Eating Out with Seamus Maloney: We'll eat again, don't know where, don't know when...
WE WENT to Courtney's Steakhouse, up a flight of stairs off The Mall in Newry, on Saturday, March 8; three weeks ago today. Three weeks that seem like a lifetime.
Covid-19 existed before that, had killed people before that, had upturned everyday life before that, but that was all somewhere else. Mostly.
On Saturday March 8 I was meant to be in Dublin to watch Ireland play Italy in rugby's Six Nations Championship. That was called off, but only because Italy had become the European epicentre of the spread. Ireland would still play France next week, wouldn't they?
Today, three weeks later, no-one is sure what may happen tomorrow, never mind next week. Although no-one is playing any rugby, or hurling or football. No-one is going to the cinema, the theatre, a concert. No-one is going to church. And no-one is going to a restaurant.
Last Friday Boris Johnson finally told all restaurants, pubs and cafés they had to close, a week after leaving it at telling everyone they just shouldn't go to them.
Businesses and livelihoods were left twisting in the wind, unsure of what they should do, as they wrestled with what they could do.
Once the PM actually mandated something, and brought with it the promise of some degree of government protection and the facility for redress – though just how adequate that will be is open to massive question – the game was up and, in a lot of places, the shutters came down. Some will never lift their shutters again.
Some pivoted to takeaway and delivery, including places you couldn't have previously imagined treating you to a meal in your own home.
But those, like Noble in Holywood, Wine and Brine in Moira, and Deanes in Belfast, eventually closed up completely, hopeful government measures will be enough for them to fulfil their responsibilities to their staff, their suppliers and their families while trying, like all of us should be, to put health of everyone we know, or don't, first.
Some are still trying to make it work – mostly long-standing takeaways – but with the situation changing in about the time it takes me to write this sentence, everything could be moot by the time you read it.
The nature of this column means that sometimes a review will appear a month after somewhere has been visited. That happened last week, when my review of Top Blade in Belfast was published four weeks after actually eating there, but the day after all restaurants had been told to close. No-one was going to a restaurant.
Now, no-one is going anywhere. It feels even more pointless today to recap the fantastic meal, the fantastic time, we had at Courtney's. But maybe that's the very point.
It feels good to share the warmth of the welcome and the surroundings, and the huge black pudding croquettes with a simple risotto, heaving with Parmesan.
The plump scallops and a brick of crisp-on-top, fall-apart-underneath pork belly with chorizo and pepper relish could have easily passed for a main course.
It feels good to write about that sort of generosity, that carried over into the mains, with a plump, blush-pink duck breast with blackberries and a fondant potato that tasted like it was grown in butter, never mind cooked in the stuff.
A glossy breezeblock of beef rib came on a bone that could double as a surf board. You could almost see your face in its glossy mirror. It was a marvel, and fell apart while never appearing to get any smaller, almost relegating the impressively beefy fillet steak it came with to a bit player.
Eton mess and sticky toffee pudding were joyful – just like desserts should be.
Was everything perfect? Were there quibbles? No; yes; who gives a stuff?
This will be the last Eating Out column in The Irish News for a while. If takeaways and delivery services are still operating, we hope it might sustain as Eating In, or some variation, for as long as possible.
Hopefully when Eating Out does return and normality restarts, and restaurants raise the shutters, and lives have been saved by people thinking of their own health and – more importantly – that of others, the doors of Courtney's will reopen.
I'll be one of the first back through them.