Best meals of 2011

After a year of eating her way around Ireland, our restaurant critic names her best starters, main courses and desserts, writes…

After a year of eating her way around Ireland, our restaurant critic names her best starters, main courses and desserts, writes CATHERINE CLEARY

MUCH OF WHAT we remember these days is in gist form. We remember the gist of our journey to school or work or that birthday dinner out in a restaurant. It takes something astonishingly different to net our butterfly brains and pin down a memory to one unique moment. Life is full of dinners that were “grand”, nothing more, nothing less, the Irish equivalent of The Simpsons/Yiddish putdown of indifference, “meh”.

Writing a restaurant column means you have to think about what you put in your mouth. It’s one of the joys. Then you get to think about it again afterwards at the keyboard. This has been a year of eating that has been rich with memorable moments. There have been plenty of meals that were “grand”. But I’ve also eaten wonderful food cooked by people who are quietly ignoring any mood of defeat or bitterness and getting on with the craft of cooking brilliantly.

These are my restaurant Oscars for 2011, the gongs for big roles and supporting roles and the more low-key statuettes for the foley artists and key grips. These are all Irish productions, the best of them using local and seasonal (yes, I know it’s a boring phrase) ingredients. It was a back-to-basics kind of year in the restaurant world where the best people rediscovered that great food comes from a sense of time and place.


Best starter

The most interesting and exciting new restaurants happened in Galway this year. Whether it’s the lower rents, the large population of young, enthusiastic people or just the magic of the west, there’s something great about the city’s food culture at the moment. At Enda McEvoy’s restaurant Aniar on Dominick Street, I had my starter of the year. A simple white deep bowl of veal sweetbreads in a buttermilk and girolle mushroom sauce. The sweetbreads were silky and delicate, a perfect texture and taste partner to the mushrooms and with the tang of buttermilk to finish it off. Gorgeous.

Aniar Restaurant, 53 Lower Dominick Street, Galway, tel: 091-535947

Also nominated: Jess Murphy’s chicken salad with browned skin, kohl rabi and marbled heirloom tomatoes. Kai Café + Restaurant,

Sea Road, Galway, tel: 091-526003

Best main course

This is a tough one. Starters are typically better than main courses, probably because you eat them when you are hungrier, but for me it has to be a perfectly-cooked, china-white piece of halibut from Martijn Kajuiter’s kitchen at the Cliff House Hotel restaurant. A piece of calm kitchen craft sandwiched between dazzling Michelin-minded starters and desserts.

Cliff House Hotel, Ardmore, Co Waterford, tel: 024-87800

Also nominated: Paul Flynn’s quail and foie gras pie. A boned quail stuffed with foie gras and diced quail meat and then baked, fairytale style, in a dome of egg-washed brioche. A real ta-da from the Tannery kitchen. The Tannery Restaurant, 10 Quay Street, Dungarvan, Co Waterford, tel: 058-45420

Best dessert

Almost anything tastes good with enough sugar and butter added so it’s challenging to pinpoint the highlight of a year’s puddings. It came down to the wild Burren hazelnut ice cream made by Paolo Brunato and Piereluigi Susana from Ard Bia at Nimmos in Galway. It was served during a magical pop-up restaurant night in a church hall on Galway’s Sea Road.

Ard Bia at Nimmos, Spanish Arch, Long Walk, Galway, tel: 091-561114

Also nominated: Denis Cotter’s Limone Paradiso dessert, a mascarpone, sorbet and mini lemon tart lined up from left to right for immediate demolition with a dessert spoon. Zinglicious.

Café Paradiso, 16 Lancaster Quay, Western Road, Cork, tel: 021-4277939

Best cheese plate

A simple, perfectly-served plate with knockout handmade biscuits at the end of a great €12 lunch in Eden restaurant in Temple Bar. Nothing too outrageous, just some Durrus, Cashel Blue and Cooleeny, but served at the perfect temperature to be enjoyed. Now that the archeological dig is finished and the brollies are in, Eden should reap the rewards of keeping its food great during the downtime.

Eden, Meeting House Square, Temple Bar, Dublin tel: 01-6705372

Best cheap eats

Fast middle-eastern food at Little Jerusalem, which is also a bring-your-own-bottle with no corkage place so it’s really attractive. Try the foul moudammas and the baba ganoush along with its slipper soft and warm flatbreads. Little Jerusalem, 3 Wynnefield Road, Rathmines, Dublin, 01-4126912

Also nominated: Rigby’s Deli, where chef James Rigby whips up a two-course €21 dinner, three nights a week from what he’s been able to source that day. Also a BYOB operation.

Rigby’s Deli, 126 Upper Leeson Street, Dublin, tel: 087-7939195.

Sean McD’s gastropub on Harold’s Cross Road, where young chef Stephen McDonald cooks likes he’s in a much more expensive joint.

Sean MacD’s Pub, 69 Harold’s Cross Road, Dublin, tel: 01-4976832.

And third nominee is Terra Madre, a lovely new Italian in a basement on Bachelor’s Walk, Dublin. Find them from the “stop good food here” sign.

Dinner of the year

The men from Michelin may have said “non” to a star but eating at sunset on a long summer’s evening in Gregan’s Castle in Co Clare goes down as my dinner memory of the year. There were scallops with a sweet hazelnut glaze, a teeny tiny quail toastie, rabbit and carrots made to sing and dance on the plate, and petits fours that included one best described as turf fudge. Mickael Viljanen’s food does what really great dinners do, bringing you a moment of happiness on a plate. Gregan’s Castle, Ballyvaughan, Co Clare, tel: 065-7077005

Most notorious culinary moment The live shrimp in Noma in Copenhagen. He swam into the wrong net, was served up in a Kilner jar filled with ice, dipped in a burnt butter mayonnaise and eaten alive. A short life, but long fame.