Well, says you, this is a bit of a swizz — a review of a restaurant on the very same weekend said establishment shuts up shop for the good, no use at all if we fancy checking out the scran for ourselves?
Fair enough, says I, but these are special circumstances, calling for special measures.
This is not just any restaurant. This is Thornton’s, the chef/proprietor is Kevin Thornton and it would be impossible to write of the great evolutionary leap forward in contemporary Irish cuisine over recent decades without positing Thornton at the heart of the narrative.
He may not have quite the media profile of certain peers — despite having eclipsed all as the only Irish chef/restaurateur to have held two Michelin stars — but that is because he has spent much of his career as pathfinder and outlier, so far ahead of the culinary pack as to often seem out of sight.
Make no mistake, Thornton’s legacy will reverberate for years to come. So, can we call this an elegy?
The Fitzwilliam hotel’s homogenised swank has always struck me as a curious home for such an elemental chef, but the place is buzzing when we arrive, loyal fans all here for one ‘last supper’.
Our party of six is in exceptionally fine fettle and as it includes the Irish Examiner’s Leslie Williams, we set him about the wine list, to order whatever he likes as long as it begins with Irish winemaker Simon Tyrell’s very substantial Cotes du Rhone, Les Deux Cols Cuveé Zéphyr 2015; Leslie supplements that with a grippy Burgundy, Louis Jadot Monthélie 2010.
Beetroot, Citrus Fruit, Woodland Sorrel is a coy opener, surrendering earthy heft to a spry sweetness that wouldn’t go amiss in a Nordic-style dessert.
Next, Fillet of Cod, Golden Potato Rings, Carrot, Cider Bubbles, a demure and understated dish though we are in the market for fireworks. And, almost literally, they come.
Thornton is a creative soul and not just on the plate. A serious photographer, he has also released a spoken word double vinyl album instead of the more traditional cookbook so an element of theatricality comes as no surprise.
Thornton himself leads a retinue of servers bearing a purple-pinkish glass vessel billowing great clouds of ‘dry ice’.
It is the broth to be decanted into our dishes (Atlantic Organic Salmon, Barley, Lemon Verbena Broth) at the table (fish head broth frozen, powdered, refrozen and added to barley broth at last minute, yielding the ‘smoke’).
Any notion of Wizard of Oz-style flimflam is dispensed with a single draught of the potent malty broth, one of my favourite flavours of the night.
Then another flourish, a mushroom terrine wrapped in dillisk, arrives on a lichen and fungi- festooned log, food from the border between sustenance and entertainment, where ‘yer dinner’ transmogrifies into an actual ‘dining experience’.
‘Umami’ is often a convenient descriptor for mushroom flavours but this primordial bass honk is positively swampish.
In recent years, Thornton has become quite obsessed with Ethiopia, not least its cuisine, and tender Wicklow fallow deer is cooked with a traditional Berbere spice mix and chocolate.
It is an intriguing idea yet doesn’t quite span the continental divide and accompanying Girolle mushroom and parsnip wait in the wings, rather unsure of their roles.
Dessert is Valrhona Chocolate Opera, Strawberry Chilli Soup, Sorbet. I once made Opera cake in culinary college and, though a wonderful confection, it is also rather a palaver, the class of thing you only re-attempt if paid.
Well, Thornton has gone to the trouble so it is only fair to relish his sterling efforts along with the lovely ‘soup’, a wistful farewell to summer past.
We are reluctant to finish, near last to leave and if our tasting menu lacked a certain coherency and flow, more greatest hits than classic album, it was still a splendid evening and, anyway, no one ever reserves their finest performances for the encore.
Thornton is too professional to ever drop standards but there is a giddy air of ‘demob happy’ in the ether as he autographs menus and poses for photos. On reflection, ‘elegy’ is the wrong word.
A restaurant is closing, no one has died and Thornton’s career is most certainly not over.
Instead, let’s call it a ‘celebration’.
€200 per person (including predinner drinks and tip)