What constitutes a good restaurant? The ambience? Efficient service? Value for money? The quality of the food? Traditionally, a combination of some or all of these will have the gourmet dribbling with excitement. Low lighting, sympathetic wallpaper, waiters in white gloves – these have always been the prerequisites of a “good” restaurant. But in the twenty-first century, does the modern diner really need the elegant trappings that one normally associates with haute cuisine? In today’s world of instant dinners and urgent appointments, more and more people are turning to unconventional establishments to satisfy their appetites.
The Grocery Department of Dunnes Stores in the Blanchardstown Centre might not have an abundance of stars after its name, but I have always praised it for its ability to serve simple, honest food in an innovative way. There are times when it might get rather crowded, but reservations are seldom needed, which is a boon for both the serious and the casual gastronome, although it is true to say that the variety of the menu varies with the time of the week.
My partner and I – it is important for food critics to have a partner – decided to chance the Grocery Department one Saturday midday last month. As we entered, we were offered a complimentary glass of white wine by a charming hostess in a fetching white ensemble. The wine was rather a cheeky little Californian, which stuck its tongue out at us and pinched my partner’s backside in a playful manner.
The theme of this restaurant is “supermarket shopping.” Getting into the spirit of things, we liberated a recalcitrant trolley from its humiliating bondage and urged it gamely around the wide but crowded aisles, pausing occasionally to throw some strange and unfamiliar items into it.
Like the kids in the Bisto ad, it was the aroma of freshly made soup that drew us, as though hypnotised, to the Avonmore stand at the rear of the store. The disposable beakers were full to the brim with delicious Ptarmigan and Broccoli broth, served piping hot. My partner popped back to the bakery and returned with some still-warm wholemeal bread, lightly buttered, and we stood and chatted with our amiable hostess about the benefits of playing a flat back four against teams who rely on a quick break as we feasted on our first course. By blocking access to the stand, we were able to polish off three beakers of soup, before our appetite was sated.
For our main course, my partner and I could not agree. I was inclined to dine on the grilled breast of chicken served effortlessly by a chef called Big Al – who, strangely, was quite petite and very definitely female – whereas my partner was leaning more towards the Chinese Sweet and Sour Chicken Balls that a Mrs. Knorr was tempting customers with in the condiments aisle.
In the end, we went our separate ways. I have to admit I was slightly disappointed by the size of the portions of chicken that Mrs Al was dishing out. However, by the simple method of shouting out, “Look! An eagle!” and pointing towards the yogurt section, I was able to obtain enough poultry to make Billy Bunter’s stomach hold up its hand and say “No more!” Ignoring the admonitory suggestion that food should be consumed at the stand only, I retired to the cornflake display and devoured the succulent meat quickly, leaving behind the jealous glances of my fellow diners who had to make do with a single foil container each.
I was shortly joined by my partner, who had thoroughly enjoyed the seventeen chicken balls that she had managed to cajole out of the Knorr woman. After depositing the seventeen jars of sweet and sour sauce – that she had faithfully promised to buy - amongst the cornflakes, we decided to try each other’s choice. I was very fortunate in that I arrived at the fully-laden Chicken Ball stand, just as the diligent merchandiser went off to replenish her stock. Broadening my back in a way that would have had referees blowing up for obstruction, I managed to polish off 90% of them before a small kid managed to wriggle between my legs and grab the last one. As I nipped around the corner, I heard him being berated mildly by the returning merchandiser.
We made our way down to the freezer section for dessert. Vienetta was on offer here and it was served up promptly and with good grace by a charming lady, who informed us pleasantly that it was “on special offer today” and thrusting a voucher at my partner, who thoroughly disarmed her by asking why we should pay for it, when it was being handed out for free. I was actually somewhat unsure if I enjoyed the flavour or not, and had to try four helpings before deciding that yes, actually, it was quite scrummy.
At the cheese counter, I engaged mine hostess in a rapt and interested manner on the subject of the former French President, Georges Pompidou, while my partner polished off both the gorgonzola and the mature cheddar that had been laid out for her enjoyment. She later confided to me that she had found the latter somewhat bland and had half a mind to go back and complain, but I laid a restraining hand on her mouth and ushered her quickly towards the exit.
Depositing our now overflowing trolley up against the precarious broccoli display, we left the restaurant, pausing only to sample again the cheeky little Californian that has teased us mercilessly as we entered. This time we were ready for it, and as it blew a raspberry at me, my partner crept up behind it and clipped it sharply around the ear.
Comfort is not high on the list of priorities that this restaurant offers, but I defy any other establishment in the country to beat it in terms of value for money. In fact the bill was very reasonable, [actually, it was non-existent] and my partners knowledge of basic maths came in very handy in calculating that 10% of nothing was, erm, nothing, and so no tip was necessary. The merchandisers are always extremely friendly, and the food is cooked before your eyes, so its freshness can be guaranteed. All in all, I recommend it to any discerning diner with a strict budget and an eye for the unusual.