WESTPORT is one of those towns that everyone in Ireland has visited, and if they haven’t they are probably planning on doing so (and if this isn’t the case then they should get onto it right away).
On a recent break in the ultra-rural wilds of Achill Island myself and the Engineer (both townies) decided we would get a quick fix of the urban side of Co Mayo.
I confess this was mainly for my benefit — herself was less enthused having visited Westport a number of times such is its iconic status within planning and engineering circles.
Westport feels different from almost every town in Ireland; it seems more rooted in its landscape, it seems older, it feels liveable.
This is not by accident, money has been spent, ugly telecom and electrical cables are underground, shop fronts are not heaving with plastic, pedestrians are encouraged.
In particular the Quay just outside the town has been developed beautifully with a large plaza that encourages visitors.
The Quay is also where you will find Westport House which was teeming with happy children on or brief drive through. Just at the entrance is The Idle Wall restaurant run by Newport-born chef Áine Maguire.
Maguire has worked all over including places like Chapter One but is best known for her work in the Winding Stair when it was at its most iconic. Maguire understands the word iconic and understands how the past needs to be interpreted by the present, how the past needs to be acknowledged and reinvented without losing its essential truths.
The name of the restaurant comes from the quay wall outside the restaurant where dockers would while away the hours in the hope of picking up work from the boats arriving into Westport’s once thriving harbour.
Some boats still land here bringing mackerel, clams, and oysters to the door of Maguire’s restaurant.
Care is taken throughout the menu to specify exactly where the ingredients originate.
The fat juicy wild mussels for my starter course were picked on the shore at Kilmeena between Westport and Newport, the oysters are grown 100m from the restaurant, almost everything is local or from Co Galway (the organic leaves and Friendly Farmer Chicken), even the beer is made by the local vet.
An important nod to the past was ‘Quay Cottage Circa 1985 Smoked Salmon and Cream Cheese Balls’, a reference to one of the most popular dishes in the Quay restaurant that occupied the building in the past — a restaurant, Maguire told us, in which she had both her 18th and 21st-birthday celebrations.
They were outstandingly good, golfball-sized golden breaded orbs, melting and delicious.
For my main I chose the signature of surf and turf where melt-in-the-mouth slow-cooked Westport lamb shoulder is served with plump prayer clams from Clew Bay.
These large ridged local clams were new to me and their sweet meaty flavour and firm texture easily matched the lamb in an unexpected but somehow familiar way — they were born to be together.
Some other things to mention — turf-smoked butter and excellent bread, sweet fresh North Mayo crab, Posh Fish Pie (probably the best fish pie I’ve tasted, my apologies to the Engineer), delicate supple Cuinneog Buttermlike Panna Cotta and throwback mashed turnip (yes, just like your mammy made you eat).
A bottle of Petit Paul Colombard/Ugni Blanc was the bargain bottle on the wine list at just €24, chosen for its freshness on a muggy day and it served its purpose well.
There are more interesting wines on the list which seemed to be mostly sourced from the excellent Wines Direct in Mullingar and from Westport-based importer Liam Cabot.
This is a rare thing, a modern Irish restaurant using old techniques and ingredients grown and sourced as they were a hundred years ago but cooked with modern knowledge and with flair and verve.
I’ll be back in the autumn for the cluasíns (little ears) a kind of scallop which grows on the rocks around the bay under sponges and can only be picked after a spring tide. In fact I might be back sooner as I wanted to order everything on the menu.
Dinner for two including three starters, two mains, two desserts, and a bottle of wine — €122.70 (excluding tip)
Tuesday to Saturday: 5.30pm-10pm
Sunday 5pm-9pm (summer only)
Early bird menu served 5pm and 6.30pm
In a sentence: This is a traditional Irish restaurant serving locally sourced traditional Irish food but it is so, so, much more than this — visit soon and be charmed.
The Idle Wall, The Quay, Westport, Co Mayo.
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