We have spent an aeon of time in 2022 working on a new edition of Ireland The Best, five years after the first edition, which necessitated a lot of office time in between journeys and expeditions around the country.
Happily, we found time to create a new Substack identity during the year, which allowed us to divert from the short-form, sound-bite modern culture and gives us a chance to deep-dive with contemporary and historical food stories. We are looking forward to more deep dives in 2023.
But, when we ventured out, it was quickly evident that the shining lights of Ireland’s artisan food culture were in rude health.
In Galway, for instance, one saw the strength-in-depth that characterises the city’s food offer.
You could pick up a coffee from Laura and Enda at Kali, in Salthill, and straight away find yourself asking if you might have found the best cup of coffee in Ireland.
In the freshly made-over glam of Aniar, Jp McMahon’s 18-course tasting menus have never expressed their ambition to reveal the coastal riches of the western seaboard with greater clarity and sense of purpose: the dish of oyster with sea lettuce is one of the defining modern creations, and McMahon has no peer as an interpreter of Irish seaweeds, one of the country’s most precious assets.
You find the same sense of confidence in a classic destination like The Kings Head, where Brendan Keane’s food has never been better. Again, the cooking quietly states its sense of both place and purpose: Kelly’s Oysters; Porcupine Reef prawns; Friendly Farmer poultry; Andarl Farm pork; Galway mussels are all used to create a defining Galway gastropub experience.
Then you can conclude the evening with drinks in the Galway City Distillery, where Claire Davey’s tinctures give the drinks a true sense of Irishness, thanks to using elements such as bog myrtle, gorse, spruce, blackberry leaf and other gathered good things. Jim Flynn and his team have created a whole new drinking experience. And that is Galway’s greatness: everyone doing their best thing, at every level.
Further south, Cork showed that its capacity for the quirky and the quixotic never wanes.
In Bantry, Bernie O’Sullivan opened up a corner of her design store, Forest & Flock, and created Piccolo, the jewel within this jewel box of a store. O’Sullivan and her team are mighty baristas, and with stunning sweet baking sourced from The Tea Room, in Castletownbere, Piccolo shows how small can be mighty. The brilliant example of The Stuffed Olive, where O’Sullivan served her time, is bringing a tribe of businesses to full blossom in Bantry.
Small and mighty also applies to two ground-breaking stalls in Cork’s newest food markets.
In Nua Asador, in the Marina Market, chef Victor Franca shows that he has few equals when it comes to cooking meats over flame. With Tom Durcan’s butchery cabinet of meaty delights to work with, Mr Franca shows exactly why he was on the Euro-Toques Young Chef of the Year shortlist. Just a stone’s throw away, in the brand-new Black Market, Tim and Jamie in The Pie Guys are showing that pie making is something that the Irish can master after all. Using all butter pastry, and deft skills, their pies are the best: The Beef and Beamish is the Bomb. And, as if that wasn’t reason enough to visit, they also concoct sublime mash, with a 70/30 tuber-to-butter ratio.
In Baltimore, Ahmet Dede is doing something pretty extraordinary in his eponymous restaurant, Dede. With West Cork ingredients, and a crack cooking crew of young Turkish chefs, Ahmet is rewriting the book of expectations, creating a style of food unlike any other. The staples are Turkish ideas, but the execution is other-worldly, and the result is food that is provocatively emotional, a cuisine of heart and soul.
Dublin’s chefs have been having fun in recent times…
They are upending our ideas of what restaurant spaces should be. Chief amongst these, of course, has been Niall Davidson’s Allta, and the creation of the phantasmagorical happening on the 5th floor of the city centre car park has been one of the great works of modern Irish art.
We liked the way in which Essa Fakry’s Note almost invited you to order dinner starting at the foot of the menu, and we enjoyed the casual unorthodoxy of this gorgeous room, which subtly and quietly shifts the dining paradigm.
Another Dublin shape-shifter has been Ian Usher’s Cluck Chicken. Allta has a multi-storey car park, whilst Cluck has a second-hand car dealership yard in Walkinstown, so it’s the glamour profession all the way. Usher also created some of the best burger collaborations known to mankind, including Chapter One’s Mickael Viljanen “2 Star Chick” with hot honey butter, Pancetta, Brillat Savarin Cheese, Pickle and Remoulade Sauce.
