In Praise of Lunch. (Temple Spa and Ilia)
Paolo Tullio's Review
I want to start the year in praise of lunch. Of the two main meals of the day it’s the junior partner, it’s taken often in more haste than dinner and it tends to be less elaborate. And yet it has it’s place. Aldous Huxley once said ‘a man may be a pessimistic determinist before lunch and an optimistic believer in free will after it’. A good lunch can have that restorative effect.
And that’s the point: lunch need not necessarily be a quick snack of ill-prepared food, even with but an hour to spend for eating it you can make lunch into a worthy meal. Obviously you can’t linger the way you might over dinner, but choose your restaurant carefully and a good lunch will make the day.
Lunch, like any meal, comes in a variety of forms. There’s the snatched and solitary lunch when it becomes no more than the ingestion of fuel, there’s the lunch that serves a purpose like a meeting of lovers or the conclusion of a business deal, there’s the lunch whose sole purpose is the joy of gastronomy. But if Milton Friedman’s book is right, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
I tend to review restaurants after a dinner. Not because I think less of lunch, but because most restaurants put more effort into their dinner menu and use it to showcase their better dishes. But there are times when a lunch is exactly what the day requires - when I’m on the road, when I’m in a new city or when I’m hungry at lunchtime. Towards the end of last year I was doing a fair bit of travelling around the country and broke my travelling to eat.
Just outside Horseleap you can find the Temple Spa. It was one of first spas in the country and at first was only that. Recently it’s gone through a major renovation and extension, giving it a whole raft of new treatment rooms and a restaurant which is open to non-residents. A long drive leads you up the new entrance and a short walk gets you to the dining room. It’s décor is fairly simple - it’s not after all the reason that people come here - but it’s comfortable and as you’d expect, the food emphasises the wholesome and healthy.
I was there with Wanda Fitzpatrick who being in the catering industry herself, had suggested the Temple Spa as a good place for lunch. The first look at the menu convinced me that she was right. A three-course lunch plus tea or coffee is €19.50 - not something you see very often. But if you want less than three courses you’ll find the menu is also priced by course - €5.50 for the starter, €9.50 for the main courses and €4.50 for the desserts.
We both began with a warming and well-made carrot and coriander soup and Wanda followed that with the grilled fillets of lemon sole, which cane with small capers and a red onion dressing - surprisingly elaborate for the price. I had a warm open sandwich with char-grilled vegetables, brie and Parma ham, again a more substantial dish than its description had led me to believe.
We finished up with a warm chocolate brownie between us and then took our espressos on the terrace under a weak wintry sun. If you’re on the road between Dublin and Galway, The Temple Spa will break your journey pleasurably.
On another occasion I was on my own in Mullingar at lunchtime, where I found Ilia on the main street. Ilia is a coffee house, does hot food and at night becomes a tapas bar. The tapas menu looked interesting, but it being lunchtime I was unable to try them. The lunchtime menu offers soup, various panini, bagels, sandwiches, salads and snacks. I decided to try and choose dishes that were comparable to restaurant dishes, so I began with a Caesar salad and followed with a beef and Guinness pie, which was a special on the day. From a short wine list I chose a glass of Château Haut Rian white at €5.25 and a large bottle of mineral water at €3.95.
I was impressed with my meal, it was well put together and there does appear to be a sense that quality ingredients and novel flavours are part of what Ilia is about. Maybe next time I’ll get to try the tapas. My lunch there cost me €25.90.
If I’m in Dublin I do have my favourites for lunch. Roly’s in Ballsbridge has to be on my list of favourites. It still does what it’s always done well at lunchtime - decent food, very quick and professional service and for the price of a mediocre meal in a pub, you’ll get crisp linen and pleasing surroundings to go with your restorative lunch. It also has one of best value wine lists of any restaurant in the city. Another favourite of mine is the very long-established Dobbins Bistro, which also has the advantage of a fine wine list.
And talking of value, it’s a surprising truth that some of the very best restaurants in the city offer the best value set lunches. Starting in 2008 you can have a three-course lunch with tea or coffee in the Michelin starred Chapter One for €37.50. That’s a sum that’s easy enough to spend in some less than excellent outlets, so you have no excuse for not trying out what the best restaurants have to offer. L’Ecrivain, also with a Michelin star, offers a three-course set lunch for €50 per person.
With all these wonderful possibilities on offer there’s no need for lunch to be nothing more than a re-fuelling stop. Just occasionally you can make lunch into something special and believe me, a good restaurant will do exactly what that word derives from - it will restore you. If Huxley is right you’ll restart your afternoon in a blaze of optimism, and isn’t that just what you need for 2008?