THE ISLAND of Ireland’s gastronomic culture continues its upward trajectory — there are now 17 Michelin-starred restaurants from Belfast in the north to Baltimore in the very far southwest. It’s not hard to see why Irish cuisine is now applauded, lauded and roundly admired.
Fresh, local produce comes from an area that stretches from the lush meadows of Antrim to the trout-rich streams and loughs of Connemara, and from the lush orchards of Armagh to the pasturelands of the Golden Vale in Munster.
The superiority of these food products has helped to anchor the renaissance of Irish cuisine. Many first class cafes and restaurants now serve what might loosely be called 'Irish' cuisine. Some take classic recipes from the great gastronomic traditions of Europe such as France and Italy, add Irish produce, and put an Irish twist to the preparation.
Others specialise in Irish vernacular cuisine, revisiting the great dishes of the past — and they did exist— but introducing modern influences,
Of course, you don’t need to dine at Michelin-starred restaurant. In every county from Tyrone to Wexford you’ll find cosy gastropubs or town restaurants which specialise in good value cuisine — hearty fare, but cooked with sophistication. And you can always wash it down with a pint of perfectly-poured stout.
Thirteen top tips for a great dining experience
Bushmills Inn, Busmills; Co. Antrim
Full of character and craic, this 18th century hostelry, in the shadow of the world’s oldest distillery, features open fires, a gas-lit bar, oil lamps, grand staircase and circular library.
The food uses local ingredients — try the fillet steak flambéed in whiskey and cullen skink (a sort of thick, tasty beef broth). The Sunday carvery is what might be termed hearty: high-quality meat drenched in syrups and farm-fresh fats are where it’s at. It’s daring, it’s gross, it’s wicked. But boy, is it good. Two solid, greasy thumbs up from me.
The Muddler’s Club, Waring Street, Belfast
The Michelin-starred Muddler’s Club, renowned chef Gareth McCaughey’s place, is a buzzy restaurant in Belfast’s oldest area. The kitchen area is in full view of the diners, with the staff calm and relaxed. If your experience of kitchens is culled from Boiling Point or the comparable US series The Bear, The Muddler’s will come as something of a surprise. It seems that the kitchen staff don’t have to swear and shout, “Oui chef, non chef, and please don’t hit me with that leg of mutton, chef”, in order to produce cutting edge, mouth-watering cuisine.
The wait staff are friendly and knowledgeable to a fault. My server, a French woman had information (and language skills) that could have qualified her for a job at the UN. At one point she confided in me that the Russian for ‘parsnip’ is ‘pasternak’. That’s right, he was Boris Parsnip. She also told me that Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, brought the Spanish fashion of eating salads with the main meal to England. Who knew, eh?
The wait staff in general are a hugely talented bunch, chatty certainly, but not intrusive (that’s a hard trick to get right) who will guide you through the likes of a seasonal tasting menu (£90 with a wine flight at £65) where you’ll encounter dishes such Wicklow venison with parsnip (yes) and chestnuts, or white onion soup with smoked haddock and curry oil.
The Olde Glen, Glenmenagh, Carrickart
The Olde Glen, an utterly charming bar and restaurant, straddles both traditional and contemporary foodie cuisine.
Donegal native Ciarán Sweeney has transformed what was a local dancehall into a landmark restaurant using ingredients such as house-smoked Atlantic salmon, oysters or market fish. Dishes include roasted Mulroy Bay scallops served with an Italian dipping sauce (“bagna cauda” or hot bath, although purists will insist it originally came from Provence, Whatever, served in Donegal it superb). I was equally taken with the St. Tola goat’s cheese panna cotta, lemon grass, horseradish and smoked Ballyholey beetroot.
Four courses here cost €65
Kai, 22 Sea Rd, Galway
Kai is a Bib Gourmand restaurant in Galway that specialises in New Zealand style comfort food, of all things. (A Bib Gourmand is one of the accolades handed out during the annual Michelin guide update each year. The nod spotlights great quality and great value cooking.)
The owners of Kai, Jess and David Murphy — the former a Kiwi the other from Carlow — specialise in a Southern Hemisphere twist to locally-sourced ingredients. So the menu specialises in dishes such as scallops with burnt butter, cauliflower and aioli. Or for a real comforter on an evening when the grey clouds have locked in over the Atlantic and the gentle breeze from Galway Bay would lift your bowler hat off — there are steaks (NZ style) John Dory from the bay, and the most delicate Roman gnocchi.
Starters range from €13 - €15, mains from €26 - €36
Alfama, Irwin Court, 39 Dundrum Road, Farranboley, Dublin D14
Owned by Brazilian/Portuguese couple Edi Nunes and Paulo Miguel, Alfama (named after the Lisbon district) is a compact space, but the food is bursting with intent and ambition. Menus tare imaginative but limited in range — often a very good sign — and the food that is not only succulent but authentic.
OX, 1 Oxford St, Belfast BT1 3LA
I had entered a sourdough frenzy. I was on my third slice and knew I had to slow down. There were still ten courses to go, for goodness sake.
The problem is that bread and Glenilen butter served at OX could be terribly habit-forming — particularly when it accompanies Glasswater farm cucumber and caviar.
