Catherine Cleary’s best restaurants of the year
Standout food experiences in the year when food got serious
News from the “plate half-full” school of thinking is that there’s a generation of chefs, farmers and food producers going the extra mile. Deeply connected people create the best food, they’re the ones who relish the chat, the deals, the texture, smell and sight of beautiful food, the chefs humble and creative enough to let the ingredients be the starting point for what they do.
The bad news is the robot chefs are coming. Pesticide drones will spray our fields. More animals will be herded indoors to be fed on crops grown on monocultural plains where once wild and diverse things grew. The commodity market and its handful of powerful players will mop up the profits from their meat and milk while the rest of us foot the bill for rising health and environmental costs. Burger and cocktail joints will march across the restaurant landscape as rents soar.
Quiet things of value can be swept to one side in the rush to the loud, fast and now. “I’m very clear now [that] we are the last generation that can leave the planet worth having,” campaigner and author Philip Lymbery told me when I interviewed him about his latest book Dead Zone this year.
Heavy? Yes but food got political this year, whether it was worries about post-Brexit trade with Britain or the dawning realisation that intensifying Irish agriculture could bring banking crisis levels of costs for future taxpayers. Vegans and vegetarians were vocal and visible, many of them young eaters rejecting the meat-and-two-veg diets of their parents. Whether it’s a fascinating cultural shift or social media bubble, it meant chefs worked harder on turning vegetables from a watery afterthought to a main event.
In Dublin, 2017 was the year of the cafe when casual eating met serious cooking and we were the better for it.
These are my restaurant Oscars for the year when food got serious. The best things I ate, with a few honourable exceptions, were in small, hard-working young operations. The energy and drive of that new generation brings hope in these serious times that our food future will be in good hands.
Best world food
Chef Takashi Miyazaki’s food philosophy is simple: to apply the precision and heart of Japanese techniques to the best Irish ingredients. The results are exquisite. I pulled up to one of the half dozen stools in his tiny takeaway in Cork on a cold spring night and enjoyed a feast of crispy salmon belly, mackerel in miso soup and his legendary 10 dashi, a shimmering gold seaweed stock finished with feather-light shavings of dried, smoked and fermented tuna. His new venture, announced in October, will be called Ichigo Ichie, a Japanese term for a once in a lifetime experience, not in that bucket-list showy fashion but the idea that each gathering of friends to share a meal or a tea ceremony happens once and never again.
Miyazaki Japanese Takeaway, 1a Evergreen St, Cork, tel: 021- 4312716
Best neighbourhood place
The phrase all-day breakfast congeals expectations but Keith Coleman’s Fia cafe in Rathgar tips that on its head. Fia’s all-day eggs and greens teams freshly-picked McNally Farm greens, lemon yoghurt and sesame salt with softly scrambled eggs on Le Levain sourdough toast. Delicious home cooking with world class ingredients in a friendly relaxed cafe. I fell into Fia after a disappointing search for something further afield. I’ve been back for more food hugs several times since.
Fia, 155b Rathgar Road, Rathgar, Dublin 6
It’s a fair schlep off the beaten track but my repeat visits to my cafe of the year, Storyboard, have always found it full. The reason is chef Laura Caulwell’s crafted cooking, putting beautiful big flavours on to plates in the ground floor unit of a new building on Clancy Quay. Vegetable on toast sounds worthy and dull but when it’s Crown Prince squash from McNally Farm, roasted and sitting on sourdough that’s been slathered with tahini nut butter and then drizzled and dotted with fermented and pickled lovely things, it’s a dish so on the money I’m going to be sad when those pale green squash go out of season.
Storyboard, Camden Block, Islandbridge, Clancy Quay, Dublin 8
Two women chefs share this gong for 2017. The first is Anita Thoma in Goatstown’s Farmhill Restaurant, where all but one of the mains is under €20, and if you’re in before 6.30pm, there’s a €17 two-course early bird. Her carefully curated lunches are brilliant value.
