Athlone: Changing Thymes

Thyme Strand Street, Athlone 090-6478850;

Athlone: Changing Thymes

BACK in the grey days of Irish food — the Age of Angel Delight, as it were — service was governed by a few home truths. Quantity trumped quality, tinned corn constituted salad, and scampi was fancy. It added an exotic twist to many’s the mid-range menu.

It was also brain-bustingly naff. ‘Scampi’ are technically langoustines, cousins of the noble lobster. Rather than take this exciting ingredient and celebrate it, however, we were content to import (and eat) truckloads of frozen shrimp blasted with breadcrumbs and served up in baskets with a scoop of supermarket-quality tartar on the side.

You were chewing prawns, but they might as well have been chewing gum.

Well, times have changed. The scampi on the specials board at Thyme are not processed. They do not come in a basket. They are not even langoustines. They are fingers of freshly-crumbed hake, with a crispy exterior wrapping the woozy white flesh, and a sliver of lemon, homemade mayo and a few zingy leaves flanking them on black slate.

It’s a lovely appetiser — a simple and confident dish whose accompaniments augment the star ingredient without distracting from it. Like another starter that impresses, a slice of Horan’s ham hock terrine with piccalilli and brioche, it also tees up the mains nicely.

John Coffey’s restaurant is one of Athlone’s favourites, and scampi isn’t the only standard he’s dragging into the 21st century. Ten main course options range from sirloin and rib-eye steaks to a pan-roasted Barbary duck breast, ling from Kilmore Quay, and a vegetable charlotte with caponata and cannellini beans (the cheapest dish, at €14.50).

Coffey is a member of Euro-toques, and his list of local suppliers is admirable. It includes lamb from Castlemine Farm in Co Roscommon, vegetables from Beechlawn Organic farm in Ballinasloe, and Ronan Byrne’s Friendly Farmer Chicken from Galway.

Byrne is a passionate young farmer showing exemplary respect for his animals. Coffey takes his excellent raw ingredient and works it into a ‘Friendly Farmer Chicken Plate’ featuring a rich confit thigh, two little beignets stuffed with leg meat, and a sautéed breast presented with moist meat and crispy skin. It’s not sexy, but it is a tasty and thoughtful showcase of some fine local produce. So many restaurants could learn from the template.

Of the other mains, we find a slow-roasted shoulder of lamb to be tender if a tad under-seasoned, and a generous fillet of hake is pan-fried and served in a shallow pottery bowl atop of a vibrant mush of peas and orzo (a short, rice-shaped pasta). The fish, garnished with a zesty dicing of chorizo and piquillo pepper, is pretty flawless, and the accompanying flavours act on it nicely, resulting in a great value a la carte dish at €19.50.

Thyme consists of a single room, with screens creating little pockets of privacy amongst the wooden floors, stone walls and contemporary paintings. It turns a corner on Strand Street, which means two walls are slotted with windows, drawing light into a comfortably appointed space enjoyed by local couples, families, colleagues and visitors like us.

Service is causal and friendly, coeliac options are strong, there are both children’s and value menus, and a small drinks list offers a decent selection of wines, craft beers, cocktails and liquors. Despite all this, however, several niggles temper the impression.

Firstly, the children’s burger is a disappointing patty and bun, with no fillings. I know that many kids discard pickles, lettuce and the like, but I’d prefer if that decision were left to the parents. Secondly, the side portions of chips were universally dry and forgettable. Making chips moreish is not that hard to do (most of ours lay untouched). Finally, I felt the tone of the décor and facilities dropped beyond the dining room.

A few quick fixes, and the grey days will be gone for good.

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