Restaurant review: 'The main course is pollock, about which there is muttering from some of the guests'
Joyce's Bar, Cleggan, Co Galway (theseahare.ie)
Imagine that you have a friend who lives in Connemara, close to the sea. Imagine that your friend knows the local fishermen, and that they give her first pick of their catch each day.
Imagine, too, that she has a magnificent fruit and vegetable garden, right outside the back door, where she grows everything organically. She has green fingers; her crops are abundant. And imagine that she's a hospitable type, who likes to throw big dinners for the enjoyment of her pals. She's good-humoured about it, and never gives the impression that she's being put upon.
No, me neither, but a couple of weeks ago I happened upon the next best thing to that fantasy friend at the rather lovely Sea Hare long-table pop-up in Cleggan, a village that can sometimes feel like a car park for people taking the ferry to [Inish]Bofin.
Joyce's pub - known locally as Bunny's - is old school, as in that I'd guess it has looked the way it does now for decades rather than centuries. There's a poster on the wall for Omey Races that has been there for a very long time; this year's event takes place tomorrow on the strand near Claddaghduff. On Friday nights, Joyce's hosts line dancing, and on Saturdays it's cards. Both evenings are, by all accounts, very well attended, but the other nights of the week can be quiet.
This year, Sinead Foley and Philippa Duff have opened a summer pop-up in the bar.
Friends who live locally tell me that the daytime food is vegetable-focused and very good; they are particularly fond of the breakfast of champignons (as opposed to champions) and mushroom Wellington. The coffee more than passes muster.
But on Thursday, and some Sunday evenings, Sinead and Philippa line up all the tables in the room end to end and host a long-table dinner for a couple of dozen people. Pre-booking is required.
We have a drink before sitting down. Sinead passes around canapés of smoked mackerel pâté, cucumber with labneh, seaweed pesto on crackers. Everything is made in-house, the ingredients all hyper-local. Once we are seated, there are breads made by Sinead and a generous mound of horseradish crab, the plates made pretty with edible flowers from Cleggan Farm. The only jarring note is a fan of avocado originating somewhere far away. The heat of the horseradish complements the fresh sweetness of the crab, caught that morning by local man Johnny King, who also supplies the legendary crab claws to Oscar's a few metres down the road.
The main course is pollock, about which there is muttering from some of the guests. We Irish are not over- enamoured of this particular species. But that's what was landed that morning by Louis Martin, so that's what we're getting - no complaints from me; it's perfectly cooked. Alongside is a rich, jammy tomato and shallot concasse.
But for me the stars of the show - the dishes that I have been telling people about ever since - are the heaped bowls of freshly shelled garden peas and French beans, the floury spuds tossed in seaweed butter and the simply dressed bowls of garden leaves; transporting flavours that one seldom encounters.
What vegetables don't come from Sinead and Philippa's own gardens "just show up at the door", they say. "People bring us whatever they have a surplus of, and we are delighted." The abundance is astounding - given how laborious it is to shell peas, most of us are used to seeing only a handful on our plates. Even the sea salt is local, made in tiny quantities in Aughrusbeg by the O'Connor family.
For pudding, there's raspberry fool with meringue heaped with homegrown fruit - simple and perfect - followed by chocolate truffles, tea and coffee.
Dinner for two with a bottle of adequate pub wine (all the wines are priced at €24.95) comes to €108.95. The ambience in the room is relaxed, with a full-table rendition of Happy Birthday to honour one guest. Everyone says how lovely it is to see Bunny's so busy on a Thursday night.
ON A BUDGET
During the day, the Sea Hare is a café; reports are that the food is good and the prices fair.
ON A BLOW-OUT
Seats at the long-table dinners cost €42pp - you'll need to factor in wine and service on top.
THE HIGH POINT
The vegetables - new-season peas, beans, potatoes - are astounding; everything comes from local private gardens.
THE LOW POINT
The wine selection is disappointing.