REPUTATIONS ARE curious things. For people, places and institutions, reputations can be years out of date. Great men with great reputations have their great deeds accomplished long before their reputations are conferred upon them. Institutions and places often live on a reputation garnered years previously.
One of my favourite cities is Naples, a city which suffers from a bad reputation. When it really was a violent and lawless place, it still lived on its 19th-century reputation for music, art and literature. Now it has largely been cleaned up, but its reputation has only just caught up with its violent history. By the time it gets its good name back, it'll probably be completely lawless again.
I say this because there's a city closer to home that suffers the same fate – Limerick. And, just like Naples, it didn't live up to its reputation on a recent visit there.
It's looking good – there's been massive investment in infrastructure and new building. New high-rise hotels dominate the skyline and the river front is redeveloped. It even has grid-locked traffic, which is some kind of measure of prosperity.
I was there to talk about wines with David Whelahan in the new and very shiny Hilton Hotel on the river, which has only just opened.
It has fine views across the city and gave me a vantage point to see all the new development going on. From the rooftop terrace the city gleamed in the low evening sun and David and I decided to investigate its fine dining.
A couple of weeks ago, Limerick hosted the World Barbecue Cook-Off, now in its fourth year.
Over 100 teams competed and the winner was Freddy's Bistro, which just happens to be in Limerick City – a victory for the home team, you might say.
We weren't actually going to have a barbecued meal, but it seemed as good a reason to me as any other to find ont what sort of food they cooked.
A short trip through the grid-locked traffic got us to the small lane where Freddy's can be found.
A pleasing cut-stone building, it has the look of an Olde Curiosity Shoppe and, inside, that Old-World feel continues with brass oil lamps, stained glass and lots of dark wood. It is small and intimate and there's an upstairs dining room as well, but we sat downstairs at a corner table.
Some bread and a jug of iced water arrived with the menus, and one dish leapt off the page at me - 'Farmyard Chicken'. Forgive me if I now take a small, verbal detour.
The word ‘chicken' needs attention. What you find in a supermarket at €4.99 marked ‘chicken' is actually a broiler. It's not the creature you may have seen pecking around farmyards. It's so different that if you were to see a broiler you wouldn't recognise it as a chicken.
I'm old enough to remember when chickens were in fact chickens, creatures that led outdoor lives and which tasted rather good. They were an occasional treat, not the cheap protein they are today. Broilers have made poultry production efficient and cheap, at the expense of quality. So when I saw farmyard chicken on the menu, my mind was instantly made up.
The wine list is undergoing a rebuild and that's a good thing, because for the moment it's a little on the basic side. We weren't looking for anything more than a glass each, however, because later that night we were going to be tasting a flight of wines and so needed to keep our wits about us.
So a glass each of the house Sauvignon Blanc from Chile was the final choice.
There were nine starters to choose from, priced from €5.95 for soup up to €11.95 for a seafood platter. David began with a crispy bacon salad, which came with pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes and a pesto dressing. I thought it was rather good, but I did agree with David who thought the bacon was rather too salty and that it unbalanced the salad a little.
I started with the mussels, which was a generous, steamed bowlful in a classic white wine and cream sauce; they were nicely done. The main courses were very reasonably priced, running from €20-€25 with seven dishes on offer, including smoked glazed pork, a Thai beef salad and various steaks.
You already know what my main course was, and David picked the medallions of fillet steak with a black pepper sauce. It arrived exactly as ordered – seared outside, pink and succulent inside.
As for me, given the choice I'd always go for the leg on a chicken, since I find the breast meat tends to be dry and uninteresting. I had a momentary sense of disappointment when I saw a chicken breast on my plate, but it vanished as I cut into an amazingly good piece of chicken.
It was a taste that took me right back to my childhood. More plates of various vegetables arrived and some chips as well, which ensured that any vestiges of appetite were completely removed from the two us by the end of the meal.
I liked the food in Freddy's. It's not cheffed-up, it's not over-worked; it's simply done but with some interesting twists. It has an honest feel to it, and that, coupled with care in sourcing the raw ingredients, is exactly what a restaurant in this price range should be about.
The bill was modest, considering we didn't have a bottle of wine €70.90 seemed fair enough for what we had eaten.
I haven't been in Limerick for a while, but I was impressed by its new vitality. And with decent food on offer, it won't be too long before I'm back.
Eating Out - Paulo Tullio