Food: into the west - Loam
Loam, Geata na Cathrach, Fairgreen, Galway City - (091) 569 727
Darina Allen and her brother, Rory O'Connell, from Ballymaloe are at one table. The impossibly well-dressed Quique Dacosta, a three-star Michelin chef from Spain, is at another. At the end of the brilliant Food on the Edge symposium - organised by the force of nature that is JP McMahon, the chef-patron of Aniar - Galway can properly lay claim to being the food capital of Ireland. FOTE saw 40 of the best chefs in the world congregate in the Spiegeltent in Eyre Square to talk about the future of food.
And if you think that means discussion about whether we'll be eating more foie gras or abalone next year, whether ironic desserts are over, or whether Mongolian or Azerbaijani food is the hottest food trend, think again.
For starters, chefs don't look much like chefs any more, they look like athletes or, in the case of Senor Dacosta, models for Dolce & Gabbana. And the future of food is a high-minded business, with chefs taking seriously their responsibilities towards the communities in which they live, as well as society in a broader sense, and the planet. Local and seasonal is only the start of it, and the move is towards restaurants that are sustainable because they are in charge of producing the ingredients that they use in their kitchens.
Anyway, these luminaries of the food world have chosen to eat at Loam, Galway's newest Michelin-starred restaurant, where Enda McEvoy is in the kitchen. McEvoy used to be the chef at Aniar, and was there when it won its star, a couple of years back. A year ago he opened his own place. His achievement in attaining a star in that short space of time is mighty impressive, and it will bring with it some security, after a first year that has been challenging.
Galway's a busy town and the population of students (including one of my guests, who's more used to eating at Fat Freddy's pizza joint) and tourists keeps rents high on the main drags. McEvoy took the brave step of moving into office space in a new development that had lain empty since construction was completed. It's a huge space, and the tables are spread far apart. I loved it, and the luxurious feel that architect Juan Sotoparra has created with limited resources. The chairs are classic pieces that have been taken apart and re-glued and re-upholstered by Table Lighting Chair in Dublin, and the space is broken up by boxes designed by furniture maker, Jens Kosak. It's cool, stylish, and does not look like any other restaurant in the country.
There's a bar area that's open from four in the afternoon, which would be a good introduction to Loam and its food. You can have a glass of wine and some 'snacks' - pickled sloes and smoked mussels in mustard perhaps - and there are cheese and Irish charcuterie boards on offer too.
We opted for the tasting menu that's priced at €60. There is a short à la carte too.
Fine dining is a horribly outdated notion, nobody wants stiff tablecloths and starched waiters any more, and it's not a label that McEvoy would ever attach to his food. But Loam is serving ambitious food that's very firmly rooted in the soil and landscape of the West of Ireland, and McEvoy and his team are doing something different here, albeit at a price point that's not so different to what you'll find in many other restaurants. The menu takes a hyper-local and -seasonal approach, and close relationships with local suppliers and farmers - Loam's 'collaborators' are credited on the menu - are what determine the food that comes out of the kitchen. We started with snacks of charred cucumber, squid ink crackers and Dunmanus cheese, tasty little morsels that boded well for what lay ahead. Beef tartare is the biggest-selling dish on the menu at Loam and it's a delectable plate, topside finely chopped by hand, combined with salted gooseberries, and dressed with a toasted pumpkin seed oil that makes the dish taste as if it's cooked when it isn't. There's a fudgy 67 degree egg at the centre in a riff on the classic composition.
Next up is a combination of super sweet scallops with baby turnip, shitake mushrooms, charred onions and pea shoot, followed by a slice of pumpkin sitting on a pool of sublime hazelnut emulsion topped with spaghetti squash and fresh curds, with a little jug of warm butter and whey poured over the lot. Wild venison sourced from Eamonn Giblin in Scarriff, Co Clare is paired with beetroot and rose; it's juicy, full-flavoured, excellent. A plate of intense carrot and sea buckthorn purée (there are notes of orange and mango in the berries), is set off by white chocolate crumble and frozen curd, while a second dessert of smoky peat and whiskey ice cream comes in a pool of rosehip syrup.
This is the modern way to do a tasting menu - after six restrained courses there is no sense of having of over-eaten, and the progression of taste and flavours has been skilful and well judged. With a bottle of Rueda Basa 2013 by Telmo Rodriguez, and a couple of glasses of red from a keenly priced list, plus a cheese selection, our bill for three came to €230 before service.
On a budget
A small charcuterie board featuring Connemara air-dried lamb, house-cured lardo, Gubbeen coppa, and pickled calves tongue, plus a glass of bardolino, would cost €15.
On a blowout
The tasting menu with matching wine pairings comes in at €90. If you add cheese, dinner for two will cost €194 before service.
The high point
The unlikely beauty of a restaurant located in what was supposed to be an office, and impeccably composed, restrained food.
The low point
Loam has no shop front, so it's hard to find if you're not familiar with the city. A street number would help.
8/10 value for money
Whispers from the gastronomicon
Local and seasonal has become a restaurant cliché, but it's the way that we should all be trying to eat at home too. It's hard to know what's in season when you shop in a supermarket, because everything is available all year round. But there's no doubt that food eaten in season tastes better. The trend is definitely away from one big weekly shop, and towards smaller and more frequent shops, which makes it easier to get a handle on what's local and seasonal. Check out your local farmers' market and start discovering the joy of anticipation as each new crop comes around.