Review: 'Ard Bia is the restaurant of choice of most Galway locals'
Ard Bia at Nimmo's, Spanish Arch, Long Walk, Galway (091) 561 114
I'm in Galway to judge the second round of the 'oyster-off' between chefs Niall Sabongi of Klaw in Dublin and JP McMahon of Tartare, Aniar and Cava. The culinary contest has been devised by John Ward of Dooncastle Oysters; John farms in two adjacent bays in Connemara and his oysters are known for a faintly sweet taste that he attributes to the fact the land that runs down to the sea where his oyster beds are located was once planted with sugar beet.
The previous week in Dublin, JP's dish had triumphed over Sabongi's, but in Galway the visitor fought back, meaning that at the final - to be held at the inaugural Connemara Oyster Festival taking place in Ballyconneely last weekend - there would be all to shuck for. (In the end, Sabongi triumphed.)
On a sweltering summer's day, Galway is as charmingly all over the place as usual. Shop Street is thronged with tourists and the restaurants are packed, although neither of the city's two Michelin-starred establishments - Aniar and Loam - opens for lunch, even on a Friday. I guess that they know their market, but it seems a pity in high season. (Kai down the road in Salthill does open, but featured on these pages quite recently.)
So I ask a friend who lives in the city where we should go and she doesn't hesitate. "Ard Bia," she says. "I never eat anywhere else." (She also tells me that she ate the best wedding food ever at the wedding of Garry Hynes of Druid there a few years back).
It seems that my friend is not alone, and Ard Bia is the default restaurant choice of most locals - at barely 12.30pm every table is taken, except for one tucked away down the back of the verging-on-ramshackle space that the front-of-house chap magics up.
I first ate in this building way back when it was home to Leonie King and Alec Finn's Blue Raincoat, run by Seamus and Kevin Sheridan - the Sheridans now of Sheridans Cheesemongers and an excellent wine bar located a few minutes' walk away.
Later it became Nimmo's, run by Harriet Leander, who named it after the pier across the water by Scottish engineer Alexander Nimmo. The building is said to have been a former customs house, located at the point where "uptown meets west Galway, where land meets sea, where a convergence of pathways meets a confluence of waterways", as owner Aoibheann MacNamara and Aoife Carrigy describe it so eloquently in the Ard Bia Cook Book, published to mark the 10th anniversary of the restaurant. It has also had incarnations as a mechanic's, a sausage factory, a printing studio, a boathouse, an art gallery, an antiques shop and a wine bar. Or so the stories go.
As Aoibheann explains in her introduction to the book, "'Ard Bia' translated literally means 'high food' in Irish". She says that the Ard Bia team don't want to take themselves too seriously, but that they do want to do their best and make people happy. "We want to create a space where people want to be and where they can feel at home," she writes.
On this summer's day, Ard Bia at Nimmo's lives up the ambition. Whatever about the more complex menu that is served at night, the lunchtime offering is simple, generous and executed with heart as well as skill. Aoibheann herself is on the floor. I've never met her before, but I get the warm 'darling' and 'sweetheart' treatment like everyone else.
A half portion of summer pea, spinach and mint soup topped with toasted seeds and accompanied by a hunk of house-made brown bread costs - ridiculously - €2.50. On an another day, the portion would have been enough for lunch. Atlantic fish cakes - two, with good flavour and a nice balance of smoked and unsmoked fish - come with a piquant caper and dill mayonnaise, cubes of roast potatoes and good local leaves from Bia Oisín in Claregalway, while the Morgan's rib-eye steak burger with garlicky wedges and a fine crunchy slaw is elevated by heirloom tomatoes and plentiful sorrel aioli. No matter that rules and regulations require the meat to be cooked through; it's still juicy and full of flavour.
Some of the puddings on display near the entrance are melting in the heat, not a problem that Ard Bia must have encountered during many previous summers. A pear cheesecake has to be dispatched back to the kitchen but chocolate fudge and ganache cake - "chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate" is how Aoibheann describes it - is holding up well. I can't taste the gin in a tart of gin and almond (perhaps just as well?) but the pastry is the real deal.
The bill for lunch with two glasses of house white, coffees and one of those delicious KO kombuchas comes to €61.80 before service. If you happen to be in Galway for the races and book in, please do turn up. The city's restaurants have been badly burned by no-shows in previous years and can't afford for that to happen again.
9/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
For breakfast, a bowl of granola with poached pear and Galway goat's yoghurt and a coffee costs less than a tenner.
ON A BLOW-OUT
Grilled octopus with crisp pork belly and heirloom tomato, followed by rib-eye steaks with roasties, greens and chimichurri, and shared pudding and cheese costs €100 for two before drinks or service.
THE HIGH POINT
Lovely, friendly service.
THE LOW POINT
We'd have liked to try the full menu, but it's not available at lunch.