So long 2013, the Year of the Pig in Irish restaurants.
There was more pork belly and pulled pork on menus this year than there was flesh in a Miley Cyrus video. It’s been fun. I happily pigged out and ate half a pig’s eye in the company of nose-to-tail chef Fergus Henderson in Paul Flynn’s Tannery Restaurant in Dungarvan. Less happily the Irish Farmers’ Association discovered through DNA testing that many apparently Irish brands of sausages, bacon and ham are not, in fact, Irish.
Elsewhere, that exotic animal, the Irish gastrosexual, continued to stalk the landscape, seeking ways to express himself through food and a cave in which to dry-age his own beef.
The Michelin men made it the Year of the Cat, awarding Ireland's two new stars to Kilkenny – for the Lady Helen Restaurant at Mount Juliet and Garrett Byrne's Campagne in Kilkenny city.
The meat trade will remember 2013 as the Year of the Horse. And, as the year draws to a close, we’ve yet to see anyone held to account for the horsemeat in cheap burgers.
In Belfast it was the year of the Ox. In a spartan shop where once someone sold bathroom tiles, two friends have created a beautiful thing. It’s a restaurant called Ox where vegetables and the craft of cooking are the stars and meat is the garnish.
So shoulders back, check your teeth for lipstick, straighten those bow ties and brush up your acceptance speeches. Here are my restaurant Oscars for 2013:
18 Merrion Row, Dublin 2,
They call it a nibble, but Merrion Row's new wine bar, Etto, serves a nugget of true taste in its pork and smoked eel croquette. The magic happens when the pork rubs up against the tiny pieces of smokey eel and they're fried together in a crumb crust to look like a chicken nugget. Not for sharing. In fact, order two each.
Runner-up: Pat McLarnon's duck liver pate at the Francesca restaurant in Brook's Hotel. It was a lovely surprise to find such great Irish cooking in a forgotten dining room.
Brooks Hotel, 59-63 Drury St, Dublin 2,
BEST MAIN COURSE
Hatch and Sons
Irish Kitchen, Basement 15 St Stephen's Green, Dublin 2,
Sometimes the simple things take the biscuit. And that's the case with the Irish stew in Hatch and Sons. It's a time machine to childhood winter dinners with pearl barley added in to the mix of leek, thyme carrots, spuds and lamb.
Runner up: Chef Ian Ussher's pork tasting plate in Bijou Restaurant in Dublin's Rathgar is an excellent display of cooking.
Bijou Restaurant, 46-47 Highfield Road, Rathgar, Dublin 6, tel: 01-4961518
South Great George's St, Dublin 2, tel: 01-4789383
Temple Garner's New York baked Nutella cheesecake in San Lorenzo's on Dublin's George's Street. It's about as healthy as the country's finances but one for the to-heck-with-it treat.
Runner up: Martin Hallissey's hazelnut meringue with Billy Clifford's strawberries in Packies in Kenmare, Co Kerry. Martin forgot to put the hazelnuts in the night I ate there but those strawberries were as sweet as the glorious summer of 2013.
Pakies, 35 Henry Street, Kenmare, Co Kerry, tel: 064-664 1508
BEST FAMILY MEAL
10 Upper Camden Street, Dublin 2, tel: 01-4752000
Dublin's Camden Street got a Syrian restaurant this year when Basil Ziadeh, the restaurateur behind Rathmines's Little Jerusalem, opened Damascus Gate. It's the restaurant equivalent of the Middle Eastern shops on nearby Clanbrassil Street – posh Yotam Ottolenghi-style ingredients at great prices.
Runner up: In Carrick-on-Shannon the Oarsman pub fed a gaggle of nine of us, adults and children, with much better than average pub food. Children's portions of the main menu dishes were a great option.
The Oarsman Bar and Cafe, Bridge St,
Carrick-on-Shannon, tel: (071) 9621733
BEST BYOB RESTAURANT
The Vintage Kitchen, 7 Poolbeg St, Dublin 2, tel: 01-6798705
Bring-your-own- bottle places tend to be shouty as diners lorry back their own wine. The Vintage Kitchen on Dublin's Poolbeg Street is no exception but it's the food, with loads of lovely Irish ingredients, that's worth the trip here. And it's €25 for two courses. And you can bring your own vinyl.
BEST NEIGHBOURHOOD RESTAURANT
Las Tapas de Lola
12 Wexford St, Dublin 2, tel: 01-4244100
I love Vanessa Murphy and Anna Cabrera's Spanish tapas bar Las Tapas de Lola – not least because they've created a dining neighbourhood where once was none. Their lightly fried whole whitebait and pigs' cheek stew have become dietary staples.
Runner-up: For bringing a smart restaurant to the saints and shinners stretch of Dublin's Parnell Square, chef Joy Beattie gets an honourable second. The Hot Stove's €11 main course of onion tart with toasted walnuts and pickled cabbage was one of the best value dishes all year.
The Hot Stove Restaurant, 38/39 Parnell Square West, Dublin 1, tel: 01-8747778
BEST ETHNIC BUDGET RESTAURANT
162 Parnell St, Dublin 1, Tel: 01-8783165
That Vietnamese street food staple pho is served in huge bowls in Pho Viet, a great Parnell St restaurant. Try it with the Banh Xeo an egg pancake with pork strips beaten into its fleshy side. It's BYOB and you'll struggle to spend more than €20 a head.
Runner up: Not a restaurant but a seriously good Japanese takeaway Okayu brought sushi to the strand, Dublin's North Strand, and Japanese pizza for not much more than a bag of greasy chips.
Okayu Japanese Cuisine, 71 North
Strand Road, Dublin 3, 01-8194741
LUNCH OF THE YEAR
New Antrim St, Castlebar, Co Mayo, tel: 094-902 3376
Rua, Castlebar, Co Mayo. Brother and sister team Aran and Colleen run the two branches of this Castlebar cafe. Their €10 Mayo mezze plate takes all the great food from around them and puts it deliciously together on one wooden board. Desserts are old-school brilliant.
Runner up: A smart corner place on a street I never new existed: Mary's Abbey between Capel Street and the Four Courts is called Oxmantown and has nailed lunch food. Their €5 salad boxes are better than some you'll find on plates in high-end restaurants and the "ruby" is a king among sandwiches with Kanturk pastrami, sauerkraut, pickles, Swiss cheese and horseradish on rye.
Oxmantown, 16 Mary's Abbey, Dublin 7,
BEST RESTAURANT MEAL OF 2013
1 Oxford Street, Belfast, tel: 0044-28- 9031-4121
With their £16 lunch menu and the brave or bonkers notion to open in Belfast in the aftermath of flag protests chef Stephen Toman and maitre d' Alain Kerloch had me at "hello" with Ox Restaurant.
They serve simply gorgeous food without the aid of gallons of cream or mountains of butter. Some of their vegetables taste like they’ve been pumped with essence of themselves, carroty carrots, radishes like you wouldn’t believe.
Then there were the sprinklings of meatiness like chicken skin turned into cracker-crisp squares, and butter soft bresaola. The single-minded focus of this project and a refusal to dumb things down made it a delight to dine there in 2013. Ox is a shining star on the Irish restaurant scene.