Catherine Cleary: My highest ever restaurant review scores

The 10 places that got a top score of 9.5/10 include a pub, a wine bar and an island retreat

After a run of almost perfect scores for Irish restaurants from restaurant critic Catherine Cleary, here are her top 10. Photograph: Stephen Davison

After a run of almost perfect scores for Irish restaurants from restaurant critic Catherine Cleary, here are her top 10. Photograph: Stephen Davison

 

The perfect restaurant meal doesn’t exist, or at least it has not been Catherine Cleary’s experience while on official reviewing duty as the Irish Times food critic. She has, however, awarded almost perfect scores of 9.5/10 on 10 occasions during her tenure, most recently to the Dublin restaurant Bastible, where Cúán Greene, formerly of Noma in Copenhagen, has taken over the head chef role.

That score for Bastible, her second resoundingly positive review for this restaurant, came hot on the heels of only slightly less perfect scores of 9/10, three weeks in succession, for Potager in Skerries; Barrow’s Keep in Graiguenamanagh and Frank’s in Dublin. And last weekend, a clutch of cafes - Bread 41 and Cloud Picker Cafe, both on Pearse Street in Dublin 2, also earned a 9/10 mark.

So what’s up? Is the famously exacting Cleary in a mellow mood, or has Ireland’s restaurant industry hit a particularly sweet spot?

“What those high scoring places have in common is a chef/owner at the helm. They’re run by people obsessed with flavour, creating beautiful dishes, many of them grounded in the bounty of vegetables we have at this moment in the Irish growing season. It’s a very good time to eat well,” Cleary says.

Of the 10 establishments that have scored 9.5 under Cleary’s watch, four have Michelin stars, and the others are an island retreat, a ramen bar, a Spanish restaurant, a wine bar, a pub, and Bastible, whose owners describe it as a contemporary neighbourhood bistro.

Nothing stays the same for long in the restaurant industry though, so there have been significant changes to three of her top-scoring places: in two instances the chef has moved on, and in another the management team parted company and the restaurant relaunched under a new name, but with the same chef.

CATHERINE CLEARY’S BEST OF THE BEST

Ox
Ox restaurant

Ox, Belfast
“The best tasting menu anywhere in Ireland.”
It's a bold statement, but Catherine Cleary's dinner at the Belfast restaurant run by Alain Kerloc'h and Stevie Toman, “a chef cooking at the top of his game”, reads like it is worthy of the accolade.

So impressed is our critic that she breaks her own rule and takes a photograph of one of her dishes: “a windblown petal-fall of disks of white turnip smothering the last of the wild Wicklow venison, a splodge of black garlic purée to one side like a thick vehement full stop to winter.

The six-course dinner tasting menu for two comes to €120 (€138), in the review, published in March of this year. Cleary ends her review with this endorsement: “If Michelin doesn’t give it a second star soon it needs its head examined.
Read the review here.


Rebel Ramen
Bia Rebel

Bia Rebel, Belfast
“Dazzlingly perfect ramen where you might least expect it.”
A text from a friend sends self-confessed soup avoider Cleary in search of this Japanese take on comfort food in a bowl, and once she enters the unassuming shop on the Ormeau road she is greeted by cooking smells that are like “a warm hug.”

Chef proprietor Brian Holland is Michelin-trained; his partner Jenny Holland is a writer and former journalist. Together they have created a take on the Japanese classic that is “a perfect bowl of food.”

 The Belfast ramen takes 40 hours to make. “The noodles, which are made in house, have gorgeous nutty bite and warmth. The broth is the best I’ve ever tasted, flecked with golden drops of meat fat and the colour of light tea.

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Lunch for two with drinks comes to £18.10 (€21.13) in the review published in March of this year. “Bia Rebel feels original, brilliant and entirely right. Kitchen dazzle in a simple bowl of deliciousness.”
Read the review here.


Inis Meain Suites
Inis Meain Suites

Inis Meain Suites
“Train, bus, boat and taxi – a place worth taking a trip for.”
It's practically impossible to nab a reservation to stay here, but you can make a reservation for dinner, so Cleary joins a holidaying friend for a memorable evening that begins with a tour of the kitchen garden, for which soil had to be shipped in, and continues in the restaurant that has “the world’s best view.”

Scallops, loster, turbot and stewed apricots follow, and a memorably good night is had. “At the risk of gushing like a blow hole I love every moment of our meal in the Inis Meáin Restaurant.”

At the time of the review, in August 2018, dinner for three with a glass of wine, prosecco, elderflower cordial and sparkling water, came to €249.
Read the review here.


Ichigo Ichie
Ichigo Ichie

Ichigo Ichie, Cork
“The most exciting new restaurant in Ireland.”
Seated at one of five stools right under the eye of chef proprietor Takashi Miyazaki, at his kappou counter, Cleary begins with a confession.

