Saturday 21 July 2018

Brendan O'Connor reveals his favourite restaurants in Ireland

Ballymaloe House
Ballymaloe House
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

The response to the opening week of our annual 'Great Little Country' campaign was enormous. This year, you will recall, the theme is about experiencing this great little country.

For next week, we want your food experiences. And by that we don't just mean restaurants. A great food experience in Ireland can be a packet of Tayto. It all depends on the context. You can opt to tell us about posh restaurants if you wish, but we would also like you to tell us about the more hidden, unusual, casual, rugged food experiences, ones we might not know about.

A couple of Sundays ago we had farmed the kids out for the night and in the morning we wandered up to the new farmers' market in Herbert Park. The feeling of lightness - of having no kids and wandering easily around the market in this posh park - made me feel for some reason like I was on a city break. Having sampled a guy's courgette chips, I went for his spicy merguez sausages with two punchy salads, two types of flavoured yogurt, harissa over the lot and then some more of the courgette chips. We sat on a bench and messily devoured the explosion of flavours and textures out of a little cardboard container. And I was transported - another little food memory created, another little moment when time stopped for a minute. We got outrageously rich donuts, one with a Snickers filling and one with salt caramel and honeycomb, with beautiful coffee from the Revolution bakery van, and then it was back to reality, back to collect the kids. But we were fortified, and we had lived for a half an hour immersed in the moment, thinking about neither the past nor the future.

And that is what a great food experience does. It takes you out of your day-to-day life. You can get it from a bag of chips or a seven-course meal. What matters is the food, the setting, what you've been doing before it, the people who serve it to you.

Maybe my memory of a recent family lunch in Ballymaloe is so nice because I was there with my mum and dad, my brother, my nephew and my kids. We were all relaxed and having a laugh. We had a drink first under what I think was a Patrick Scott tapestry. Or maybe it's because of Ann, who served us, and kept bringing more good old-fashioned country food, all the best farm-fresh ingredients. Maybe it was because when I asked her if I should have the bacon or the chicken she said I should have both. And then she brought us more of it all, like an Irish Mammy. And no matter that we were stuffed, everything on the desert trolley had to be tried.

A pizza in the car in Wexford town might not sound like a great experience. But when you have just been visiting one of our greatest living artists for a complicated swap of paintings, when the kids have been clambering around a motor home, when you have spent a few hours in his surreal Aladdin's cave of a studio, and when you've got your kids out of town and into the country air for a few hours - then a pizza in the car from Pizza Hut with a pint of milk from Dunnes can be a meal fit for a king. Indeed, some of the best meals we have all had in Ireland were consumed in cars parked by the sea.

And then there's the other end of the scale too. Sitting in Luna, feeling like you are in Italy in the 50s or 60s. One of those elusive restaurants where you feel like part of a drama. The waistcoated young man painstakingly cutting your salumi on his slicer, basement bonhomie all around you, Aperol Spritz warming your soul. And again, you are transported, away from everyday life, immersed in the moment.

I love pizza in Pete's in Sandymount as the kids get a bit of dough to play with that might be baked into a little shape; liver and onions in the Farm Gate in Cork on the balcony over the clatter of the English Market below; shrimp and chorizo nachos with a glass of their house pilsener in the Fish Shack café in Sandycove looking out on the sea, or a steak in the cosy familiarity of Marco Pierre Whites.

So what's your favourite Irish food experience? Is it where you have a scone after a few hours of hard cycling? The toasted sandwich in your favourite pub? Who offers the best carvery in Ireland? Where did you have the most romantic meal of your life? Where is the best food stall for a quick snack? Where is the best bite to eat by the sea? Where do you go to pig out? Where is the warmest welcome? Where do you feel at home? Where's the best sandwich? Burger? Tasting menu?

It changes for all of us all the time, but share your memories and your insider knowledge with us now. What are the best food experiences in this great little country? You tell us. Then next week, we'll tell them. And there's a prize for the best.

Email us your great Irish food experiences at GreatLittleCountry, or tweet using the hashtag #GreatLittleCountry. Or go to LittleCountry to submit your entry, or post it to A Great Little Country - Experience It, c/o 27/32, Talbot St, Dublin 1.

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