reynaldo offer at Misunderstood Heron is simply the best food from a truck that you will find anywhere: “Some of the best food in Ireland” was the recent summation of the wise and experienced Tom O'Connell. You can get a taste of the Connemara sublime between noon and 6pm on 6.11.22. Crazy not to be there.
Bean and Goose
Great artisans find inspiration everywhere. The genesis of the newest creation from Natalie and Karen, of Wexford’s Bean and Goose chocolatiers, comes from a visit to Café Izz, the lauded Palestinian restaurant in Cork city. Ground coffee and ground cardamom pair with 98% dark chocolate in a terrific fusion of ingredients, cultures and influences. Natalie and Karen are never not knocking it out of the park, and their new mini Café Bars are superb: enjoy an espresso with a B&G Coconut & Rose bar, and they will be peeling you off the ceiling.