OX, jointly owned by Alain Kerloc'h (from Brittany) and Stephen Toman (from Belfast) was an originally an old dockside building which has been turned into a Michelin-starred restaurant. If you (wisely) go for the seasonal tasting menu, you’ll find innovative cooking of the highest order — expect the likes of asparagus and smoked potato alongside meltingly-good Mourne mountain lamb or Skeaghanore duck, salsify, buckwheat and elderberries.
Dishes are creatively prepared and offer something sweet, savoury, earthy, crunchy, soft, aromatic, spicy. Sometimes all within the same dish. And as for the wine list — loads of esoteric beauties. You will be led into temptation.
The tasting menu is £85, with wine pairing at £60
Ghan House, Carlingford
One of my all time favourites, Ghan House is a fairytale Georgian pile at the foot of the Cooley Mountains. One of the oldest private houses on the island, the first floor dining room offers an unbeatable combination of scenery and luxury tuck; and in the extremely unlikely even of your becoming bored with the view of the Cooleys, just turn round to watch the Mountains of Mourne performing their legendary party piece, sweeping down to the sea.
Local produce is prominent on the menu - Cooley lamb, mussels and oysters from the Carlingford Lough and of course fresh fish. Herbs and vegetables are from Ghan's own gardens which abut they old, 11th century Dominican priory.
After your meal you can retire to the private bar until the sun creeps up over Carlingford Lough
There is a €62.50 four course menu.
The Fitzwilliam, Great Victoria Street, Belfast
If a cosy space with intimate snugs seemingly designed for getting up to no good is your sort of thing, you’ll scarcely do better that The Fitzwilliam. The cocktails are a good mix in more ways than one. The traditional favourites are there — mojito, Singapore sling, margarita, as well as some fine show-off concoctions. I went for what was called The Prestige: Jack Daniels Tennessee rye whiskey, Angostura bitters, maple syrup. Strong? It would have kick-started a dodo.
The Restaurant at the Fitz I found to be a first class place for dining, chatting, eating, being happy, having a drink.
Starters? But of course. Three fat plump scallops with pickled apple purée were done to a turn, as was my chicken supreme, with rainbow carrots, onion purée, Lyonnaise potatoes.
When I dine in Belfast I can’t help but think of Clement Freud. The restaurant critic once spoke about his trip across the Irish Sea, many decades ago. In Belfast he was much taken by a sign in a pub reading: "Pint, pie and a kind word – a fiver."
Clement was duly served an immaculate pint of stout and a serviceable enough looking meat pie; but the chat didn't seem too forthcoming. "Hey! What about the kind word?” he enquired. The barman came back, leaned over the bar, and conspiratorially whispered, "If I were ye, I wouldnae bother eatin' the pie."
This is an unlikely scenario these days in Belfast, and certainly not if you’re staying at the Fitzwilliam
Beach House, Turkey Road, Tramore East
Jumoke Akintola and Peter Hogan’s Beach House is open only for lunch — but boy, what a lunch.
The daily menus are, as you might expect, a paean to seafood — but there are plenty of old favourites. Beer battered catch of the day (€19.95) is exactly how fish should be cooked: the batter seals the fish, and the fish actually slowly cooks inside what is in effect a miniature oven of batter. The fish is accordingly delicate and succulent.
Greenes, 48 MacCurtain Street, Victorian Quarter, Cork City
Greene's is ideal if you want to dine in subdued, elegant surroundings. The scope of the menu is contemporary French, with a few nods in the local direction. Sustainable meat and fish are used in dishes that include slow-cooked Twomey's pork bellyblack garlic, hibiscus, cauliflower puree, béchamel sauce €17.50 or lamb shoulder and rack gratin, kale & coffee rub €39.50
Eleven, Bray Road, Loughlinstown, Dublin, D18
On the outskirts of Dublin, the location of this restaurant close to the N11 subdued. The food is a series of stunners that benefit from being cooked on a wood-burning grill — although the vegetarian options are also spot-on. My scallops were primped and pimped and preened until they were just about the best I’d ever tasted. And as for puddings, well, my dear! For desserts, more is definitely more.
Co . Cork
Dede, Baltimore, Republic of Ireland
Customs House, Baltimore, Co. Cork
This is the island of Ireland’s only two restaurants which have two Michelin stars. Chef Ahmet Dede’s Turkish influences give traditional dishes a new going over. The tasting dinner menu includes dishes such as lobster kebab, isot pepper, preserved lemon, spiced langoustine, wasabi, crème fraiche, raki and asparagus,
Paradiso, Lancaster Quay, Mardyke, Cork
The chef Anthony Bourdain once declared: “Vegetarians are a persistent nuisance,” but it’s not a sentiment Des Cotter of Paradiso in Cork would necessarily agree with. Des runs the top vegetarian restaurant in Ireland bar none, and there are people who return to Ireland year after year to go to Café Paradiso. It’s apparently Cillian Murphy’s favourite restaurant, and it’s not hard to see why. The menu bristles with complex flavours and intriguing culinary alchemy. Local, seasonal, foraged and organic produce is the mantra of the restaurant. No wonder it’s equally loved by locals and those seeking a destination diner for a special meal.
The six course set menu (€68 per person) involves you in culinary works of art such as carrot escabeche (a largely Iberian creation of marinated vegetables in a vinegary sauce) along with pickled fennel, citrus labneh (soft Middle eastern cheese) or smoked leek, cauliflower, spiced butter. I need hardly add that the ingredients are local as far as possible, and fresh as a daisy.