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Galway’s supper club success story finds permanent digs in Clifden

From hosting long table pop-up dinners around Connemara, The Sea Hare’s Sinead Foyle and Philippa Duff have thrown down proper roots

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On starters’ orders – Philippa Duff and Sinead Foyle of The Sea Hare which opens this week in Clifden. Picture by Cliodhna Prendergast

On starters’ orders – Philippa Duff and Sinead Foyle of The Sea Hare which opens this week in Clifden. Picture by Cliodhna Prendergast

Ready, set, go – prepping for the first diners

Ready, set, go – prepping for the first diners

Carrot cake a la Sea Hare

Carrot cake a la Sea Hare

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On starters’ orders – Philippa Duff and Sinead Foyle of The Sea Hare which opens this week in Clifden. Picture by Cliodhna Prendergast

Back in July 2019, I was lucky enough to nab a seat at one of The Sea Hare’s first long table dinners in Joyce’s pub – known locally as Bunny’s – in Cleggan, a village that can sometimes feel like a car park for people taking the Inishbofin ferry.

It felt like being at a glorious supper being thrown by a fantasy friend who lives close to the sea, to whom the local fishermen offer first pick from each day’s catch.

Word spread, and the rest of that summer’s long table dinners sold out in jig time, and anyone who pitched up on a Saturday hoping for the €25 lobster and a pint combo without having pre-ordered was likely to be disappointed.

Three years on and, after two more summers in Cleggan, during which Sinead Foyle and Philippa Duff took over The Pier Bar around the corner from Joyce’s, The Sea Hare is on the move. This week it opens its doors in its new permanent 100-seater home in what was the function room of the Alcock & Brown hotel in Clifden.

“We’re heading into town,” says Sinead, “we’re hitting the big time.”

When I speak to her, though, Sinead, The Sea Hare’s chef and co-owner, Philippa, and Philippa’s husband, Tom Behan, their accountant, are ensconced in the conservatory of Philippa and Tom’s house near Cleggan while work is under way on getting the new restaurant ready. The views may be mighty, but the jobs to be done are endless.

“As soon as you get to the end of one list, another one appears,” says Philippa, who has the look of a woman who’s itching to get away from the paperwork and back into the kitchen.

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Ready, set, go – prepping for the first diners

Ready, set, go – prepping for the first diners

Ready, set, go – prepping for the first diners

“The three of us are pulling the business together,” says Sinead. “Tom is keeping us on the straight and narrow.”

I know from visiting Philippa and Tom’s house last summer – when Tom gave me honey from his own bees – that its shelves are laden with one of the most extensive collections of cookbooks I’ve ever seen. I also know that, unlike many who like to display books by the most fashionable food writers, Philippa has read and cooked from them all.

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“Before The Sea Hare I lived many lives,” says Philippa. “I grew up in Dublin, where I was a lousy student in school. I discovered learning later in life and went to university in the US, where I trained as an environmental scientist and worked in that field.

“Before The Sea Hare and moving down to Connemara, I worked with my sister, Clodagh, at Glendalough Green deli and cafe in Laragh for seven or eight years. It was my first experience working in food. I’m a cook, not a professionally-trained chef, but I do like to feed people.”

Sinead, meanwhile, grew up in Clifden, where you’ll see the Foyle name on the side of a few buildings.

“I’m from a hospitality background in that all my family – my grandmother, my father, his siblings are all involved,” she says. “My mother married into it for her sins – she met dad when she was working in the hotel.

“After school – I wasn’t the most academic, in fact I was the biggest messer – I thought I wanted to be a travel agent, but I ended up doing an adventure sports course in Cork, so I could teach sailing, windsurfing and that kind of thing. That was the mid-90s, it felt like a new thing to be doing.

“My father had the Clifden Bay, now Foyle’s Hotel, on Main Street, and I grew up working there.

“After college I worked seasonally at home for parents, uncles, aunts and travelled in the winter. I went to Asia, South America and Australia, picking up hospitality jobs along the way. When I came home from travelling, I worked at Dolphin Beach on the Sky Road, my mother’s guesthouse and holiday let business, and then I moved to Dublin.”

Sinead spent 10 years working on staffing for events at the Aviva Stadium and other venues, but got burnt out and missed Connemara. She returned to the West five years ago.

“When our kids were small, Tom and I came down a lot,” says Philippa. “We worked hard in Dublin but our social life was here. We happened on a house in 2006, a fixer-upper, bought it and didn’t do a whole lot to it for a number of years.

“While the kids were teenagers, it was fine that it was all messy. As they grew up, we spent more and more of our time here. Once we had them reared, through college and off the payroll, we sold up in Dublin and moved down. We’ve been here full-time since 2016.

“For the first couple of years I was rattling around, and then I had an idea for a food truck. I approached Sinead, I didn’t know her well, I met her in a local walking group. Now I’m stuck with her and she’s stuck with me! The food truck was rapidly abandoned by Sinead and we came up with the idea about moving into a pub in Cleggan and went from there.”

“We both loved the idea of going into a pub that was closed during the day,” says Sinead. “It’s terrible to see so many closed all over the country, I feel we are losing part of our culture. Even if they only have a domestic-style kitchen, many can be brought up to standard – pub owners should think outside the box and come together with other businesses. It’s a good way to make a building work better rather than sitting there idle. Both parties have to be open to the idea, it’s not logistically difficult but you have to think differently.”

That first conversation about going into business together happened in January 2019 and The Sea Hare opened its doors on May 18 of that year.

“Joyce’s were very open to having us in there during the day, and they opened in the evenings at weekends,” says Sinead. “It worked very well.”

