It's back to the restaurant websites for the takeaway menus. Looking for some kind of restaurant experience, any restaurant experience, we search for something we cannot reach: the hurly burly of a busy dining room, the cocktails list, the menu and we'll have your table ready in a moment.
Even during that brief moment when the restaurants re-opened in the summer, it wasn't exactly the thing we were looking for. But it did the job. There were masks and screens, there was a bit more space between tables but there were brunches, lunches and dinners. The place we went to most often during that period was Freight in CS Lewis Square. It just did the job of restaurant craic brilliantly for not too much moola.
But we also uncovered a whole new experience in Ox where Stevie Toman, already well established as a Michelin starred chef, had gone through a Transformer-like reincarnation. His food was already amazing before the March lockdown but somehow, his new confidence and more robust attitude took him from Laura Ashley to Banksy.
Not to be left in second place was chef Alex Greene over at Eipic. Hushed, formal and serenely camp, Eipic had also undergone a transformation. The dishes had been given a shot in the arm with some magic serum possibly as a result of Alex's performance on Great British Menu.
And then there were the seriously accomplished dishes from David Gilmore in James Street and Gareth McCaughey in Muddlers' Club. It was as if the trauma of closure had reawakened a sense of urgency in our restaurants to be better and bolder than before.
And now, here I am standing in the pouring rain at a vending machine outside a Donaghadee farm, trying to press the right button for a vegetarian paella, only my fingers are so wet that I can't get a response from the touch screen. If ever you wanted to feel the full force of Stormont's circuit breaker, you should come out to Flavour Fresh's dispenser and engage with it as a form of penance or sacrifice to the gods.
Friends whose judgment I value highly had told me about this machine during the summer. It's more of a sheltered self-service where the boxed dinner kits beckon like so many Bounties, Mars Bars and Snickers behind little glass doors in those machines you see in leisure centres.
There are all sorts of fresh things: among the dinner kits are eggs, potatoes, tomatoes, root vegetables, fruit (in season) packed in boxes and bags which you can choose from a menu on that touch-screen. Just press the image of whatever it is you're after, pay with cash or card and the doors magically open for you to retrieve your items.
This week I brought home a vegetarian paella and a vegetarian chilli. It's all vegetarian. So I picked up some prawns, chicken and mince on the way home.
Modestly described as enough to feed three to four people, the volumes are measured for country ones who like their volume. Never mind the quality: feel the weight of that.
I bought two. Instructions are clear and simple, all the ingredients including spices, herbs and garnishes are present and timings are straightforward. At a tenner a box, it's cheap too.
As for the quality; I never saw better spinach leaves and courgettes (for the veggie paella).
It's not restaurant food, but it does wonders for your reputation amidst your co-bubblers, it saves time and there's no waste. If we have to survive on takeaways, pre-prepared meals and dinner kits for the next four weeks, that vending machine is definitely worth a spin.
Veggie paella £10
Veggie chilli £10