After another tough year for the industry, Katy McGuinness finds a wealth of seriously good cooking and top-class restaurants to celebrate
As chefs and restaurateurs come to the end of another year they would probably rather forget, it’s worth remembering that, in the same way the best restaurants are about so much more than food, so too are the best chefs.
Jess Murphy, Kai
I haven’t eaten Jess Murphy’s food this year, because her Galway restaurant Kai, awarded a Michelin Green Star in January, was closed on my only visit west, but when it comes to generosity of spirit to others in the industry, spreading the word about farmers, producers and suppliers, and being a brilliant role model for women chefs all over the country, there is no one like her.
Never afraid to ruffle feathers or speak out on issues affecting women in the industry, Jess put her time to good use during lockdown, working with refugees and writing a book on cookies with Eoin Cluskey of Bread 41 for new cookery imprint, Blasta Books, founded by another powerhouse, Kristin Jensen, with proceeds going to UNHCR. And in further good news, lucky Galway folk can now order her amazing cakes for their at-home celebrations.
Damien Grey, Liath
Damien Grey’s tiny Michelin-starred Liath in Blackrock Market has been made even smaller by Covid, but rather than moan, the Australian chef (and architect manqué) has installed a top-of-the-range ventilation system to keep staff and customers safe, revamped the interior so that it is even more stylish than before, and elevated his food another couple of notches. The last time I ate there, in early November, the Michelin inspectors at the corner table looked suitably impressed. He’s now backed his staff to open a deli and street-food joint, Bhonn, with plans that it will become a wine bar in the future. And he’s just announced that as of January, Liath will be closed one weekend a month so that he and his team get to go out and eat in other people’s restaurants, and have a bit of a life. Respect.
Chapter One by Mickael Viljanen
To say that foodie Ireland went weak at the knees at the prospect of Mickael Viljanen taking over the reins at Chapter One from Ross Lewis would be something of an understatement. First impressions are that the Finnish chef is continuing the Parnell Square tradition of unstuffy fine dining steered by a warmly hospitable front of house team under general manager, Danny Desmond. And the cooking which earned him two stars at The Greenhouse has only become more finely tuned. Eating at Chapter One has always felt like an occasion, never more so than it does now. Expect great excitement when Michelin pronounces in the new year.
Library Street, Dublin
It’s hardly surprising there haven’t been as many new openings in 2021 as there were in other years — it takes a lot of courage to open a new restaurant in the middle of a global pandemic. But Kevin Burke’s Library Street, which occupies the space that used to be home to allta on Setanta Place and opened its doors just last month proves that there’s always room for a great new place to eat. What Kevin is doing, cleverly, is something different for Dublin. Every dish is designed for sharing, and the cooking is confident enough to meld classical sauces and techniques with a truly modern sensibility. The interior is softer and more feminine than in the past, the service is top class and it’s not so achingly trendy as to be off-putting for anyone.
Cafe Cecilia, London
Max Rocha’s new Hackney restaurant certainly isn’t an Irish restaurant, but there are little touches of his Irish roots in the decor — a large photographic print from Perry Ogden’s Pony Kids series occupies a prime position on one wall, and sits alongside family photos of the chef’s Irish grandparents. And there are subtle nods to Ireland on the menu too, notably in the Guinness brown bread made fresh each day to his mother, Odette’s, recipe. You may already have favourite restaurants in the UK capital, but it’s always good to add a new one to your repertoire — and you can take a certain national pride in the success of a young Irish chef whose first restaurant has charmed le tout London since it opened in early autumn.
When Gráinne O’Keefe departed Clanbrassil House to open her own first restaurant, Mae in Ballsbridge, it was probably tempting for owners Barry Fitzgerald and Claire-Marie Thomas to hire another chef to continue the food in a similar vein. But instead of opting for the easy choice, they brought in the young chef team of James Dobson and his second-in-command David Bradshaw who have shaken things up to such delightful effect that Clanbrassil House Mark 2 is essentially a new restaurant. If you’re sceptical about tasting menus, this is one that may just convince you.