It’s a First World whinge, but chef’s tables are not my favourite thing. I would rather talk to a friend than watch a young chef give herself a widow’s hump hunched over a plate with tweezers and a stress-induced peptic ulcer. This counter is different. 

Twelve courses later, she leaves invigorated", and reminded of  how magic food can be in the hands of a dreamer, a craftsperson and a flavour poet.

The Miyabi chef’s kappou counter tasting menu for one, with hojicha tea and sparkling water, comes to €103.50 at the time of the review in May 2018.
Read the review here.


Uno Mas
Uno Mas

Uno Mas, Dublin
“We knew Etto’s sister restaurant would be great – it’s perfect.”
Cleary is quick through the doors of this Spanish-influenced restaurant and finds “a rightness that I rarely find in any restaurant, never mind one with just three nights’ service under its smart new belt.”

Croquetas, pig's ear, venison carpaccio, hake and presa Iberico all meet with favour, but Cleary reserves her highest praise for what has become the restaurant's signature dessert, flan queso, of which she says, “I will dream of this one for weeks to come.” Dinner for two with two glasses of wine, sparkling water and dessert cost €119 at the time of the review, in December 2018.
Read the review here.


The Greenhouse
The Greenhouse

The Greenhouse, Dublin
“Still the best lunch in Dublin.”
There is a distinct lack of what Cleary calls “dead-eyed men in suits” when she arrives for the lunch time tasting menu at this Dublin business district stalwart. Instead there is “an air of celebration.”

Only one dish is recognisable from her previous visit, six years earlier. “Like a favourite child it’s been tiger-parented into its best self, fois gras whipped into airy lightness topped with Granny Smith apple turned to gel, frozen foie, walnut and cubes of smoked eel.”

As always, Cleary likes to explore the vegetarian options - one of my favourite dishes in the history of this column has been Viljanen’s take on celeriac” - and this time it is a special French courgette that hits the high notes on that side of the menu. “It’s been roasted in seaweed and finished with a maple seaweed flecked sauce and slashes of bergamot yoghurt.

 Lunch for two with sparkling water, coffee and two glasses of fino comes to €197.50 at the time of the review in June 2018. “Outside Ireland, cooking at this level starts at three figures a head. My dining companion, the Patrick Moore of starred meals, thinks the dial wavers here between two and three stars.”
Read the review here.


Green Man Wines
Green Man Wines

Green Man Wines, Dublin
“Brilliant creative food in a casual, friendly place.”
Keith Colemn was cooking here, with an evening residency in the wine shop, when Cleary visited in June 2018, but that is no longer the case. It was always going to be a temporary arrangement, and at the time we were urged to “go now, go often.”

This new creature may be temporary but as lovers of perfect Irish summer days, we all know those fleeting ones are the best.” Dinner for three with four glasses of wine came to €127.
Read the review here.


Clenaghans
Clenaghans

Clenaghans, Co Armagh
“Top of my list for meal of the year.”
Danni Barry had left behind Michelin-starred Eipic in Belfast to try something new in this pub with rooms when Cleary visited. She has since moved on, but at the time of the review, in April 2018, she had “set her dial to dazzle” and Cleary was caught in the headlights.

It is the kind of food that Cleary says “reminds me of the moment I first fell in love. The Proustian moment is conjured up by a nut-brown pond of sauce sitting around a hake fillet wrapped in hispi cabbage”, and it brings back memories of being “a teenager in another side-of-the-road restaurant somewhere in rural France tasting a silky buttery reduction unlike anything I have ever had before.” The bill for lunch for two with sparkling water and a coffee comes to £91.40 (€108.30)
Read the review here.


Heron & Grey
Heron & Grey

Heron & Grey, Co Dublin
“The most creative food in the country.”
They are still turning out some of the most creative food in the country in this former market cafe in south Co Dublin, but you'll find a new name over the door, and the interior has had an extensive facelift too. Damien Grey is chef/proprietor now, having bought out his former business partner Andrew Heron, and the restaurant is now called Liath. This is two-star eating in a dickied-up lean-to in a ramshackle market,” Cleary wrote after her visit in June 2017. The lean-to has been given a sophisticated makeover since then, but the first part of that observation is still pinpoint accurate.


Bastible

Bastible, Dublin
“There’s a new level of cooking in town.”
It's all change at the Leonard's Corner bistro, where chef proprietor Barry Fitzgerald has made room at the pass for Cúán Greene, newly returned from Noma in Copenhagen and installed as head chef here.It’s a marriage made in a particularly delicious corner of heaven,” Cleary says.

Things get off to a good start with “pre-menu nibbles that are at a put the fork down and shake your head level of tastiness,” and the superlatives continue to fly.

 Don’t all rush at once, but do get to Bastible, she cautions, in reference to her former glowing review for this establishment, when it opened in 2015  and her fangirl crush caused a stampede.” Dinner for two with sparkling water, two glasses of a wine and a kombucha came to €126.
Read the review here.

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