My first reaction when walking through the heavy black door to Lignum in Galway is this: here is intention laid bare. It’s a fully-formed three Michelin star build, ambition that you can see from space.
A glass-fronted pantry where butchered beasts age, wild ferments burp and wine is racked high, reinforces this impression. And then a glimpse of the kitchen, where most of the cooking is done with wood embers on three Argentinian grills.
A pre-dinner cocktail in the bar – there’s no escaping this separating you from your dosh ruse in most top-end places – allows us time to study the wine list. There is no printed menu for the 10-course, €110 dinner, although the cryptic menu we get at the end of our meal – clam, mackerel, peas, et al – would have been of little help. I dodge the €85 per person wine pairing, and with the advice of the sommelier go for a bottle of Roberta Fugati Pino Grigio (€44) and a glass of red each for the meat dishes (€14).
There’s a parade of snacks to start, some with nods to chef/proprietor Danny Africano’s Italian background, but the black garlic tartlet merits a special mention. It’s not just the complexity that the smoked crème fraiche adds, spooned into a one-bite tiny taco, it’s the elevation of the trout roe which has been brined in mirin and white soy.
Mackerel has been hung for three days in the ageing room, grilled over birch, and basted with a garum made from its innards
Africano brings the first of the main dishes to the table. It’s a hand-dived, 200-year-old, Icelandic mahogany clam. They’re an invasive species, he explains, to assuage our guilt at eating something that’s been living since Napoleon’s time, and he first tasted it when he worked in Kadeau, a two-Michelin star restaurant in Copenhagen. Served sliced, in a large chilled shell, it is sweet and meaty, sitting on a lip-puckering dab of fermented rhubarb and dressed with rhubarb oil and a whisper of woodruff.
What follows is stunning. Mackerel has been hung for three days in the ageing room, grilled over birch, and basted with a garum made from its innards. A broth of smoked bones is poured over at the table. The skin is brittle with the intensity of the grill, the oils are rendered so that it eats beautifully with the tiniest prickle of heat on the finish. It is thrilling, an bradán feasa, except with mackerel.
Another dazzling dish follows. Sweet peas, which Africano’s dad has sent from Naples (he has a hotel in Pompeii, and dispatches top produce to Galway weekly), are in a bowl with ramson flowers and Belgian caviar. Delicately smoked cream is poured over, and mixed together; this is the stuff of dreams.
Tuna, venison and langoustine ravioli courses follow. I could say that the pasta seems a little thick to me, but it might attract an Italian pile on. Not so the hand-dived Norwegian scallop, which is barely cooked inside and beautifully matched with a foaming celeriac puree which is loaded with cultured butter.
In a perverse way, I love the fact that Africano's experimentation must be wrecking their box-ticking heads
A moment of silence for the Connemara lamb, the best lamb dish I have ever tasted. It has been aged for a week, cooked on the bone for many hours and gradually lowered down on the grill, so the fat renders, the skin crisps but the meat is still pink and succulent. Tasting menus can fall apart when the meat course is trotted out, but this is a triumph.
Dessert is a celeriac riff on a tart Tatin, sweet yet earthy. And for cheese, it’s a lozenge of Cashel Blue mousse coated in chocolate. I would question the wisdom of ending on such a polarising note. I needed the compressed strawberry on the petits fours to cleanse my palate.
I can understand why Africano has not yet landed a Michelin star, although he clearly deserves one, in my opinion. It’s a pernickety thing that the Michelin inspectors do, apparently relentlessly looking for the same consistent standard on every single bite that is put in front of them. In a perverse way, I love the fact that Africano’s experimentation must be wrecking their box-ticking heads. Some of the dishes are nudging two-star level while others, like the 200-year-old Icelandic clam and the chocolate cheese, are more about showing off something unusual “because we can”.
But it is all there. Thrilling food, a load of skill, pitch perfect service and a truly beautiful room. Lignum is a wonderful place to eat, and I will be astonished if it doesn’t land a Michelin star next year.
Dinner for two with two cocktails, water, a bottle and two glasses of wine was €328.
THE VERDICT 9/10: Absolutely thrilling, this food is on fire
Facilities: Bougie, with fluffy towels, dried flowers and animal hides on the floor
Music: Background, DSF, Amonita, Victhor, and synthpop
Food provenance: Glenmar Seafood, Dooncastle oysters, Gourmet Game, Leaf and Root vegetables
Vegetarian options: A vegetarian menu is available but no vegan menu
Wheelchair access: Room is accessible with an accessible toilet.