From hospitals to hospitality

The Creel, Westport: Medical scientist turned restaurateur saw potential on the Quay

Owner Aoife O’Neill is conscious of creating a menu that suits both locals and visitors

Owner Aoife O’Neill is conscious of creating a menu that suits both locals and visitors

 

For those of you who (like myself) are unfamiliar with the lingo of fishermen, a creel is a wicker basket or cage used for carrying or catching fish. At the harbours and ports of Ireland, you’ll often find stacks of creels taking a break on the mainland in between their shifts of lying in wait for lobsters and other crustaceans on the ocean floor.

The Creel on Westport Quay, just a short walk from the entrance to the stunning Westport House, takes its name from this symbol of the coast of Ireland. There has been a café on this spot under this name for quite some time, but it has undergone some changes in the past year and a half, since local woman Aoife O’Neill took it over in 2016. Previously, O’Neill had been working in Dublin and Galway as a medical scientist. Her husband, Tom Bourke, who is also from Westport, runs The Towers Bar & Restaurant on the other end of the Quay, so hospitality is now a family business. “It seemed like a great opportunity at the right time,” O’Neill tells me of her decision to change careers. “We could see there was so much potential on the Quay. I think it’s going to be an area of growth.”

The decor is Cath Kidston-esque polka-dot-pastels and the vibe is family friendly. Every table is full, piled high with plates such as Eggs Royale (€10.50) and a Veggie Breakfast (€9.50) complete with a crispy fried polenta cake and a baba ghanoush-style aubergine purée. There is possibly too much smoked salmon on the Eggs Royale, an unusual complaint, but the piquant hollandaise that covers the perfectly poached egg on top is perfection.

O’Neill and her team make everything they can from scratch here, including pots of hummus and pesto you can buy to take home with you from their small but well-stocked deli. The head chef, Patrick McEllin, has developed a fantastic brown sauce, a dollop of which is smeared onto the Waterford-style blaa of my Bacon & Egg Blaa (€7.90). They sell it by the bottle, though McEllin is giving nothing away about how it’s made; “Secret Blend” is written on the label under the headline of Ingredients.

O’Neill really wants to showcase what’s special about Westport and the west in terms of produce, and she is not short of great local producers to shout about. The eggs are all free-range, either from West Awake eggs from Kiltimagh or from Claremorris Eggs, both in Co Mayo. For their meat, they use Kelly’s of Newport, McCormack’s Butchers of Westport and McHale meat ins Castlebar. The smoked salmon is from Killala Bay in north Mayo, and the goats’ yogurt and goats’ cheese on the menu is from the Galway Goat Farm. Even the beautiful wild flowers on the counter are local, sourced from the Apple Orchard Cottage Garden.

All the baking is done in-house too, and the cake display is tantalising. A slice of apple pie boasts a gorgeously golden short crust pastry, like something you’d see in a film adaptation of a Charles Dickens’ novel, and the apples inside have a delightful bite. The balance of tartness and sweetness is expertly managed, and O’Neill gives credit to her pastry chef from Switzerland, who has joined the team for the summer.

The coffee (€3.20) is strong and well brewed, a good rounded flavour to suit a variety of coffee palates. It’s made with Green Bean Coffee roasted by Deirdre and Pat Grant in Dundalk. O’Neill is conscious of creating a menu that suits both locals and visitors. “We have a fantastic local trade, of which we are very proud, with more and more coming to us for brunch, which we have put a lot of work into.”

At the moment, they’re open for breakfast and lunch every day, with a brunch on the weekends, and daily specials that might include a hake, prawns, scallop dish with orzo pasta and tomato (€14), or Moroccan-style chicken skewers (€12). They’re open every day from 9.30am to 5pm, stretching to 6 or 7pm in the summer months.

The Creel, The Quay, Cloonmonad, Westport, Co Mayo. 098-26174. thecreel.ie 

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