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Catherine Cleary’s best restaurants of 2018

From humble street food to Michelin-star magic, here are my most memorable meals

In times of glut there is always scarcity. It might sound like a fortune-cookie aphorism but in our information-saturated age, the scarce commodity is attention. How many meals do we eat while actually thinking about the food we’re eating? Or are we just chewing mechanically while our thoughts dart about elsewhere?

This year, the landscape clamoured for our attention. Like a child who’s been ignored for too long, our weather threw several spectacular tantrums. The countryside was blanketed with white and then scorched brown in the heatwave that followed the late-spring blizzards. Big question marks about how we farm were written in our scorched shallow-rooted monocultured grass. On a trip to Inis Meáin, I saw what it looks like when an island runs out of food for its animals even for a brief time: bewildered cattle in bare brown fields and bags of beef nuts on the boat.

The meals that snagged my attention were the ones where people paid attention. Thinking and tasting obsessively until it’s right is part of the skill that good chefs bring to the job. And lots of this year’s winners fit that stereotype of the food geeks who lie awake at night wondering how to make it better.

Dublin rents and key money went bananas as the boom got scarier, with big money chains muscling their way onto the scene one expensive refit after another. That all had an effect on the food. Just four of this year’s honourable mentions go to restaurants between the canals. Creativity and deliciousness flourished away from the white heat of the city centre.

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And it was the year of my "worst ever meal". These highlights more than made up for the depressing experience of trying to eat the veggie burger in Five Guys on George's Street in Dublin. And if the queues were anything to judge by since that culinary low, those guys weathered the storm just fine.

Best world food: Ichigo Ichie

5 Fenns Quay, Sheares Street, Cork, 021-4279997, ichigoichie.ie

His takeaway took this gong last year and whetted all our appetites for Ichigo Ichie. Chef Takashi Miyazaki pays attention to a maniacal degree to the things other people barely consider. His restaurant in the former Fenns Quay is a masterclass in mindful cooking and eating. Nothing is used thoughtlessly, from the type of timber in the chopping boards to the ceramic, glass and wood that contain the ingredients for his beautiful dishes.

Halibut aged with salt for five days was a flavour I won’t forget anytime soon. And the dazzling dishes were interspersed with simpler notes of profound deliciousness, like a dashi that tasted like liquid smoke. It’s Japanese food techniques, with ingredients drawn mostly from a more local world. And happily, after a few months’ work in the restaurant he describes as a life’s dream, Miyazaki brought a well-deserved Michelin star to Cork city.

Best neighbourhood place: Locks

1 Windsor Terrace, Portobello, Dublin 8, 01-4163655, locksrestaurant.ie

The team in Locks on Dublin’s Grand Canal seem as relaxed as the slowly moving water outside. This is a restaurant that serves Dublin’s best bowl of soup. Its trout and dilisk butter is a one-condiment hero of the Irish food scene. Those bowls of soup start with large white dishes filled with smoked buttermilk curd surrounded by tasty vegetables and served with a jug to inundate it all with warm creamy flavours. The team is relaxed because they’re serving wonderful food. They can leave the drama to the places where the cooking is less sure-footed.

Best cafe: Assassination Custard

19a Lower Kevin Street, Dublin 8, facebook.com/assassinationcustard

Maybe next year will be the year when Gwen McGrath and Ken Doherty move to a place that’s larger than a parlour in a two-up, two-down but until then Assassination Custard, their quirky, never-empty, always delicious cafe is worth the squeeze. Vegetables come from McNally Family Farm and what’s in the fields is translated into that most seasonal of menus, written on sweet bags with dishes costing buttons. It’s not every restaurant where you feel that everyone’s having fun but that’s Assassination Custard. With the almost weekly openings of another blingy place where the food is only alright, I’m cheered by the small brilliance of Assassination Custard. Long may it continue.

Best value: 3 Leaves

30 Blackrock Market, 19a Main Street, Blackrock, Co Dublin, 087-7691361, 3leaves.ie

I’m not the only one to have discovered Santosh and Millie Thomas’ lovely Indian restaurant in Blackrock Market. Their small number of tables are quite the catch these days. The dishes are priced at not much more than a bog-standard takeaway but the flavours are so much more than anything you’ll tip out of a foil tray. We had the tastiest of things on a bitterly cold, foggy night and came away with a warm glow that wasn’t just spice-related.

Best out-of-Dublin restaurant: Chestnut

Restaurant Chestnut, The Chestnut Tree, Staball Hill, Ballydehob, Co Cork 028-25766, restaurantchestnutwestcork.ie

A homecoming for a chef in West Cork to a slanted storybook pub at the bottom of a hill was a true treat this year. Robbie Krawczyk and his partner Elaine Fleming took a plain old building and put a heart and soul back into it in the form of a lovely small-town restaurant that will now be a draw for visitors to come all the way down to Ballydehob. His smoked butter served with the house bread was worth the hours on the road alone and that was before we got to luscious meat, fish and vegetable dishes. The Chestnut has put Ballydehob on the food map of Ireland.

Best street food: Vietnom

The Glimmer Man beer garden, 14 Stoneybatter, Dublin 7, 087-3207279, vietnom.ie

Okay, so it was in a pub garden rather than on a street, but Vietnom’s food truck at the back of the Glimmerman pub in Stoneybatter was a delicious education in putting excellent ingredients into humble dishes. Friends tell me they’ve added more meat dishes as the weather has cooled but their banh mi with mushrooms and crispy peanut shallots in it or the teriyaki paneer would make you happy to forgo the meat element and do veggie Vietnamese.

Best newcomer: Pi Pizza

10 Castle House, 73-83 South Great George's Street, Dublin 2, facebook.com/PiPizzaDublin

A brief doff of the hat to Uno Mas on Aungier Street, Dublin, which just slipped onto the stage before the curtain fell on 2018 and will be a firm favourite. But this gong goes to Pi Pizza, the work of pizza fanatic Reggie White. The former property auctioneer found his niche after the crash in a home-built, wood-fired pizza oven and has brought his dream to the hungry masses (and they queue outside the door) in a lovely restaurant in the teeth of boomy Dublin on George’s Street. My gushing review nearly capsized them but they’ve more than steadied the ship.

Best farm-to-fork: Overends Kitchen

Airfield Estate, Overend Way, Dundrum, Dublin 14, 01-9696666, airfield.ie/overends-kitchen

Chef Luke Matthews took a beautiful farm and cafe and tied it all together with a brilliant brunch and Sunday lunch menu that puts great food onto plates metres from where it’s been grown, reared or laid. Overends Kitchen at Airfield Estate in Dundrum, Dublin, sprouts grains from Dunany Flour for its garden breakfast bowl and combines them with just-picked or pickled vegetables and freshly laid poached eggs. The Sunday roast is dinner as it used to taste.

Best meal: Inis Meáin

Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites, Inis Meáin, Aran Islands, Co Galway, inismeain.com

If you build it beautifully they will hammer down your door and throw cash at you to come is what Ruairí and Marie Thérèse de Blacam have proven on Inis Meáin. The 2019 bookings for their (far from cheap) suites sold out in 24 hours recently. We ate in the restaurant with the world’s best view as non-residents and you should make plans to do so too. At the height of summer, we ate looking out at the most memorable sunset in a vast expanse of sky and ocean. There was scallop from Inis Meáin Bank a mile north, lobster with rocket grown in the restaurant garden, a beet carpaccio and turbot with island beans and spuds. Paying attention to every bite was never easier than it was in this magical, beautiful place.