No one needs reminding of the very difficult start to 2021 that the hospitality industry faced, as indeed did we all as we headed into more months of lockdown. But it does seem that much of the resilience that had been instilled in 2020 held strong. Once again, operators adapted, created new angles to their businesses, meal kits became a focal point of people’s weekends, and everyone held their breath to see what would happen next.
As the industry has tentatively re-emerged, perhaps the most surprising thing has been the number of new openings in the sector, with young chefs seizing the opportunity to do something new and creative and, in most instances, opening the type of restaurant that they would love to visit themselves.
These have mostly been casual, with a more relaxed approach to dining and in many cases, an increased focus on wine, but there has also been quite a bit happening at the caviar and glinting gold leaf end of the fine dining scale. Which makes for a very interesting, and exciting, mix for the 2021 Irish Times Food Oscars.
Meal of the year
Chapter One by Mickael Viljanen
18-19 Parnell Square North, Dublin 1; chapteronerestaurant.com
It was close to a 'break the internet' moment when Mickael Viljanen and Ross Lewis announced their plans for Chapter One, closing the old restaurant and opening a brand new iteration, with Viljanen's name over the door. The €65 lunch menu got my first 10/10 score, for a meal that was world class, truly glorious perfection. Viljanin has mastered the art of applying French technique seamlessly so that his food just glides, tantalises and delights. Not surprisingly, the Michelin Guide has already announced that it is one of the new entries in their 2022 guide, and the expectation is that it will go straight in at two stars.
Newcomer of the year
101 Setanta Place, Dublin 2; libraryst.ie
The news that Allta would not be returning to its Setanta Place premises was quickly followed by the announcement that Kevin Burke, one of the Allta team with a Michelin star background, would be taking it over and bringing his own take to this smart, relaxing room. With Anne-Marie Duignan as manager, it immediately got off to a slick start, serving cracking small plates of food which are all about the quality of the produce. Marinated peppers, langoustines, risotto and top tier desserts, and a great wine list, pop this new opening right up to the top of the list.
Allta Summer House
Now in Trinity Car Park, Trinity Street, Dublin 2; alltawinterhouse.ie
Niall Davidson and the Allta team pulled off the seemingly impossible when they pitched a very smart stretch tent by the banks of the River Boyne at Slane Castle, and created Allta Summer House, a space so beautiful, with such truly delicious food, that it had anyone who was lucky enough to get there smiling for the rest of the summer. If you missed out, you'll get a similar experience with a bit more altitude at Allta Winter House on the fifth floor of Trinity Street Car Park in Dublin 2.
Best food truck
Albert Court, East Car Park, Grand Canal Street Lower, Dublin 2; dosadosa.ie
The perfect street food is something you are unlikely to make at home, and chances are, you've never made a dosa, the fermented lentil pancakes, or plan to anytime soon. Karthik Thiru was missing the taste of home, so he opened a South Indian food truck, selling dosas with fillings that range from potato masala to Chettinad chicken, paneer, and mixed vegetables. As is often the case with Indian food, there are plenty of very good vegetarian and vegan options. The site has had a bit of a makeover and there are now benches to sit at, so you can tuck into your dosa the minute it's cooked.
Best outdoor dining
Roots at Slane
Slane Castle, Slanecastle Demesne, Co Meath; rootsproject.ie
Keith Coleman and Aisling McHugh started their Roots Project of pop up dinners in 2017, and added farming and running a farmers' market to their list of skills when they moved to manage the food offering at Slane Castle. A spectacular outdoor dining area, with a large striped marquee flanking the castle, and a menu of Mexican inspired food was the Roots pop-up they ran for the summer, using produce from Rock Farm and local Boyne Valley suppliers. It was not just about great food, it felt like a wonderful day out, attracting generations of families, from toddlers to grandparents.
6 Magnet Road, Townparks, Dundalk, Co Louth; squarerestaurant.ie
The snacks section on a menu can run up your bill a bit more than you expected, but in some cases, they are well worth investigating, particularly if you've made the very wise decision to head to Square restaurant in Dundalk. Conor Halpenny's crisps are the best I've ever eaten, served warm, dusted in salt and tiny dots of charred chives, with micro-bladed cheese sprinkled over. And that's just the start of the tasty food on his menu.
Best local seafood
Cliff House Hotel, Ardmore, Co Waterford; cliffhousehotel.ie
We have an abundance of razor clams along our shores, so it was so good to see Ian Doyle give this humble bivalve Michelin star treatment in House restaurant in the Cliff House Hotel. Served finely sliced on a mussel purée, with shallots and delicate orange marigold leaves, a frothy mussel cream which was spooned over when it was being served added another beautiful layer of complexity to the dish.
Unit 7, The Village, Stepaside, Dublin 18; woodruff.ie
Typically, when you see charcuterie on a menu, it's on the snacks section, a nice quick plate to have with a pre-dinner drink. But here, it is served as a substantial course, so gather up your friends and order it. All the charcuterie, which includes beef salami, lomo, coppa, and air-dried lamb rump, is made in-house, and aged with Himalayan salt blocks in a dry ageing fridge, each piece tasting quite different, with the subtle use of herbs and spices.
Best vegan dish
Check Instagram to see where it's parked: @loschicanostacos
An increasing number of restaurants are adding vegan dishes to their menus, or at least dishes that can be adapted for vegan diets, but invariably, the ones that are best are those that just happen to be vegan. This was the case at Scott Holder's Los Chicanos food truck where cauliflower gets a buffalo wing treatment, coated in a Jalisco-style salsa macha which has a good kick of heat from the Arbol chilies, balanced with just the right amount of vinegar for acidity.
6 Clanbrassil Street Upper, Dublin 8; clanbrassilhouse.com
This could be an award for most improved course, listing quite a few of the desserts I tried around the country, because it was a year of great desserts, so there were plenty of happy endings for those of us who always have room for something sweet. But David Bradshaw's slightly savoury dessert of baked cream in Clanbrassil House stands out against this tough competition. Light with gentle notes of fennel, it was served with a juicy blackberry granita and berries, and an earthy crunch from toasted buckwheat. Subtle but very composed.
44- 47 King Street North, Smithfield, Dublin 7; soupramen.ie
Soup 2 could really fit into a number of categories – a great place to go with friends, great vegetarian and vegan options (again, this will keep friends happy), a great vibe, a great soundtrack, but the bit that ties it all together is that it is really great value. The portions here are huge, the deep-fried kimchi is made for sharing, and the steaming bowls of homemade ramen will have you slurping contentedly. Perfect with one of their excellent cocktails or a beer.
Druid Lane, Co Galway; eangalway.com
Ean is one of that wonderful new wave of wine bars, which is a café by day and transforms into a restaurant in the evening, keeping things casual but top quality. Much like its sister restaurant Loam, sustainability is at the core of everything here, with produce for their beautiful small plates of food coming from local organic growers, and wines from some of the world's top low intervention producers.
Sommelier of the year
Barrows Keep, Marsh's Street, Thomastown, Co Kilkenny; barrowskeep.com
A wine list that balances the classics of the old world with lesser known regions, sherries and low-intervention winemakers has always been a hallmark of Morgan VanderKamer, who is the co-owner of Barrow's Keep in Thomastown, with her partner, Stephen McArdle. She is equally admired for her ability to inspire, running study groups for young sommeliers, so it seems particularly fitting that she was elected as the president of the Irish Guild of Sommeliers in October.