Farmhill Café and Restaurant, 9 Farmhill Road, Goatstown, Dublin 14, tel: 01-441 3871
In Dublin city centre, where prices are climbing, Hugo’s Margaret Roche is bringing a fresh touch to an old-school, pre-theatre restaurant. She puts memorable Irish cheese and dairy ingredients into dishes across her great value menu in this utterly professional place.
Hugo’s, 6 Merrion Row, Dublin 2, tel: 01-676 5955
Best out of Dublin restaurant
St George’s Terrace in Carrick-on-Shannon felt like a proper treat during a week in the west in the early part of the summer. Chef Dave Fitzgibbon puts fine dining into a fine building without the eye-watering sting of Dublin prices. We had a great plate of Thornhill duck with salsify and house tortellini, and the sweet touch of tiny ice-cream cones as a pre-dessert gave it all a holiday feel.
St George’s Terrace Restaurant, Townparks, Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim, tel: 071-9616546
Garrett Byrne’s trotter croquette with ribbons of celeriac in his lovely Kilkenny restaurant, Campagne. Big flavours are finessed into memorable dishes by this Michelin-starred chef. The only starred restaurant in Ireland I hadn’t eaten in before this year, Campagne lived up to its reputation. Eating there was a bit like taking a tour of your home place, comfortingly familiar but also interesting and new.
Campagne, 5 The Arches, Gashouse Lane, Kilkenny, tel: 056-7772858
A close second: Graham Neville left Restaurant 41 at Residence this year and brought his stuffed courgette flower with him to nearby Dax. I went for a tiny quail breast, drumstick and egg starter combined with an almost hammy slice of smoked eel, a beautiful pitch-perfect start to a lovely meal.
Dax Restaurant, 23 Upper Pembroke St, Dublin 2, tel: 01-676 1494
Set in rolling Armagh farmland, the village of Moira has a super restaurant in Wine & Brine. My plate of pigeon done three ways with pickled turnip and a memorably brilliant mushroom ketchup was stellar. Even better was its £10 (€11.33) price tag at lunch.
Wine & Brine, 59 Main St, Moira, Co Armagh, tel: 44(0)2892610500
Runner-up: The basement patch of Italy that is Terra Madre was, for a long time, a secret passed between friends. My octopus and black chick pea stew was part of a terrific lunch. The ravioli with cheese and truffle managed the difficult alchemy of being comforting but also light and fluffy.
Terra Madre, 13 Bachelor’s Walk, Dublin 1, tel: 01-8735300
The €15 sharing plate of miniature desserts in Wilde, the new addition to the Westbury Hotel. The theme was millinery and the hats had the unusual combination of looks and flavour in spades.
Wilde, The Westbury, Harry Street, Dublin 2, tel: 01-6463352
Runner-up: In the era of deconstructed desserts and squirts of aerated anything, there was something very satisfying about a simple slice of treacle tart served in the Legal Eagle, Elaine Murphy and Brian Montague’s reinvention of the old Dublin pub beside the Four Courts. And it’s simply lovely.
Legal Eagle, 1/2 Chancery Place, Dublin 7, tel: 01-5552971
Personality was at the heart of my meal of the year in 2017, the personality of the two business partners who turned a market canteen space, the size of a walk-in wardrobe, into a starred restaurant and continue to double down on efforts to wow their diners. The tasting menu at Heron & Grey was fine dining turned to fun dining, with jokes and side swipes served with an underbelly of deadly seriousness about the food. Sometimes a list of elements as long as your arm can bamboozle rather than brighten your dinner. Here each dish comes with a snappy description. You’ll know what you’re tasting because it’s been explained by Andrew Heron, who sat down and mapped it on paper with chef Damien Grey, before it reached the plate. I predict bigger things for this duo in the year to come. “Something with fire” is said to be simmering on a back burner in this tiny magical place.
Heron & Grey, 19a Main Street, Blackrock, Co Dublin, tel: 01-212 3676