I’ve thought long and hard about this one, but on the basis that the restaurant you’re most likely to spend money in and visit frequently is the one that’s within walking distance of where you live, and also has to be somewhere you’re confident anyone you bring there will love too, then this year my award goes to Uno Mas. Paul McNamara’s food is better than ever, with new dishes introduced regularly to sit alongside the perennial favourites. The service is relaxed and among the best in the city, and the wine advice is always spot on. A gem.
St Francis Provisions
I was already a little bit in love with St Francis Provisions in Kinsale even before I got to eat there for the first time this summer. First of all I loved the name, a nod to San Francisco where owner Barbara Nealon lived for a decade and ran a sausage-making business. And I’d been following what Barbara had been doing in Kinsale from before the pandemic and all the way through. I liked everything I saw, from the fabulous brunches and takeaways to the brilliant selection of natural wines. So I was a little nervous when we finally pitched up for dinner back at the end of July. What if it didn’t live up to expectations? I needn’t have worried… and before we had even finished dinner we immediately booked in again for a couple of nights later. There have been a few changes in the kitchen since the summer but for the month of December, SFP is hosting chefs Eoghan O’Flynn and Jamie Pickle for a month-long residency, with lunch and dinner served from Wednesday-Sunday. There’s a pop-up outdoor kitchen where the chefs will be cooking local food over fire with vegetable-focused small plates and larger fish and meat dishes for sharing. As for 2022, we’ll have to wait and see what’s in store, but knowing Barbara, it’s bound to be good. St Francis Provisions is a class act.
I never made it to Lignum before lockdown so it was high on my list of places to visit this year. I was bowled over by the whole experience. Danny Africano’s food, combining personal influences from his Italian and Irish heritage and the countries where he has worked around the world is truly exciting. And the dining room has to be the most beautiful in the country, surrounded by trees and foliage so that you feel as if you are eating in a forest, with an extraordinary attention to detail evident in every aspect of the decor.
On a beautiful sunny day back in July I had my best lunch of the year at Jess D’Arcy and Killian Durkin’s Mamó in Howth. From the little tartlets of Lough Neagh eel to the signature cod chips and beautiful turbot, this was a meal to remember. One of the things I like best about Mamó is its wine offering: with plenty of bottles you won’t find in other restaurants, and an astute mix of natural and conventional wines, the best thing to do is defer to Jess and let her make all the decisions.
I defy anyone not to have a good time at Big Fan, where they don’t take anything too seriously and where the irreverent take on Chinese food delivers big flavours and an abundance of joy.
I had a few great meals on the wonderful terrace at Hen’s Teeth this year, where standout dishes from chef Killian Walsh included ceviche of sea bream with watermelon, jalapeño, cucumber and dill, and a brilliant take on surf and turf, barbecued free-range pork belly from Ollie Brady in Cavan, spiced with gochujang, with fried octopus and heirloom tomato.
My household was committed to a certain other burger joint for so many years that I thought we were wedded to it for life, but things move on and this year we discovered Dash Burger and its delicious smash burgers. We haven’t looked back.
Back in July, I pitched up at an address in the Liberties to collect what turned out to be some of the best street food I’d ever eaten, from a Caribbean menu including spicy beef Jamaican patties and melting pork belly on a sweet coconut bun. The good news is that Eamon de Freitas is opening a restaurant early next year — no details yet, but give @auntieannesdublin a follow on Instagram and you’ll be in the loop for what he’s calling “a taste of Trinidad in the heart of Dublin”.
In west Cork one wet bank holiday weekend during the summer I queued in the rain for Caitlin Ruth’s legendary brunch — and it was worth it. The American chef sources all her ingredients from the very best local suppliers and appears with her food truck and at pop-ups at various locations in the area year round. Keep an eye on her via Instagram @caitlinruthfood and if you happen to coincide with her do yourself a favour and see what all the fuss is about.
Most restaurants I’ve eaten in this year have been rigorous in enforcing Covid protocols and doing their utmost to make their customers feel safe. But in October I had to walk out of one place (a place I’d been planning to visit for months) mid-meal when the young staff were unable to control a group of customers, while the owner hid in the kitchen. Yes, I paid my bill in full, but I won’t ever be going back there. When a restaurant can’t be bothered to follow the rules that are there to protect everyone, it gets you wondering how great they are at following food safety, hygiene and other protocols.