Tuesday 12 December 2017

Star attraction

Paolo Tullio

Paolo Tullio

Of all the restaurant guides, the one that most restaurateurs pay attention to is the Michelin Guide. It has been published since 1900, and unlike many other guides it takes no money from the restaurants it lists. More importantly, its inspectors have all had experience in the catering industry. For many restaurateurs, the ultimate accolade is a Michelin star

The history of the Michelin stars in Ireland is not a long one. In 1973, the first Michelin stars went to the Russell Hotel in St Stephen's Green, which sadly is no longer with us and to the Arbutus Lodge in Cork city. The following year, the Arbutus Lodge retained its star and was joined by Ballylickey House and Ballymaloe House, both in Cork. A rural pattern developed and within five years, Armstrong's Barn, my restaurant in Annamoe, Co Wicklow was awarded a star.

It took Patrick Guilbaud to bring a star back to Dublin, and he now has Ireland's only two-star restaurant. Since the 1980s, the number of Irish stars has proliferated. Now Dublin has quite a cluster, though I'm still puzzled by Michelin's omission of The Greenhouse in its constellation.

After a couple of decades of no stars outside of Dublin, that run was broken by Martijn Kajuiter in the Cliff House, Co Waterford. And then came Aniar, in Galway city, the first star west of the Shannon.

There's a common perception that Michelin-starred restaurants are all starched linen table cloths, plates covered by cloches, very French cuisine, formal waiters and eye-watering prices.

That may have been the case once, but it's certainly no longer accurate. Some of Dublin's best value set menus can be found in Michelin-starred restaurants, and as for stuffy formality, you certainly don't find it in Aniar.

In fact, the decor in Aniar is very plain, verging almost on spartan. As Gerard Carthy and I walked up Dominic Street, we could see into Aniar as we approached. Simple wooden tables and bent-wood chairs gave it the look of a bistro, not exactly the common idea of a Michelin-starred locale.

So clearly, this star was awarded for exceptional food, not for amazing ambience.

Inside, you find yourself in a small dining room with a short menu, offering an a la carte of three starters, three main courses and three desserts, and a five-course tasting menu. Looking down the offerings, it was clear it was not only seasonal – foraged wild foods were very much part of the design of the dishes.

Here you can find meadowsweet, gorse, elder, sloes and buckwheat in unusual combinations.

The pricing is very straightforward – the starters were €12.50, the main courses €32.50 and the desserts €9.50. The tasting menu was €65, or with five wines – that's one per course – €95. Gerard and I thought we'd never manage five courses, so we both chose from the a la carte.

The wine list is extensive, and divided into sections that make it easy to pair wines with food. There's light and refreshing, crisp and light, medium and fruity, soft and subtle, rich and full and so on.

Many of the cheaper selections – that's to say from €26 to €40 – are available by the glass, the half-litre carafe and the bottle.

As well as wines, artisan beers are listed, many of them local. Despite the temptation, a long drive home was ahead, so I only had a glass of red, a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo at €8. Three bottles of sparkling water completed the drinks order.

Our starters arrived, and I have to say the presentation was excellent. Large white plates were decorated with the food. Gerard's scallops came placed in a line to one side of an otherwise empty plate, the effect of which was to draw the eye to the scallops.

It was much the same with my starter of duck hearts, which were served on a large plate with a bowled centre so the wide brim of the plate acted like a frame for the food. Apart from being visually attractive, both the scallops and the duck hearts were both beautifully cooked and carefully flavoured.

Even at this point, with just the starters eaten, it was clear why the Michelin inspectors were impressed.

For main courses, we'd ordered the venison for Gerard and the pork neck for me. Like the starters, the presentation and execution were again faultless.

What particularly impressed me was that each and every element on our plates had been thoughtfully selected and carefully combined. Gerard's venison came with sloes, celeriac and kale, all stalwarts of autumn, while my pork neck came with onion, turnip and leeks.

Irish artisan cheeses was one of the three dessert choices, but we decided to try one each of the other two – the pear, buckwheat and walnut for Gerard and the chicory, blackcurrant and honey for me. Both of these were skilfully done, and like everything else we'd eaten, were very prettily presented.

After that came a slate topped with delicious petits fours, making sure we left Aniar replete. A bill for €137.35 makes the point that a Michelin-starred meal needn't break the bank. Great value for truly interesting and well-sourced food.

On a budget

If you stick to just two courses, say a starter and a main course, you'll spend €45 a head, which may well be the cheapest Michelin-starred dinner available.

On a blowout

The obvious choice for a blowout is the five-course tasting dinner with accompanying wines. It's priced at €95 a head.

High point

For me, the real pleasure of this dinner was the inclusion of all the foraged foods and the carefully sourced artisan suppliers, showing off the flavours of the west.

Low point

For once I have no low point. The meal was consistently good.

Irish Independent

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