Eating Out / In: Seamus Maloney picks his favourite eats from the worst year for the restaurant sector
NORMALLY, at this time of the year, this page would feature a 'greatest hits' from the previous 12 months. "Normally". Good one. Welcome to the new 'normally', at least until a newer one come along.
So, to quote David Bowie – five years gone next week, blimey – where are we now? Bleeped if I know. 'Uncertainty' has been one of the more publishable words you could use to describe 2020 for the hospitality industry.
I wouldn't need to take both socks off to count the number of restaurant visits for this page this year.
Through the middle of 2020, it was takeaway after takeaway, as it has been for the past few weeks and will be for a few weeks more. Some were tipped out of polystyrene containers like, well, a takeaway, some looked like they had been teleported right off a Michelin plate. A couple wanted me to cook them myself. The nerve.
Since things went belly-up, every review has been positive – though some more than others, because there was no point having a slap at a business that was finding it difficult to say on its feet, which basically meant everyone. Better to say nothing and move on.
Even outstanding places won't weather this storm. The first thing that happened to restaurants was that Boris Johnson told people they shouldn't be going to them. That was it. No mandate to close or plan to help them and their suppliers and the millions of people whose livelihoods depend on the hospitality industry to get through.
Then they were actually closed, and then they could open again at reduced capacity, and then they couldn't – and then, and then, and then...
To an extent, everyone has muddled through 2020, constantly adjusting to things and making it up a bit as we've gone along. But the feeling that government has being doing that too, with so much responsibility for people's lives, has only added to frustration and genuine heartache in hospitality.
A sector so important to the economy told to either close completely or conform with restrictions that would make impossible to stay in business deserves to be treated better.
Restaurants also deserve support, whether it's visiting them when it's safe to do so – and they're making it as safe for the customer as possible too – or using the takeaway or collection options so many have turned to this year.
So, we'll finish on a high note, with some of the knock-out dishes to inform this page over the past 12 months. None of which – coincidentally, or maybe not – I cooked myself, although I did reheat the very best of the lot.
The pizza – every last one of them – at Pizza on The Square in Belfast, blistered, toothsome dough, a balanced sweet-sharp sauce and elastic mozzarella, can stand with any in the city, which is increasingly lofty praise as the pizza offerings get better and better.
You could have checked for stuff in your teeth in the beef rib at Courtney's Steakhouse in Newry, with its lacquered glaze hiding collapsing full-flavoured meat.
The first time Eating Out became Eating In – and the first time my (lack of) photography skills were tested – was with a selection of toasted sandwiches from the gods, via the Cuban Sandwich Factory in Belfast, and there was more outrageous stuff between two bits of bread in the form of the Korean chicken burger from Baker Street Kitchen, a food truck in the east of the city.
Immense Asian flavours also came to the door in Lucky Devil banquet boxes – remarkable quality, considering the constraints of making them idiot proof. Even I managed to reheat the tom yum soup without burning down the house – and even if I had, I may have considered it worth it.
Lockdown and delivery areas generally meant staying close to home, which generally meant Belfast.
One opportunity to venture a little further afield came with a visit to the Poacher's Pocket in Lisbane, with its chicken liver parfait smeared over scorched sourdough.
We went in October, just before things closed down again. There was hand sanitiser, contact details were taken, all staff were masked, diners were spread out. It felt the safest place in the world. And the Stop Covid tracing app wasn't worried in the slightest. It showed what can be done, and what will probably need to be done well into the future.
Hopefully as many places as possible will still be there to do it.