Sitting in the same chair for multiple hours while being served plate after plate of food is a very specific experience. When done well it is marvellous, a pure exercise in gluttony and gastronomical glee. When done badly it’s like a hostage situation as you become increasingly desperate to depart as soon as humanly possible, breathe some fresh air, or simply move your body to battle off the pins and needles forming in your extremities.
In steps what I have labelled the ‘moving feast’ (which I can never write down without thinking of Howl’s Moving Castle). It’s a growing feat in restaurants, perhaps desperate to keep things lively and diners engaged over a meal that can spread across an entire evening. My first dinner of the kind was at Inver on Loch Fyne in Scotland, where staff served snacks in the bar before moving you into the main dining room. Then came Terre at Castlemartyr in Ireland where the venue's distinct spaces are an integral part of the meal. And then Cycene, where things kick off in the bar before moving to your table, then back into the kitchen for a little standing course, before you’re formally settled in your seats.
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Restaurants have, over the years, ebbed and flowed on the topic of ‘experiential’ dining. While the power of novelty was once celebrated, it was soon cast off as kitsch in favour of a more refined approach that put the food and drink front and centre. But, to eat out – and to spend as much money as one does at an intimate meal focused around a tasting menu format – is never just about what you consume. You’re there to be delighted, to be whisked away from the world, and to momentarily slip into the chef’s universe. The Menu may have satirised the fine-dining industry and the idolisation of chefs (and a few food journalists too), but one thing it did get right was that a restaurant of that ilk should allow you to step into the chef’s creation for the hours that you’re there (just, like, ideally being able to keep life and limb when you leave).
Terre, set in Castlemartyr Resort, is an exercise in contrasts. It’s an extremely modern, forward-thinking restaurant occupying a slick, Scandi-esque space that sits within an old manor house. Stepping through the doors into the kitchen and main dining room is like entering a different building entirely. And yet, things kick off in the bar, which is very much the opposite – all gilded edges and plush furnishings. A glass of bubbly sets the tone, before you’re guided through a ferments-and-pickles-lined corridor to the kitchen, where snacks are served at a table with a front row view of the action. You then travel through to the dining room for the remainder of the meal, before, in a full-circle moment, petit fours are served back in that very same bar.
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At the risk of sounding like I’ve got commitment issues (I definitely do), the movement kept me on my toes, and left me wanting more. I was nostalgic for the kitchen before we’d even left it, and was sorry to see my comfortable seat at the table go at the end of the meal, but delighted to return to the cosy bar that had made such an anticipatory welcome. The food was exquisite – easily one of the best meals I had all of last year, perhaps even the one before, too – but I’m not certain I would have enjoyed it as much had I been shackled to my seat for the duration. There was something lyrical about the adventure, and a delight in the restaurant coquettishly refusing to reveal what was around the next corner. Like I said – I’m a sucker for something that keeps me guessing.
At Cycene, it was a similar journey. We began with aperitifs in the bar, before a capacious bread course and a bowl of broth that lifted the spirits and whetted the appetite. The team then guided us upstairs to the (candlelit, sexy) dining room where snacks were served before being promptly kicked out of our seats and into the kitchen for an oyster before we’d even had a chance to lay our napkins. Somewhere in there is a joke about cooking me breakfast first, but I’m not entirely sure anyone would want me to make it.
These experiences are not exclusive to Terre or Cycene – similar meals can be had at Kitchen Table, where the evening kicks off in the bar that took over the old Bubbledogs space, or Restaurant St Bart's where snacks are served in a more informal setting before moving you over to the dining room for the duration. But they are starting to grow in popularity, dominating a new wave of fine-dining restaurants that seem to be quickly making a name for themselves around the country. I, for one, welcome the flirtation of it all – perhaps we all secretly just love the thrill of the chase.