Catherine Cleary's Best Restaurants of 2016

In a year where the mood was sombre, there was happiness and memorable moments to be found in big-hearted cooking

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Well that was interesting. It’s hard not to be affected by the sombre mood in a year when the lying bullies won. So I feared a struggle to find food moments worth celebrating for my annual restaurant Oscars. But then I dusted down the tuxedo, passed a brace of gold envelopes to the dog and scrolled through a year of dinners. And here was happiness, an embarrassment of riches to choose from as I look back in hunger.

All the restaurants that gave me memorable moments this year share common traits. They tend to be small in size but big in heart. The chefs behind them are not slavishly following trends or strapping on headset mics to talk about how brilliant they are. Most of my best mouthfuls in 2016 were cooked by a younger generation of thoughtful, hardworking and creative people.

Away from these shores I ate dizzyingly good food. Stephen Toman and his young team cooked their socks off in New York when Belfast’s Ox met Manhattan’s Dead Rabbit. Then there was That Dinner at Eleven Madison Park. On the French Atlantic island of Noirmoutier, thanks to Netflix Chef’s Table Alexandre Couillon’s La Marine, was a beautiful lesson in the abundance of an island larder.

Back home, wise and witty women and men gathered to talk about women chefs during the sun-kissed July Athrú gathering in Galway. By the end of the year, the Food Safety Authority had moved to protect smaller producers by laying down rules on what words like artisan, farmhouse, traditional or natural should mean. It was a small victory for truth in a world where it’s more important than ever.

Thank you for reading and responding in your droves for another year. Have a truly happy Christmas. Here are my Restaurant Oscars for 2016.

Best ethnic

 Joint winners:

 Iyer’s. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cafe on Pope’s Quay in Cork is home to Gautham Iyer’s handmade Indian street food. The cauliflower pakoras came with heroically spiced chutney. Chick peas flexed their muscle and every dish made vegetarian eating seem more decadence than denial.  

Iyer’s, 38 Pope’s Quay, Cork (087) 640 9079

Pickle is chef Sunil Ghai’s return to his roots. He has pared back the cooking and transformed a white-table-cloth Indian into a more casual, creative place. The prawn pickle was a spoon-licking treat and a silken goat curry on toast dish ensured I’ve been back several times for more.

Pickle, 43 Camden Street Lower, Dublin 2 (01) 555 7755

Best neighbourhood restaurant

 An unassuming front means that unless you know it’s there you might miss Richmond. That would be a shame. It’s a hardworking restaurant cooking great bistro staples with a nifty early bird-deal during the week.

Richmond, 43 Richmond Street South, Dublin 2 (01) 478 8783

And the runner up: For years, Armagh’s restaurant scene was a desert, according to a former resident. Now it has the Four Vicars, a chef-owned restaurant that brings more finesse to lunchtime than you might expect, with great baking. Then things get truly ambitious for dinner.

Four Vicars, 4 Vicar’s Hill, Armagh 0044 (0) 28 375 2 7772

Best wine bar

 Anyone who puts eel on a menu gets me interested but when it’s a €3 tapas then they have me at hello. Piglet on Cow’s Lane in Temple Bar took some finding but was all the more enjoyable when we did.

Piglet, Cow’s Lane, Temple Bar, Dublin 2 (01) 707 9786

Best casual dining

Nicola Curran and Josef Zammit have built a beautiful restaurant on the banks of the canal in Sallins, Co Kildare. At Two Cooks, I ate beautiful soused mackerel and stole lots of bacon cream from the other starter with a wedge of great house sourdough. The prices here are also a steal.

Two Cooks, Canal View, Sallins, Co Kildare (045) 853 768

Best vegetarian

In the year that Mary Robinson told us to eat less or no meat, Irish restaurants are beginning to up their vegetable game. Carolanne Rushe’s Sweet Beat Café in Sligo town was a masterclass in how to do it well. Rip-off Dublin sandwich bars who think pomegranate seeds are all it takes to please take note.

Sweet Beat Cafe, Bridge Street, Sligo (071) 913 8795

Best starter

 The octopus salad at the Green Barn at Burtown House. Charred chunks of sea food served with house mayonnaise and vegetables from their brilliant kitchen garden.

The Green Barn, Burtown House and Garden, Athy, Co Kildare (059) 862 3148

Runner up: The blow-torched scallops at Dylan McGrath’s Taste. The riff of scorched and raw flesh on this dish was memorably good. It took me a while to get to Taste but I’m glad I did.

Taste at Rustic, 17 South Great George’s Street, Dublin 2 (01) 707 9596

Best main

Áine Maguire’s signature lamb and clam dish at the Idle Wall in Westport took meat and two veg to a whole other level. I teamed her goose-fat roasted potatoes with turf-smoked butter for a sublime spud experience.

The Idle Wall, The Quay, Westport, Co Mayo (098) 50692

Runner up: The blue corn tortillas with lime-marinated haddock at a Wednesday supper in The Fumbally. Every week this Dublin 8 café lights up for one night a week and lets a different chef take you to a different part of the world. The Fumbally, Fumbally Lane, Dublin 8 (01) 529 8732

Best dessert

You don’t find rice pudding in enough Irish restaurants. Maybe we’re afraid of a milk skin or harbour bad memories of cold lumpy stuff from a tin. The Duck Restaurant serves its rice pudding with pride, teaming with its own rhubarb for a finishing flourish.  

The Duck Restaurant at Marlfield House Hotel, Courtown Road, Gorey, Co Wexford (053) 9421124

Runner up: The salted caramel doughnut on top of Dee Adamson’s crème brûlée at the relocated Fatted Calf, just big enough to hit the pleasure point without tipping you into a sugar coma.

The Fatted Calf, Church Street, Athlone, Co Westmeath (0906) 433 371

Best dinner

 I loved James Sheridan’s food two years ago and a move to a bigger, more conventional restaurant has led to even better things. Canteen Celbridge feels like the work of an experienced chef who hasn’t forgotten the spark that drove him to set up a brilliant restaurant in a greasy spoon in Blackrock Market. Sheridan starts with great ingredients, cooks them well then adds another layer of flavour like smoke or tang to dial up the rightness. Canteen Celbridge is a wonderful mix of Nordic, French and Irish ideas so you go from superb smoked beets through two kinds of spud to a large slice of old school French pleasure in the tarte tatin.

Canteen Celbridge, 4 Main Street, Celbridge, Co Kildare (01) 627 4967

Runner up: At Forest and Marcy, Donegal chef Ciarán Sweeney is doing such crowd-pleasing things with potatoes and pig that we ended up sardine-tight with the crowd trying to get our trotters on his food this year. His fermented potato bread deserves its own plaque outside the tiny wine bar, where a great little kitchen is putting out excellent food.

Forest and Marcy, 126 Leeson Street Upper, Dublin 2 (01) 660 2480

Duffest food fad of 2016?

Cold brown rice sprinkled on salad like a garnish. Who knew you could do worse than clean eating? This was just mean eating. Be gone.