The people and places who made a real impact on Irish food in 2018.
When Cork landed not just one, but three — three! —Michelin stars back in October, a torrent of goodwill spilled out over social media, with ne’er a begrudger to be heard. Opening an owner-operator restaurant takes guts: food of this calibre doesn’t come easy. And two of the three only opened earlier this year. Respect. Each of these restaurants operates an online booking system, and you’ll need to jump to it to get a table in 2019.
This was the year some of our best vegetable growers began to be recognised on restaurant menus. Let’s hear it for four of the most dedicated: Jenny McNally of McNally Family Farm, Marita Collier of Drummond House Garlic, Helen Murphy of Mooncoin Organic Beetroot and Maria Flynn of Ballymakenny Farm, home of Violette, Pink Fir and Yukon Gold potatoes. If you see these producers credited on a menu, you know you’re eating somewhere that takes provenance seriously. The same goes for Niall Sabongi, whose SSI wholesale business supplies many of our best restaurants with premium-quality fish and seafood.
Fans of Etto waited a long time for its “vaguely Spanish” slightly bigger little sister, Uno Mas, to open on Aungier Street. The good news is that Liz Matthews, Simon Barrett and Paul McNamara have done it again: exemplary food, a relaxed vibe and the most comfortable bar seats in town. (The two-person hideaway ‘nook’ opposite the bar is where politicians and others wishing to keep a low profile should sit.) Even though it only opened at the beginning of the month, Uno Mas already feels as if it has been there forever. The bad news is that it’s going to be just as hard to get a table at Uno Mas as it is at Etto.
One of most dynamic and exciting restaurants in the country surprised everyone with its announcement that Andrew Heron and Damien Grey would be heading in their separate directions come the new year. Grey will stay on in the tiny premises in Blackrock Market, where he will open his new restaurant, Liath, in the spring. I’ll stick my neck out and say that he’ll have a shiny new Michelin star come October, to replace the one that will have to be handed back when Heron & Grey closes.
Mickael Viljanen’s food just gets better and better. He’s now joined in the kitchen by Mark Moriarty, named Eurotoques Young Chef of the Year in 2015. In another city, this restaurant would have two stars, no doubt about it. Lunch is a bargain.
The steamed cod with seven different kinds of seaweed at Mews in Baltimore.
Gareth Smith of Michael’s in Mount Merrion is a tireless and generous supporter of local producers, somehow
finding time to promote everyone’s business — as well as his own — on social media. He uses great ingredients, his food is ridiculously good value, and he cooks from the heart. He’s also the person who first introduced me to hand-picked Lambay Crab, which is in another league entirely to the air-blasted stuff you get in the supermarket.
I ate exceptionally well for very little money at The Market Kitchen (toasties), Masa (pictured below) and El Grito (tacos), Shouk (Middle Eastern), and Mad Egg (fried chicken). And there was the deep-fried kimchi at Soup Ramen in Dún Laoghaire, about which I am still dreaming. (This may not be entirely prudent.)
The much-anticipated restaurant hit the ground stumbling and has barely managed to get on its feet since, with one bad-news story (Tips not going to staff! Reservations mess-ups! Turning away walk-ins when there is plenty of room!) after another. And when we have so many good indigenous restaurants, why would anyone want to eat at a faux-chic British chain?
Jordan Bailey and Majken Bech Christensen are the young couple behind Aimsir restaurant, scheduled to open at Cliff at Lyons in Co Kildare in the spring. On the evidence of the pop-ups they hosted last month, with sophisticated food based entirely on local, Irish ingredients, I’d recommend booking as soon as reservations are open. Bailey was formerly head chef at Oslo’s three-star Maaemo. Adam Purcell’s vegetarian pop-up at Forest Avenue in April was another great night.
Make a beeline for Brat, Tomos Parry’s Basque-inspired Shoreditch restaurant, where you’ll find superlative cooking over wood and a menu that’s littered with people-
pleasing gems. Big flavours, great wines and friendly service are a winning combination. The name Brat, by the way, is fisherman’s slang for turbot, the house specialty, roasted whole. In Bloomsbury, I urge anyone with an interest in wine — accompanied by simple, delectable food — to explore the delights of Noble Rot.