I FIRST visited Lisdoonvarna in the early ’80s but if you’d subsequently put the place in a police lineup along with the Sahara Desert and New York City, I’d have been none the wiser, barely holding a one-in-three shot at correctly identifying the little town in West Clare — albeit based on the recollections of a teenager, bountifully blessed with all the blind self-absorption of that age.
Come to think of it, even locals probably struggled to recognise their hometown that weekend, swathed as it was in a moving carpet of hair, denim and old army jackets, the chosen uniform of the several thousands who flocked there for the Lisdoonvarna music festival, the same legendary gatherings famously celebrated in the eponymous Christy Moore song.
Anyway, for financial reasons, our interaction with the town itself was scant.
We had won tickets on a radio show and our entire ‘social’ budget went on flagons of cider which we hauled like pack animals, hitching up from Cork; no excess remained for visiting local hostelries.
Neither did we bother with shops, food being a non-essential frippery, back when it was no bother at all to exist on a square meal every third day, when a half-decent gust would lift me over the nearest ditch and when I could still see, without a mirror, my own kneecaps while standing.
I have often since returned, eyes properly open to surroundings, coming to adore West Clare, particularly, the bizarre, blasted and hauntingly beautiful Burren.
This time, we have passed a wonderful weekend at the mighty little Burren Slow Food Festival, a wonderful gathering, and My Heart’s Delight, a pair of progeny, and I, are refuelling for the reluctant road home.
The Roadside Tavern is a good old-fashioned family-run (since 1839) Irish pub, hosting excellent trad sessions and Ireland’s first micro-brewery.
Owned by Peter Curtin and his wife, Birgitta Hederman-Curtin (of Burren Smokehouse renown), local man Kieran O’Halloran — returned after some years away on the global culinary circuit — oversees the food offering, Kieran’s Kitchen.
At first glance, the menu appears little different to myriad others on the Irish tourism circuit, but a quick shufti at a ‘deconstructed’ bacon and cabbage — all fun, little fuss — en route to a party of justly receptive Americans suggests something more considered is afoot.
We plump for a couple of specials: No 2 son’s ritual soup order is rewarded with a sublime winter squash and coconut, sweet, perfectly spiced, glazed chilli caramel for added zing; Winter Squash and Walnut Tart is equally fine, buttery pastry housing homely sweet squash, nutty textures and good fermented home slaw offer bite and contrast.
La Daughter has decent if slightly overcooked cod in a lovely airy batter, along with superb Maris Piper chips.
MHD (foolishly!) refuses cream with steamed fresh local mussels, with garlic, white wine and parsley, further emphasising the saline content of plump little molluscs, especially noticeable after a period of exceptionally dry weather but this stops neither No 2 son nor 1 from necking them like Smarties.
No 2 son also finds room for a homemade burger the size of a small barn, bacon and cheese bulwarking a dense, flavoursome pattie.
The dessert menu also makes for less than riveting reading but the proof really is in the pudding — or the eating of the pudding.
Though I find the fad for ‘ironic’ incorporation of commercial confectionary irksome, a ‘Toblerone’ Cheesecake is better described as an exceptional milk chocolate almond mousse underpinned by biscuit-y base while a delicious Pear and Almond tart sees pastry, edges carmelised to a chewy crisp, sporting notes of dried ginger.
Sedate old English comforter, bread and butter pudding with Crème Anglaise, is reimagined as a big blousy affair, spiked with cherries, mint and apricots rehydrated in orange juice, brilliantly bolshie tastes resolutely avoiding the middle ground, as if a comatose village green brass band was electrocuted into life and took to belting out a Mardi Gras stomper.
This terrific lunch is a good reminder that wheels don’t always require reinvention; what deceptively presented as a rather safe menu sees traditional favourites thoroughly reinvigorated by some fearless invention allied to solid, flavour-filled cooking of excellent local produce.
Could we persuade Christy to tack on another verse to ‘Lisdoonvarna’, this time hymning the praises of Kieran’s Kitchen and the Roadside Tavern?
It is certainly deserved.
€76.55 (excluding tip)
Monday-Friday, 12pm-4pm & 6pm-9pm; Saturday, 12pm-9pm; Sunday, 12pm-8pm
“Considered cooking provides a fresh injection of life for some old favourites”