A bland brand

THERE are billions of flavours in this world, but when it comes to selling food, only one ingredient seems to matter: celebrity.

While the likes of Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White and Jamie Oliver are great chefs, just how much foodie dust can they sprinkle across restaurants, TV shows, cookery books and supermarket shelves before quality begins to suffer?

Ireland has no shortage of celeb chefs, but Clodagh McKenna is probably the closest to becoming an all-conquering brand. She does TV, publishes books, runs a cookery school in Co Kildare, sells a saucy range of 1950s-style aprons and recently became a brand ambassador for the Volvo XC60.

Her latest venture is a takeover of Arnott’s catering options in Dublin. We’re promised “delicious, honest and affordable fare”. But does it make for a good dining experience?

L and I arrive on a Wednesday lunchtime, deciding to sample a selection of mains and salads from the self-service Food Court, and dessert from the sit-down Café Studio upstairs.

The Food Court makes a decent first impression, with faux redbrick walls, paint-washed wood and a glass wall separating its hubbub of customers from the department store. We grab a couple of trays and make our way along a counter manned by staff in spanking white tops and aprons.

Overhead blackboards outline our options — pastas, quiches, hot dishes and the like. We can get two salads for €5.50, a fisherman’s fish pie, Moroccan lamb tagine or a few slices of freshly-carved pork roast, all served with two salads or vegetable portions, from €10.95.

Loading up our trays, we bypass the desserts, pay at the till, grab a fistful of cutlery and napkins, and seek out one of the charcoal grey banquette seats facing into the room.

I’ve chosen the pork, which is heaped onto my plate along with two big spoonfuls of thyme-roasted vegetables and ratatouille, hotel carvery-style. Gravy runs off the edge of the plate; there’s no attempt at presentation or finesse — it just looks like a big plate of nosebag.

As regards the taste, the pork is tender enough but far too dry. Moisture also seems to have seeped out of the mash, though the roasted carrots, parsnips and turnip are nicely realised, with crispy skins giving way to an agreeable softness once you bite inside. They’re also well-seasoned.

L’s fish pie is warm in the middle but lukewarm beyond that (while we’re there, another customer returns a bowl of soup for reheating), though she’s happy that gluten-free pie is available in the first place. Her pickled cucumber and coleslaw salads are fine, without being at all memorable.

On the plus side, it’s good to see Irish producers like Gubbeen Farm and Ted Browne’s seafood in Dingle get a nod on the menu. Takeaway sambos, lasagne and other deli produce are available at the Food Market next door, but overall it’s like something you’d get at Terminal 2 rather than the comforting, succulent, tasty fare ‘Homemade by Clodagh’ suggests.

Afterwards, we nip up to Café Studio for dessert and coffee. This is a table-service offering McKenna also operates — though a waitress tells us that its tiring old noughties décor isn’t due a refurb until next year. Here, a much wider (and reasonably priced) seasonal menu credits the same Irish suppliers, but we limit ourselves to a slice of lemon drizzle cake, tea and coffee.

The cake crust looks good, sprinkled as it is with lemon zest, and there’s a sweet tang to the mix, even if it could do with a little more moisture. The service is mixed — our waitress forgets to bring milk, and the sound of pot-walloping is annoyingly audible over the dividing wall.

I respect Clodagh McKenna. Alongside women like Catherine Fulvio, Georgina Campbell, and Darina and Rachel Allen, she has played no small part in the current Irish foodie revolution. She is a business whizz, full of ideas, and a laudable champion of local and artisan producers.

For me, however, Arnott’s is a step too far. From the branded aprons to the cottage pie, it smacks more of corporate than home cooking — and it tastes that way too.

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