Restaurant Oscars: Catherine Cleary’s favourite meals of 2019

Food heaven: Soup, Aimsir, Tiller + Grain (top row), and the Cheese Press, Ox and Bia Rebel

It was not pretty, the Irish food year. Brexit paralysis deepened to rigor mortis and the export market guided everything like a north star. Beef farmers were pushed to the brink and they pushed back with factory blockades and a massing of Masseys, giant tractors stilling the city for a day.

Monster November rains turned fields to mud baths and potato growers struggled to salvage harvests out of sodden soil. The supermarkets kept slapping bargain basement prices on their vegetables and we bought the two-for-one deals, driving them home to our fridges where they mouldered and were lost.

My Oscars this year go to the cooks, chefs and restaurants who sought out the unconventional, made the best decisions, tried to put special ingredients and food joy on plates through honest hard graft and craft applied to the work of farmers, foragers and fishing folk. As consumers we are beginning to embrace the idea of less but better, to see it not as punishment but as pleasure. The more delicious that message gets the more we can try to bend the arc in the right direction.

If we learned anything, it was to tune out the voices that tell us go big or go home. The beef farmers making a good living are those who resisted the riptide and swam towards regenerative farming, with older smaller Irish breeds. What set them apart was an understanding of pasture and its potential to turn livestock farming from a large part of the problem to a beautiful part of the fix.

My Oscars go to the cooks and restaurants that sought out the unconventional, made the best decisions, and tried to put food joy on plates through honest hard graft and craft applied to the work of farmers, foragers and fishing folk

“We do not have the luxury of living in our time,” the American writer Jonathan Safran Foer wrote this year in a piece about his book, We Are the Weather. “We cannot go about our lives as if they were only ours.”Decisions about how to eat and farm have consequences beyond our own daily dinners.

Best starter

Soup
Soup. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Soup
28 George’s Street Lower, Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, 083-3405846, soupramen.ie
Dún Laoghaire got itself a thriving ramen bar this year in the shape of Soup, a pared-back cafe with young enthusiastic staff, where flavour is everything. Their deep-fried kimchi is a thing of real food beauty, with sweet beet ketchup for extra kicks.

Best main course

Variety Jones
Variety Jones. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Variety Jones
78 Thomas Street, Dublin 8, 01-4544976, varietyjones.ie
Chef Keelan Higgs and his brother Aaron brought a Michelin star to the Liberties in Dublin this year with Variety Jones. Higgs cooked venison loin magnificently over his open fire, with celeriac caramelised slowly on the outside, charred hispi cabbage for mineral flint, and mushrooms. Wild meat didn’t get any better than that.

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Best dessert

Good Day Deli
Nano Nagle Place, Douglas Street, Cork, 021-4322107, gooddaydeli.ie
The Rosscarbery raspberries on the financiers in Cork’s Good Day Deli were a time machine back to childhood flavours almost forgotten. Everything else was lovely too, but those raspberries took me back.

Best new opening

Potager
Potager

Potager
7 Church Street, Skerries, Co Dublin, 01-8029486, potager.ie
It was a leap of faith to take over a venerable restaurant like the Red Bank, but chef Cathal Leonard did it with a pirouette and a flourish. He opened Potager in the summer and made the growers of north Dublin and wider afield the stars of his creative delicious menu. Howth crab with Rush tomatoes and powdered basil was all the best Irish summers have to give.

Best vegetable plate

The Muddlers Club
The Muddlers Club. Photograph: Elaine Hill

The Muddlers Club
Warehouse Lane, Belfast, 048-90313199, themuddlersclubbelfast.com
In a back lane in Belfast, just before they landed a Michelin star, I ate and loved Gareth McCaughey’s last blast of summer, a plate centred around the final courgette flowers stuffed with buttery cubes of roasted courgette and laced with pickled yellow courgettes, lovage and pillowy gnocchi. The humble courgette only gets this level of attention from talented chefs.

Best vegetable tasting menu

Bastible
Bastible

Bastible
Leonard’s Corner, 111 South Circular Road, Dublin, 01-4737409, bastible.com
In a homecoming from Noma in Copenhagen, chef Cúán Greene brought a level of skill and attention to detail to Dublin 8’s Bastible restaurant that has made it my favourite place to eat. Knockalara dumplings, with Roscoff onions, were a marvel and miso roasted cauliflower was better than meat. Greene cooks meat brilliantly also. His Nashville fried chicken caused a queue and a happy crush on a quiet Sunday afternoon when chicken sandwiches ruled the menu.