“We are both of the area,” says Philippa, “and we love that Cleggan is a working pier and feel it still has such potential to be something lovely, somewhere you would go to visit rather than it being a pass-through place, the car park for Inishbofin. Cleggan could be very nice, the way Newquay is with Linnane’s [in Co Clare]. It’s a working area, but you go there especially to eat great food.”

“The first summer was crazy,” remembers Sinead. “We thought that it was the cafe that was going to work, but the surprise was that the long table dinners took off. We were in business for four months in 2019 and then at the end of the summer the question was how to keep the brand going through the winter?

“We decided to do secret suppers around Connemara. We’d ask someone for the use of their house, set up a long table, and only tell people at 3pm on the Saturday where it was going to be. We sold tickets in advance but only gave the exact location on the day – until then people just knew it would be within 5km of Clifden, or Letterfrack, or Roundstone or wherever. The dinners took off really well and kept the idea going for the winter.”

Then Covid hit and, between lockdowns, The Sea Hare was open for only nine weeks in 2020, and 15 in 2021.

“We went for it, hell for leather, as long as we could each time lockdown lifted,” says Sinead, “even though they were very short seasons, because of people holidaying at home, it got great feedback.”

The Sea Hare’s most famous celebrity visitor was President Michael D Higgins, who dropped in during 2020, others have included Eamon Ryan and Cian Healy.

“There might have been a few actors,” says Sinead, “but usually someone has to tell me who they are.”

“I’m in the kitchen,” says Philippa, “so I don’t see them.”

The long tables of 2019 had to give way to short tables under Covid restrictions, but Philippa and Sinead stuck to the same serving style, with a set menu and all dishes presented family style.

“We got a bit more confident in our food as we went along, and the ethos of sourcing everything locally became a bit more embedded during 2020 and 2021,” says Philippa.

And during one lockdown, Sinead and Philippa launched their signature tamarind sauce as a condiment which is now stocked in specialty food stores all over the country. “It was a way of keeping the hands busy and the brand alive,” says Philippa.

For the first two years of The Sea Hare, it was just Sinead and Philippa in the kitchen, with Sinead managing front of house too. “We were our own limiting factor,” says Philippa. “Then last year we had a couple of people helping in the kitchen, and that allowed us to be a bit more creative.

During the winter there were collaborations with chef Martin Ruffley and Karen O’Donoghue of The Happy Tummy in Westport.

“We are very open to collaborations,” says Sinead, “we like the idea of bringing people here who are doing something different. My thought is that we locals travel out of Connemara to get good quality stuff and eat in good restaurants in Dublin, but I love the idea people will come to us here and we can accommodate that, they don’t have to head to the east coast for a night.”

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Carrot cake a la Sea Hare

Carrot cake a la Sea Hare

Carrot cake a la Sea Hare

With the kitchen at their new premises in, equipment and furniture bought, the walls painted, the signage up, the menu drafted and provisional food orders placed, Sinead and Philippa say they are at the fear stage, asking themselves, “What have we done?”

“We are sticking with our theme,” says Philippa. “We are still getting as much as possible locally, using Cleggan Flowers, the legendary crab from Johnny King and local fish from Louis and Abel Martin, rare-breed beef from John O’Halloran and Velvet Cloud sheep’s milk yoghurt.

“We’ll be offering sharing plates rather than a set meal, but it will continue to be relatively simple, delicious food, using as much organic produce as we can get.

“The menu is veggie-centric, with some fish during the day and maybe meat in the evening. We are not going for lots of fluff.”

A draft menu Philippa shares with me includes dishes such as flatbreads with crispy chickpea fritters, fried fish of the day with salad and lemon mayo, smoked pollock sashimi with seaweed salad, crab body Goan curry and aged dairy cow rib roast with horseradish. The lobster and mussel specials – phew – remain on the weekend menu.

As Sinead haggles with energy suppliers and figures out where to get the best deals on milk and butter, Philippa is finalising the details of the menu.

“We are sourcing as much as we possibly can from here,” says Philippa. “We are celebrating what we have.”

For the first couple of months, Philippa will be joined in the kitchen by chef Reuven Diaz, formerly of Eastern Seaboard near Drogheda, while his wife Jeni Glasgow has helped with the interior decoration.

Linens and aprons will be from Stable, the business Philippa’s sister Francie runs with Sonia Reynolds, while the quirky, hand-made dinner plates are by Clare Finlay, another relation.

“They are wobbly and lumpy and delightful,” says Philippa. “Each one is different. Now all I need to do is get into the kitchen, then I will have my feet on the ground. I’ll be delighted.”

“Philippa is very steady, she has to rein me back sometimes,” says Sinead, as her brain races ahead to the next idea, “the yin and yang of our relationship works well.”

The Sea Hare is open seven days a week, serving a daytime menu during May, with dinner three nights a week from June. theseahare.ie/

Staying local: Three other hyper-local spots

Goldie

At Goldie in Cork City, Aisling Moore writes her menu around whatever fish are landed by the dayboats in Ballycotton that day. Her sustainable, no waste approach means diners eat species of fish, — such as megrim and pollock — they may never have had an opportunity to try before, as well as fish cheeks and delicious crunchy spines. www.goldie.ie

Grow HQ

At Grow HQ in Waterford, head chef JB Dubois works with whatever fruit and vegetables come from the on-site garden, alongside produce from local suppliers, to create a seasonal, hyper-local menu. www.giy.ie

Camus Farm Field Kitchen

It doesn’t get more farm-to-table than at Camus Farm Field Kitchen near Clonakilty where the organic beef comes from the farm’s own herd, and pretty much everything else is home-grown, supplemented with a few carefully chosen items from local farmers and artisan producers.

Instagram @camusfarmfieldkitchen


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