Food awards: the 2015 highlights
The end of the year is traditionally the time for a round-up of the year's highlights, and to consign the disappointments to the dustbin of history. It's heartening to look back at 2015 and confirm that the good meals have far outnumbered the bad, and that Irish food is at an all time high, with the message of eating locally and seasonally getting through to such an extent that it's become a cliché on restaurant menus.
The restaurants that have adopted that philosophy and made it part of their ethos, rather than merely paying lip-service to it, and the chefs who are forging meaningful, respectful relationships with the farmers and producers who supply them, are amongst those serving up the best food in the country. Going a step further, there are hyper-local chefs who are growing their own ingredients in their own gardens, and making bread, butter, and all manner of ferments and pickles in-house. That's the way forward, and you can expect to see much more of this in the year ahead.
Anyway, enough pontificating. Here's my personal and wholly subjective take on the best food and eating experiences of 2015, with a few nods to Ireland's new food heroes.
Meal of the Year:
The Manor, Clapham, London
Before you roll your eyes at the across-the-water location, remember that chef Robin Gill is Dublin born and bred and that we should take national pride in his achievements. Gill and his wife, Sarah, now have three London restaurants (The Dairy, The Manor and Paradise Garage) and epitomise everything that's good about post-Nordic food. Yes there are foraged and wild ingredients, but there are big, big flavours too, and absolutely zero pretension. If you're going to be in London, try to visit one of Gill's restaurants.
Chef of the Year:
McMahon (pictured above) has a Michelin star, three Galway restaurants, and a formidable collection of tattoos, but the reason he's my chef of the year is that his vision of the role of the chef in terms of food education and sustainability is bigger and better than anyone else's, and he put his money where his mouth is and organised Food On The Edge, which saw 40 of the best chefs in the world come to Galway in October and discuss the future of food. No one (well, not many) talked about signature dishes but they did eat slutty burgers (ask Phil Howard of The Square in London about that) and oysters, and they talked about making the world a better place through food. Kudos.
Food Activist of the Year:
Keith Bohanna, who has a real job as an IT consultant, has been the unpaid convenor and facilitator of Real Bread Ireland for the past year, and if no one else is gong to thank him, then I am. What's the message? Bread is made of flour, water, salt and maybe yeast. That's it. Now look at the label on that supermarket loaf and start buying your daily bread from a local baker who makes real bread. Or make your own. Check out Riot Rye on YouTube for a simple recipe for a sourdough starter.
Burger of the Year Award:
Nobody does it better. Enough said.
Most Exciting New Discovery Award:
Intriguing food in the back of beyond served in a Kinfolk-style destination restaurant. Mark Jennings' food is modern, thoughtful, and very tasty. Weekend bookings can be tricky, so if you're heading down Roscarberry way, plan ahead and reserve a table.
The 'Spending My Own Money' Award:
I eat in Etto as often as I can and it's number one on my list of places to recommend to visitors to Dublin. There's no magic formula, no rocket science. The food is confident and relaxed, and so is the service; Simon Barrett and Liz Matthews are natural-born restaurateurs, who are proving that you don't need fancy premises to be a great restaurant.
The Room of the Year Award:
The space was never intended to be a restaurant but it's funny how things work out. Elegant, stylish and modern, Enda McEvoy's food is a perfect match, and it gained him Galway's second Michelin star earlier this year. Runner up: Delahunt on Camden Street, an establishment in which to squirrel oneself away for a long lunch.
Best Pop-Up Award:
Heart & Sole
Ian McHale and Matt Logan put on an exciting pop-up in Two Fifty Square in Rathmines back in May, and if I close my eyes I can still taste the Jersey Royals with Lough Neagh smoked eel, Abernethy butter and nettle emulsion. Pop-ups are a great way to see what some of the country's brightest young chefs are up to when they're not working the day job (both McHale and Logan are in the kitchen at Chapter One) and are often a step on the way to opening a place of their own. The Five Corners Feast in Smock Alley last month was another treat, featuring courses from Katie Sanderson (Dillisk and The Fumbally), Stevie Toman (Ox), Derek Creagh (Harry's), Kevin Aherne (Sage), and Jess Murphy (Kai).
Most Glamorous Restaurant of the Year Award:
Much has been made of the Mad Men-style interior and the daring loos, but Karl Whelan's food is as glamorous as the surroundings and there's an evident delight in using luxury ingredients that pack a powerful flavour punch. Truffle linguine and veal chops for sure, but sea urchin carbonara? Wow. Not to mention Declan Maxwell, the best FOH in town. John Farrell gets the award for Restaurateur of the Year, for his ability to juggle five very different restaurants (The Butcher Grill, Dillinger's, 777, Super Miss Sue and Luna), not forgetting Dublin's best chipper, Cervi, and still have the energy to have at least one new opening planned for 2016.
Best in Cork City and Best Japanese Food Award:
From his tiny little premises (you'll know it from the lovely geisha mural on the outside wall) Takashi Miyazaki serves up the most carefully authentic and desirable Japanese food that you'll find anywhere in Ireland. There are no shortcuts when it comes to food that tastes as good as this, with Miyazaki making his dashi broth from scratch each morning. If I lived in Cork, I'd eat there every day.
Best Cheap Eats Award:
Mexico K Chido
I defy anyone to find better low-cost food in Dublin than at this funky little food truck by the Four Courts. Super tasty, and super cheap.
Lunch at Chapter One
Ross Lewis' Parnell Square restaurant is a haven of civilisation and the place that you can bring absolutely anyone, no matter how demanding, and know that they will be looked after. The set lunch is a bargain.
The 'Phew What A Relief' Award:
Mickael Viljanen finally got his long overdue star this year and he can get on with the business of serving up some of the most exciting food to be had in Ireland, and the rest of us can stop fretting about the wretched Michelin nonsense and get on with eating it.
The 'Finally We Have Good Affordable Seafood In Dublin' Award:
The opening of Klaw (pictured) this summer heralded the democratisation of seafood, for which the seafood lovers of Dublin give thanks.