Years may be pretty arbitrary divisions of time but what the hell? They are still useful for tagging bits of information as we slip them into what we are pleased to call our minds. The year 2009 didn't dawn auspiciously for the Irish restaurant industry and January was as quiet as the tomb. I did my best to cheer us all up by getting some of Dublin's best restaurants to offer lunch and a glass of wine for €20 during the month, as a promotion in The Irish Times, and it booked out within hours. To the extent that I didn't manage to get a table for myself!
It's still not easy to get a table at Pichet (14-15 Trinity Street, Dublin 2; 01 677 1060; pichetrestaurant.com) which opened to much applause (and an account of its birth pangs on TV3). The combination of Nick Munier, as front of house, and Stephen Gibson (ex L'Ecrivain) as head chef was bound to result in a restaurant with attitude but Pichet is more than that: a proper bistro with a terrific buzz and a following that is almost frighteningly loyal. My concern was that a lot of people would not "get" the Pichet concept (and there have been predictable whinges on message boards and fora) but it seems to have seduced most of us.
Jay Rayner writes of Marco Pierre White's "mediocrity" and was scathing about the Smouldering One's latest London opening (I concur, by the way) but his joint venture with Fitzers in Dawson Street rather impressed me (Marco Pierre White's Steakhouse and Grill, 51 Dawson Street, Dublin 2; 01 677 1155; fitzers.ie). There's nothing ambitious here just simple food and some good cooking: the likes of potted crab, oysters, excellent steaks. It has proved too simple for a lot of people (the "I could do that myself" brigade) and others are, perhaps understandably, repelled at the notion of eating in a celeb's franchise. I rather like it.
While there's very little wildly original and exciting cooking going on in Dublin (eat out in London for a few days and you will see what I mean), Sheridan's in Galway is a refuge for those of us who want to eat with a sense of adventure and excitement. (Sheridan’s on the Dock, Galway Docks, Galway City; 091 564 905; sheridansonthedocks.com). Chef Enda McEvoy creates dishes the likes of which you won't see elsewhere: things like home cured duck breast with wood sorrel and nasturtiums, brill with clams, pork belly, lettuce heart and verjuice, giant puffball with salsify, Mount Callan and radish salad, blueberry and thyme jelly, and creme caramel flavoured with meadowsweet. And Enda is not just a chef but a forager too. It makes a big difference.
Karl Dillon and Ian Connolly have created a special kind of restaurant in Howth (The House, 4 Main Street, Howth, Co Dublin; 01839 6388; thehouse-howth.ie) where people return again and again for the cheerful, relaxed atmosphere and chunky food. There's a good short wine list too and I drank a bottle of Shepherd Neame's lovely organic Whitstable Ale on the terrace there on the only sunny evening of the summer. I just like the informality of the food, the care with which raw materials are chosen, the way the kitchen doesn't chef it up, the value for money (there's a daily dish for a tenner). I'd quite like to have The House within strolling distance.
Co Longford may have many sterling qualities but the simple fact is that it has never been a destination for food enthusiasts. Until now. Viewmount House (Dublin Road, Longford; 043 334 1919; viewmounthouse.com) is where Gary O'Hanlon, after some years cooking in Boston, is doing wonderful things with very carefully sourced produce. The dinner I ate there last summer was both seductively delicious and also remarkably disciplined in terms of how it was put together. This young chef is most certainly someone to watch.
I've always like Arnaud Mary's cooking at L'Atmosphere (19 Henrietta Street, Waterford; 051 858246; restaurant-latmosphere.com) but I believe it has reached new heights. This is bloody marvellous rustic French food and in gargantuan quantity, full of strong, earthy flavours. I would - and do - travel a long way to eat this way.
The French have been doing missionary work for quite a while here in Ireland and I can't understand how chefs like Arnaud are happy to live in a country of culinary savages. However, they do and I salute Olivier Quenet for spreading the gastronomic gospel. La Maison (15 Castle Market, Dublin 2; 01 672 7258; lamaisonrestaurant.ie) is all about simple, good bistro dishes while Olivier's (Olivier's at O'Brien's, 8-9 Sussex Terrace, Upper Leeson Street, Dublin 2; 01 668 2594) is more about what you might call country house food (as in Wyatt windows not dormers) such as piegon and rabbit pie, game terrine and deliciously nurseryish puddings. There's a brilliant Cotes du Rhone for €25 too.
Other memorable places and meals? Italian charm at Bates of Rathdrum in Co Wicklow. Great soup at Nude Food in Dungarvan, Co Waterford. Bean curd "home style" at Gong in Stillorgan. Lobster at Chez Hans in Cashel, Co Tipperary. And, best of all, scrambled egg with truffles at Thorntons... Beyond words....