Galway is hailed as the cultural capitol of Western Ireland—great theater, music galore—but I’m here for the food. Oysters and mussels practically leap from the bay, and McDonough’s pub has served up fine fish and chips since 1902. But at Niall House, a charming rental estate, our catered lunch proved the best of a long list of dining bests on a recent tour of Western Ireland. Worth the flight? Heck, I’d swim.
“Irish cuisine” is an oxymoron no more. Niall’s help-yourself platters set out to prove, for once and for all, that the dreary days of boiled cabbage and gamey mutton are long gone. Food today is fresh as its taxi drivers’ lip, all micro-locally sourced, and spared the weight of heavy sauces. Grass-fed beef and lamb prevail, along with just-caught seafood, Irish butter (better than all others), and myriads of cheeses.
We loaded our plates with smoked mackerel, salmon, and sweet potted crab served with seaweed marmalade, then returned for salamis and cured meats. Next, an endless galaxy of cheeses, from Cashel Blue to goat and beyond. Just when we were ready to surrender to days on the treadmill, out came the homemade rhubarb pie with enough whipped cream to paint my kitchen. Oh, and Irish coffee. Meanwhile, on an old recording, Bing Crosby crooned “Galway Bay.” Out with the hankies.
Chef Tim O’Sullivan, a 30-year vet at Renvyle House, an active member of Euro-toques, and front-runner for this year’s Best Chef in Ireland award, chatted with me over a breakfast of salmon Benedict and lambs’ liver with homemade soda bread. Says Tim, “Modern Irish cooking is lighter and fresher, using local products, but still referencing our roots: Grannie’s food redefined. Desserts are lighter, such as last night’s parfait. Grannie’s lowly boxty has evolved into a potato-herb cake. Scallops are another good example of how things have evolved: I serve them, carpaccio style, with apple-lime jelly.” And panache.
The crab cakes, over which I’d swooned at dinner, came brightened with a most modern melon and cucumber salsa. My neighbor worshiped her miniature pot pie of Connemara mussels and fennel, while across the table, another swooned over a galette of goat cheese with onion relish.
Next, entrees such as filet of beef, with a spinach-mushroom potato cake replacing boxty, aside a puddle of tarragon béarnaise. Or sea bass paired with ratatouille. Local duck comes further enriched with an onion-apricot stuffing. As for those “lighter” desserts, there’s that iced strawberry parfait with blueberry coulis. Or go for the apple tart or berry trifle. Or, Lord love ye, why not the chocolate mousse?
Sure, and this is a very special kitchen. But join the cafeteria line among the tour bus crowd at attractions such as Kylemore Abbey and Foxford Woolen Mills, and get set for house-made everything, down to the jam and butter—no shortcuts. Salmon and spinach quiche vies with crab salad and open-faced sandwiches of smoked salmon on brown bread.
Soup, such as the rich and tasty tomato-basil at Glasnevin Cemetery’s Visitor Centre, give the genre a whole new meaning. The Beehive, on tiny Achill Island, baked its pies from rhubarb that grew fertilized with seaweed, which sweetened the tart stalks. The mountain of whipped cream didn’t hurt, either. Ballycroy Park’s modest little food line managed to produce the scone to end all scones—light as a helium balloon and served with homemade preserves and clotted cream. Lots of it.
Westport is not only the tidiest of sweet towns, as its award declares, but also one of the tastiest. A newly-launched, unpretentious bistro called An Bon Port won Newcomer of the Year award for a kitchen that turns out a string of winners, starting with the starters. Thanking its local purveyors in print, as do many these days, its menu offers a warm salad of pot-roasted pigs’ cheeks on black pudding with apple-vanilla sauce. Just as luscious is the Achill smoked organic salmon, served upon a slim slice of boxty, with more black pudding and onion marmalade. Crab cakes came livened with curried mango chutney and partnered with grilled scallops in hollandaise; all victuals from just outside the kitchen door presented with flair and imagination but never over-kill.
The entrees aren’t for slouches, either. More scallops, this time prepared with local rapeseed oil and grilled fennel. Also, pan-fried trout paired with mussels, and lamb with ratatouille.
Across the street, another charmer, Sol Rio, offers a bistro bargain of three courses for 26 euros. What to choose? The tiger prawn and crab on salad greens, or the beet and goat cheese salad spangled with cashews? Next settle on a mixed grill of Irish beefsteak wrapped in bacon aside a Westport lamb chop and portobellos; duck confit with cassoulet beans; or sole gratin. The dessert you’re wise to pounce on is the apple pie laden with ice cream. And whipped cream. The Irish hold no fear of calories.
Amid Mount Falcon’s 100 green acres, some folks popped at pigeons (clay) while I, with a boatload of help from fisherman Shay, cast for trout. Neither appeared on the evening’s menu. The kitchen’s talented young French chef, Philippe (“Irish products, French heart”), had better things on offer. He didn’t win County Mayo’s Best Chef 2012 (and Best Hotel Restaurant) for nothing. Consider starters like black pudding with pork belly and seared scallops, caramelized apples, applesauce and warm apple jelly. Or a salad of asparagus, poached egg, oyster mushrooms and truffle foam. Or parfait of chicken liver and foie gras served with rhubarb chutney.
Convinced? Next up, choose between—and you can hardly bear to—a combo of rack of lamb and lamb shoulder with wild garlic; trout with marinated prawns and tomato chutney; duck breast with five-spice honey and puree of black grapes; and, of course, local Hereford beef alongside braised beef tortellini, all vivaciously fresh, intensely and proudly local, and trumpeting true flavor.
Note that these are all small, countryside kitchens far from the fast lane of dashing, debonair Dublin. That fair city is so loaded with Michelin stars that there’s no need of streetlights. But that’s another story. Next year….