But then we had two meals in Thornton's that were extremely poor. A couple of years back we had a surprise tasting menu which had several courses cooked very badly and, maybe worse than that, the meal was dull. Last December we went for a Saturday lunch and, again, the meal was extremely disappointing. The lunch menu seemed to be just thrown together and did not represent what Kevin Thornton is capable of. It was worth no where near the €45 price tag, considering a 3 course lunch in Patrick Guilbaud's is €50 and you can get a 4 course lunch in Restaurant 41 for €40. And in both those restaurants and amuse bouche and petit-fours is included, but not in Thornton's. It wasn't just the food that was a let down - we mentioned here before about having to wait 20 minutes to ask for a bill as there was no one in the dining room.
We may have been unlucky with these two meals, but as a consequence of them we feared that the Restaurant's best days were behind it and, based on the two meals, we even worried that the restaurant may struggle to keep it's Michelin star. This would be a great shame for one of Ireland's greatest chefs. A chef that once held 2 Michelin stars and was 25th in the World's Best 50 Restaurant list in 2004.
But, we returned recently to Thornton's to try the tasting menu in the hope that we could once again fall in love with this restaurant. Well to say the food was back to it's best may not be accurate, because the meal was better than any meal we ever had in Thornton's previously.
It started with one of the best dishes we have had in an Irish restaurant in a long time. The sort of dish you think about for a long time after and hope it is always on the menu. It was raw and untouched scallops from Saltee Island off the coast of Wexford, served with beetroot and a tiny bit of apple. Deceptively simple, each ingredient tastiest like it should in its purest form. The 2nd part of this dish was a perfectly cooked scallop from Bere Island served in rich shellfish veloute with sea urchin.
Unspoilt and pure food was again on show in our second course - a simple presentation of asparagus and Dublin Bay prawns. It was light and understated, but surprisingly moreish.
Another memorable dish followed. Each part of a brill was utilised to serve a piece of fillet served in a broth made from the fish heads and pieces of crispy skin. The broth had a noticeable, but subtle Asian flavour, slightly reminiscent of a Thai Tom Yum soup and worked well with brill fillet. The skin was tasty when eaten with a bit of rock salt and samphire. It was a clever dish and presented with a bit of theatre with the broth in a bubbling jug that would you bring in mind of a witch's potion.
It was a meat dish next; Bresse pigeon served in two parts. Before getting either part, the pigeon and it's eggs are brought to the table under a smoke filled glass cloche. The cloche is removed to show a pigeon smoking in hay, releasing an amazing aroma. The first part of the course is then served - perfect scrambled egg infused with truffle and a crispy soldier. The second part of the course was the most disappointing part of the meal. It was pigeon cooked with Baileys and potato fondant. The fondant was under seasoned, and the baileys didn't bring much to the party. It was a bit dull - especially in comparison to the rest of the meal. Despite disappointing, the course was intelligent and succeeded in bringing the diner in mind of the pigeon in its natural environment.
The desert of blood orange and white chocolate was very good, but a small bit muddled. A sugarless sorbet served with the chocolate and some fennel cooked in honey. The chocolate work could have been a bit more refined and during eating the dish looses its texture and each element losses definition.
Each dish was served to us by Kevin Thornton himself and it was clear to see his passion as he talked about his thinking and story behind each dish and advising the best way to eat it. He is an experimental chef who seems to take inspiration from his travels back to his restaurant and you can see this in his food. We have noticed before that his food is influenced by food trends and what some of the best restaurants in the world are doing. This can be the downfall for some chefs as they are always trying to copy another chefs' ethos and they end up lacking their own identify. But it wasn't like this in the meal - everything was coherent and showed great understanding and respect for the ingredients. Each piece of theatre had a point, told a story and helped to heighten the sensory experience of the diner.
Thornton seems to want his diners to have a memorable meal and cares that the guest understands his food. But would a guest understand what Thornton wants his food to invoke if he wasn't there to explain? With the meal we had the answer is definitely yes. Each dish attempted to showcase the main ingredient in its best light and showed it in an unspoilt form. Despite the theatre with some of the dishes there was no hiding place for the food and any cooking flaws would have been very apparent.
Kevin Thornton also loves indulgence and using the finest ingredients - truffle, scallops, foie gras are common on his menus. He once told us that he calls one of this king scallops and truffle dish 'Sex On A Plate'. Well that description could be applicable to some of the dishes we had on this visit. One piece of advice, if you go you must opt for the tasting menu.