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Hotels pick up the gastronomic gauntlet

Many pubs have found salvation in offering quality pub food alongside their drink offering. But they're not alone in seeking out this culinary saviour. Hotels, former bastions of mediocre food, have upped their game with many now making a point of serving food to astound -- and more importantly, polarising the consumer towards hotels for lunch and dinner and away from the growing pub food market. Pat Nolan takes a look at the strides being made by just one hotel group in Dublin, Hilton Worldwide

In past years few but your aged aunties would have thanked you  for taking them to a local hotel for lunch but the catering times are changing for the better in the hotel industry and it’s becoming increasingly possible to find top-quality fare being served up in a growing number of hotels today. This should concern the local pub.

Hotels, once noted for the mediocrity of their food offering, have raised the bar with many now offering consumers a meal worthy of consideration even by the most trenchant of trencherman.

This gastronomic gauntlet certainly seems to have been picked up with gusto by the Conrad and Hilton hotels in Dublin, both of which offer a well above average menu for both guests and the general public.

Dutchman Erwin Verhoog is General Manager at Dublin’s Hilton Hotel at Charlemont Place, current recipient of Dublin Living Award’s Best Hotel/Guesthouse in Dublin.

“We’ve tried to create a menu that reflects local flavour and passion in what we serve,” says Erwin, “But it’s about how we present our fare, too.”

And so the hotel’s Stil bar plays its culinary role alongside the Uisce Restaurant.

More and more customers prefer an informal relaxed setting for dinner in the evenings.

“This is a trend seen across Hilton Hotels world-wide,” notes Erwin, “The thing that’s worked out best is the way the Stil bar functions. We already in 2008 saw a move from the restaurant to the bar.”

The hotel’s Head Chef, Chad Byrne, “is very creative, very driven. A very passionate guy, very Irish and very proud to be Irish – he loves using both ‘onshore’ and ‘offshore’ Irish ingredients.

“And the final way in which he excels from the 10 chefs I’ve worked with until now is that he really puts a lot of emphasis in developing his team. He takes his commis chefs to markets and other restaurants, demanding that they do work placements in other Hilton hotels. He himself still does a number of work placements every year. He believes strongly that he needs to learn, that we can’t be standing still, that we have to move with the times”.

Chad was one of just 20 chefs shortlisted from 200 competitors across Europe who headed off to Berlin recently to compete in Hilton Worldwide’s European Food & Beverage Masters Grand Final.

In other ways too, the hotel makes its bar food offering an attractive prospect for consumers.

“We’re very innovative. For example we had a ‘fish week’ recently when we turned the place into a virtual fishmonger’s shop with fish from all around the island. We had a full restaurant every single night.

“On the Wednesday and Thursday before that our waiters and chefs went onto the nearby LUAS and handed out small well-prepared portions of fish & chips which got us a significant amount of return business.”

The hotel bar also enjoyed concrete bookings on the day from this exercise, says Erwin who intends making this a regular marketing stunt.

“Consumers see something different and it really creates a lot of interest,” he says, “Even if we hadn’t got any extra bookings on the day, we should do it anyway to show what we do and what we’re all about.”

Erwin’s also keenly aware that his hotel guests have “an abundance of high street choice now in choosing where to eat, so we have our stall ready, our menus out there and our displays out for viewing.

“Our team members – including reception – talk about our food and beverage offering and are all proud of what we can do. We have a whole range of touch-points to get our message across to the public.”

This often converts the in-house guest to dining here in the hotel rather than venturing outside.

“A lot has changed,” agrees Erwin, “Over the past couple of years restaurants and bars have looked at creating more value and they haven’t done it by reducing the quality.”

If pubs continue to focus on their wet offering to the exclusion of a top quality food offering to accompany this, they’re going to lose out to hotels in the food arena just as they did in the drinks arena.

Only recently the Hilton’s sister hotel, The Conrad Hilton, celebrated 25 years of Conrad Hotels & Resorts with a daring exposition of fine cooking at a media dinner in the hotel’s Alex Restaurant on Earlsfort Terrace. There, the hotel’s General Manager Martin Mangan introduced us to the hotel’s Food & Beverage Manger Maurice O’Donoghue and Dmitry Stroykov, the hotel’s Russian Head Chef who left guests in no doubt about the capability of today’s hotel kitchen.

A special tasting menu began with Crab Créme Brulée followed by Creamy Potato Soup with Smoked Haddock (both matched with a Domaines Schlumberger Riesling 2007 from Alsace). After this, Dmitry served up a Duo of Quail (matched by a Walnut Block Pinot Noir 2009) and rounded that off with Seared Venison (matched with a Bouchard Pere et Fils Moulin a Vent 2008 Burgundy).

A trio of desserts comprising Chocolate Persimmon Trifle, Cranberry Parfait and Rhubarb Crumble Tart to the tune of a Brown Brothers Orange Muscat & Flora 2009 finished off a meal that would give a serious run for one’s money to any of the top restaurants in the capital.

Make no mistake, hotels have raised their dining game over the past few years. It’s up to pubs now to once again raise theirs.

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