The biggest splash in Belfast was Flout!
Peter Thompson’s exuberant temple to pizza and focaccia. Again, Thomson shifted the shapes, so there is no domed Neapolitan oven, the pizzas and focash are baked in squares, and the queue for Flout! pizzas is often so long that only the thought of a slice of Spicy Kings at the end of it all keeps you going.
Critics should always be careful what they say, and we hoped that our description of Belfast’s Neighbourhood Café as “the most beautiful eating room in Ireland” wouldn’t cause the Gods to vent their anger by destroying the room with fire. Destroy it they did, but here’s the good bit: Ryan and Oisin have moved down Donegall Street to the old Hadskis building and, phoenix-like, Neighborhood Café is reborn. Phew!
Just a few miles east, Holywood has got its mojo working. The vegan cooking in Lynchpin is a gift, whilst Noble opened their ground floor wine bar and small plates offer and were promptly rewarded with always-jammers occupancy. Down the street, Shaun Tinman is cooking for the ages in Frae, and we had the best meal of 2022 in the cosy upstairs dining room as Tinman showered sparks on every plate.
Festivals came back, with a bang
Two of the very best happened in the Boyne Valley. The annual Sheridan’s Cheesemongers jamboree at their Meath headquarters, and Samhain, in Kells, were both extraordinary celebrations of the contemporary food culture.
Wherever we went, we found special things:
… the pasteis de nata from Hugo’s Bakery in Lahinch; the fresh pasta from Dillon’s Corner in Skibbereen; the stupendous work of David and Sarah in Vittle Bakeshop in Portstewart; the cep dumplings in Blackrock’s Volpe Nera; the breads from Mueller & O’Connell Bakery in Abbeyleix; the expressive Lost Valley Cheese from West Cork; Highbank Orchards treacle from Kilkenny; our new neighbourhood restaurant in Ballydehob, Davitt Conroy’s Mosaic, a charming room with cool modern-Med food.
We enjoyed an incredible vegan lunch from Terri Ann Fox in River Run Ferments in Wicklow – miso butter and cheese, lacto pickled vegetables, grain and tempeh salads – as part of her workshop foray into sourdough experiments with Irish flour. Further south, the fish smoking course run by Sally Barnes and Max Jones in Skibbereen at Woodcock Smokery lets two extraordinary food characters run rampant.
On a fine sunny day we sat in Alain Morice’s Savoir Fare in Westport and ate scallops with pepper dulse and a glass of Roisin Curley’s white Burgundy and, thanks to the combination of M. Morice’s brilliant food and Ms Curley’s brilliant wine, time pretty much stopped.
Irish food publishing has had an annus mirabilis
This is largely thanks to the epic skills of Kristin Jensen, who has reinvented the wheel when it comes to food books. Jensen’s Blasta Books were, each and every one, a blast, whilst her 9 Bean Rows imprint yielded a masterpiece in the form of Graham Herterich’s Bake, truly a book for the ages. The Blasta books were a stunning achievement and congratulations to such confident debuts from Lily Ramirez-Foran, the Gastrogays, Jess Murphy and Eoin Cluskey, and Kwanghi.
As if that wasn’t enough, JR Ryall’s Ballymaloe Desserts book and Mezze, from Nicola and Dvir of the Tramore powerhouse, were both cherishable, vital works.
Away from Ireland, two books were exemplary: Mezcla by Ixta Belfrage was a funky beauty, whilst The Wok, by the tireless J. Kenji Lopez-Alt was that rare thing: a true magnum opus.
Critics need to be careful what they write, and not writing about other critics is pretty good advice. But, what use is good advice if you can’t ignore it, so we have to say give it up people for Lisa Cope’s All The Food, critical food writing and analysis of the highest international standard, delivered with sharp wit and sound judgement.
I'm so overdue a visit but have two coming up - one in 2024 and hoping to be able to do the other into 2023 so this is going to be most valuable - thank you