Best pasta dish

Grano
Grano

Grano
5 Norseman Court, Dublin 7, 01-5382003, grano.ie
The Dáil’s Members’ Restaurant gave this column its worst ever pasta experience, but a small restaurant in Stoneybatter balanced the year with its best. Roberto Mungo’s mother, Roma, came to oversee the setting up of her son’s restaurant and gifted the pasta chefs her special glass needles around which they roll fileja pasta shapes. They are served beautifully simply with an organic tomato sauce, baby basil and a shaving of smoked baked ricotta.

Best family feast

Little Fox
Little Fox: Niamh Fox and Sam Gleeson at their restaurant. Photograph: Eamon Ward

Little Fox
Main Street, Ennistymon, Co Clare, 065-7072311, littlefox.ie
Small plates aren’t everyone’s bag, but in Niamh Fox’s beautiful cafe restaurant Little Fox, there was something to please everyone. At a clan gathering to celebrate my father-in-law’s big birthday, we feasted on Moy Farm potatoes with luscious lamb. Clarinbridge clams sang in their tomato and fennel broth, and the simplest of lovely things – Crozier Blue cheese served fudgy and warm with apple jelly – made my night. Ennistymon is all the richer for this special place.

Cafe of the year

Tiller + Grain
Tiller + Grain. Photograph: Tom Honan

Tiller + Grain
23 South Frederick Street, Dublin 2, 087-6808933, tillerandgrain.ie
Tiller + Grain, Clair Dowling’s thoughtful takeaway with a few seats down the back brightened up South Frederick Street this year. Her kitchen applies an Ottolenghi level of flavour tweaking to simple dishes with culinary jazz hands that never feel like too much. The just-baked cookies were a true treat.

Cheese toastie of the year

The Cheese Press
The Cheese Press: Sinéad Ní Gháirbhith in her shop. Photograph: William Hederman

The Cheese Press
10 Main Street, Ennistymon, Co Clare, 085-7606037
Sinéad Ní Gháirbhith’s lively cafe and shop in Ennistymon is a masterclass in making the simplest staple perfect. Take great sourdough bread, Coolattin cheese and bingo: the best cheese toastie in the land.

Ramen of the year

Bia Rebel
Bia Rebel

Bia Rebel
409 Ormeau Road, Belfast, biarebel.com
Chef Brian Donnelly and his partner Jenny Holland have upped the Irish ramen game exponentially with Bia Rebel on Belfast’s Ormeau Road. If you haven’t already been, put it in your food diary for next year and try the 40-hour Belfast ramen. Or as one enthusiast did, get on your bike and cycle there.

Best dining-companion quote

The diner who described his dining range as “somewhere between Findus crispy pancakes and pan-fried wing of swan”.

Dinner of the year

 If the Booker jury can do it so can I. This year we have two winners: Ox and Aimsir 

Ox
Ox

Ox
1 Oxford Street, Belfast, oxbelfast.com
Chef Stephen Toman is a chef getting better every season, and my dinner of the year was a showstopper taking us from winter to spring with the kind of understanding of vegetables that comes from learning from a master such as Alain Passard. The tasting menu took us through fish, wild venison and one of the few but very special cuts of beef I ate this year. Later I went back and worked the floor to see how restaurants work from the front of house side of the table. Ox is the European dream of excellence, skills exchanged and pride of place unpacked from jingoism and small-island isolationism.

Aimsir
Aimsir: head chef Jordan Bailey and manager Majken Christensen. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Aimsir
Cliff at Lyons, Celbridge, Kildare, 01-6303500, aimsir.ie
Jordan Bailey and Majken Bech Bailey put a mind-bending amount of research, sourcing and thinking into Aimsir. The result is food assembled with jewel-like precision from ingredients that only make it onto the plate by being the best in their class. Taking raw Killenure Dexter beef and smoked Lough Neagh eel and crocheting them into a Fabergé egg-level casing made from the beef tripe is the kind of cheffing that gets you two Michelin stars straight out of the blocks. Serving your diners these magical mouthfuls with the informal friendliness of a neighbourhood restaurant is the way of the future for fine dining.