THERE’S a brilliant photograph of Ben Bulben in Source Sligo.
Dominating the back wall of the restaurant, it casts the looming mountain — Yeats’s famous “bare Ben Bulben’s head” — as a dramatic backdrop to a simple tractor chugging along the sands.
It also sets the scene for this ambitious venture — a restaurant, wine bar, and cookery school sprawling over three storeys in Sligo town. Determined to source local ingredients, to stay on first-name terms with the person who caught its fish or reared its lamb, Source Sligo is at once a venue, an emporium, a manifesto.
Its menus are full of classic Irish dishes with a contemporary twist.
Scan those menus, and you’ll find Connemara crab, Coopershill venison, Donegal hake. Sligo is no smörgåsbord when it comes to eating out, but this is a statement of intent.
Barely 18 months old, the restaurant feels settled in. Bundle it with some fine country houses and an increasingly sure-footed Só Sligo Festival (May 18-20), and you have the makings of a real gastro-getaway.
I’ve eaten at Source Sligo twice in six months, and been struck by the prices both times. Last winter, for instance, there were pan-fried scallops on the dinner menu for €8. Right now, the most expensive evening main course is a sirloin steak with flatcap mushrooms at €18.50.
Unfortunately, on that first visit, the scallops didn’t hit the required heights. The searing was tangy and moreish, but the arrangements of cucumber noodles, pepper mayo, mashed potato, and bacon accompanying them didn’t quite crack the balance of flavour or sophistication required to showcase their delicacy. They were also a little overcooked. Eight euro, though, was a bold move.
My main course that evening was a duo of local lamb, including some loin cooked sous-vide and a roast rack with flageolet beans, mushroom cream, and fresh sunflower shoots. The presentation was good, but the lamb lacked tenderness and the mushroom mash was a sticky, flavourless mess.
Returning recently for lunch, Source Sligo seemed to have taken a step forward. A smoked mackerel salad was well put together, perking up a flavoursome piece of fish with a sweet chilli dip and a summery raspberry vinaigrette. A plate of bacon and cabbage was yummy comfort food, spilling all over a homemade potato cake. I love seeing old Irish staples like this on new menus.
SB and FC accompanied me for lunch, and both went for the baked Cajun chicken. Both were well-satisfied, too. The chicken came in a bread bowl with chunky chips — which often disappoint with undercooked interiors, but here gave a good balance of crispy skin and fluffy flesh.
Both the mackerel (which came with two slices of bread) and the bacon and cabbage were generous portions for well under a tenner — a good, light lunch option if you happen to be in town. The affable maître d’, Eamon McElroy, also offered to re-heat the bacon when he spotted that I had two starters on the go, which was a nice touch. He’s a friendly presence about the place.
Basking in the glow of that Ben Bulben photograph, the room is peppered with bare wooden tables surrounding a wide-open kitchen. Paper napkins, a row of lightshades that look like wicker baskets, and dinnertime night-lights add to the casual, earthy feel. Several big windows look out onto the street, too, which floods the place with light during the daytime.
Source Sligo’s owners Ray and Eileen Monahan also have a vineyard in the Languedoc, and you’ll see the fruits of it here in house wines priced from €18. I enjoyed a spicy and buttery Terra Monti blend of Syrah and Grenache with my dinnertime lamb, but for lunch we stuck with teas and coffees.
Both times I’ve visited, the place has been buzzing. And don’t neglect dessert — I’d recommend the chocolate brownie, which cracked under my fork, giving way to a lovely moist mix, each bite as filling as a box of chocolates. It left my plate as bare as Ben Bulben’s head.