Review of Aniar: 'The meal has been exciting, with big, bold flavours'
Aniar, 53 Lower Dominick Street, Galway. (091) 535 947
Galway is home to some of the best eating in Ireland these days, a fact that owes more than a little to JP McMahon, the chef patron of Aniar.
McMahon's energy knows no bounds - he's a writer who published his first cookbook last year, a celebrity chef who pops up on telly, the proprietor of a 'boutique' cookery school, a symposium organiser and the prime mover behind Farmer, a fast food restaurant concept that focuses on provenance, ethics, sustainability and animal welfare that, at the time of writing, is about to launch on Kickstarter. Phew.
McMahon has three restaurants in Galway; Eat at Massimo which serves casual, gastropub fare, Cava, which puts an Irish spin on tapas, and Aniar, which has a Michelin star and is 'terroir-based', serving contemporary Irish food using ingredients from the surrounding area.
A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed Loam, Galway's other Michelin-starred restaurant. The chef at Loam is Enda McEvoy, who used to be in the kitchen at Aniar, and there are similarities between the two restaurants in that both are committed to celebrating the wealth of local ingredients available to them, and are part of the new wave of fine dining that eschews stiff service in favour of a more relaxed engagement between the restaurant and its customers. And although there are some similarities in the style of food, and the way in which it is presented, there are notable differences too.
Aniar serves only a tasting menu, and diners have the option of choosing six, eight, 10, 12 or 14 courses. The menu changes daily, as is the way these days, and is divided into five main sections - cold starters, hot starters, main courses, desserts and cheese, interspersed with house-made bread and butter (yes, really), snacks, sorbet, pre-dessert and digestif tea. Between two of us we covered all the 18 dishes on the menu that night and our food bill came to €185.
A dish described as 'beef, oyster, ramson' turned out to be beef tartare, with the chopped meat bound together with an oyster emulsion and decorated with fine slivers of radish, the plate scattered with a yellow powder of salted, dried eggs. McMahon told me that he had read about an old process used by the pilgrims on the Camino heading for Santiago de Compostela to enable them to keep eggs in their pockets while they were walking and decided to replicate it. And a classic beef tartare features a raw egg on top, so the dried egg is a nod of sorts to tradition. The flavours are wonderful.
Clams come with burnt cucumber and dried seaweed, on a dramatic black plate, scattered with orange flower petals, while beautiful raw scallops are paired with delicate apple and vibrant roe, topped with a tuile of 'scallop bacon' (scallop that's been puréed, sieved and dried) that delivers an intense hit of umami. There's 'rye, curd, rosehip' too, delicate and pretty. And those are just the cold starters.
Next up are the hot starters. 'Mushroom, buttermilk, blackberry' is a stunner, with winter chanterelles, ceps and oyster mushrooms in a buttermilk foam. There's onion with barley and broccoli, rabbit with fennel and plum, and John Dory with watercress and carrot, each plate beautifully composed and balanced. The hot starters are followed by a tea sorbet which I could have done without.
Of the mains, the stand-out dish is monkfish with kale and bone marrow, and sea vegetables including sea beet, sea radish and sea purslane, the fish impeccable and the bone marrow (roasted, scooped out and blended with cream) a luxurious counterpoint. There's venison with slivers of red and yellow beetroot and elderberry, and caramelised Jerusalem artichokes with puréed cauliflower and sea grass, each plate more beautiful than the last.
A pre-dessert of basil granita, apple and yoghurt is followed by desserts proper. The pastry chef is Claire Conway and she clearly enjoys her job, because the desserts are a lot of fun. McMahon says that he has been encouraging the use of more vegetables in the desserts and the kitchen has been busy experimenting. Sometimes things happen by accident, he says, and they're wonderful, and other times you could be working on something for weeks and it never comes together. Hay ice cream is one of the successes, no doubt about it, and it's served with a pumpkin cake made in the microwave (it's a molecular gastronomy trick that takes six seconds, says McMahon), brown butter crunch and pumpkin purée, with a birch sap that's used in the meringue too. (Yes, they collected the sap in the spring.) An elderflower pannacotta comes with a gin and tonic jelly and cucumber sorbet, and then it's on to cheese - a traditional selection with rye crispbreads - and a delightful St Tola goat's cheese ice cream made in the Pacojet and served with compressed pear and Highbank apple syrup. The meal has been exciting, with big, bold flavours that stand in contrast to the more restrained style of food at Loam. Go to Galway, and eat at both.
On a budget
Aniar doesn't do early birds, and the least expensive tasting menu is priced at €70 for six courses. JP McMahon does have other restaurants - go to Cava for his take on tapas and Eat in Massimo in Galway's west end for gastropub fare.
On a blowout
The 14-course tasting menu with matching wines is €205 per head, so dinner for two would cost €410 before service.
The high point
Big flavours, bold combinations.
The low point
The room, although not without its charms, is cramped and the food deserves a better backdrop.
8/10 value for money
Whispers from the gastronomicon
The list of ingredients in the standard loaf that you'll find in the supermarket is worryingly long. Shouldn't bread be just flour, yeast and water? The Real Bread movement in Ireland is gathering momentum and, on December 2, The Bretzel Bakery and Real Bread Ireland are hosting a Real Bread Gathering at the Bernard Shaw in Portobello, Dublin 8. The event starts at 7pm and will include a panel discussion with Andrew Whitley, a co-founder of the Real Bread Campaign in the UK, chef JP McMahon of Aniar, and others. The organisers promise plenty of real bread to taste and bring home.