The Menu's annual food awards

Joe McNamee has travelled the country reviewing restaurants for his Weekend column. Here, he pays tribute to the very best in his annual food awards

Joe McNamee at the Crawford Gallery Cafe, Cork, one of his top destinations. Picture: David Keane

THIS is not a definitive guide or a ‘best of’, simply random examples of fine Irish hospitality establishments this writer has happened upon in the last 12 months or so. It would be nice to think the preceding sentence will be sufficient to stay the inevitable brickbats that always seem to follow publication of this list but that is never the case, so, once more, with feeling, please, don’t take any omission as a professional slight: this is simply a personal and entirely random recollection of belly-bustin’ gustatory pleasures that have added yet another notch to the belt over the last year. Given more time and more space, it could easily have been twice as long.

When this annual review began five years ago, the country was in the eye of the recessionary storm but it appears the hospitality industry at least has come through the worst of it. The money tap is flowing once more and investment in high-end hospitality ventures is evident all around the country, not just in Dublin. (Over the last decade, Dublin, in dining terms, has become a state within a state, its large population and massive share of the tourist market enabled a food sector that has long outstripped the rest of the country to the point where comparisons are increasingly redundant.)

While it is wonderful to see a renewed flush in the cheeks, there are still many issues to be tackled to ensure the continued prosperity of Irish cuisine. The chef shortage is serious with 4,000 new chefs needed each year until 2020 to meet current demands. Dysfunctions in the current educational system that is producing chefs do little to alleviate this particular problem and must be addressed. (It is a real irony that the academic calendar year in the ITs ends almost simultaneously with the ‘hungry gap’, that period between the end of last year’s stored harvest and the arrival proper of summer’s bounty, meaning young trainee chefs in Ireland are missing the opportunity to work with the very best of our local produce in season.) While some may dismiss my debating the problems of the restaurant sector as the caviling of an overly corpulent sybarite fretting over his next plate of foie gras, it is worth noting that a thriving hospitality sector benefits the nation in multiple ways. It is essential to the tourist experience, another hugely important contributor to the national purse. It also provides an outlet and platform for the small specialty producers who make up an integral part of the overall Irish food sector, providing jobs and innovation and bolstering our reputation abroad as the ‘Food Island’.

Creative and influential chefs play an essential part in continuing to deliver our sorely needed ongoing food education, most especially those who promote the use of finest local, seasonal Irish produce, which is best for our nutritional health, personal pleasure and the wellbeing of the planet.

If it’s hospitality problems you’re after, we could be here all night, which is only further testament to the admirable gumption of those who choose to make it a career or business, for it is grinding work with hard-earned rewards. Finally, this writer would like to especially celebrate those chefs who don’t see the delivery of a food offering solely in terms of margins and balance sheets, instead pursuing their ongoing experimentation at the furthest fringes of culinary creativity. They may give their accountants the occasional nightmare but they are also making Ireland one of the finest places in the world to eat. You’ll find many of them in the list below!

Coffee

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When this annual series first began, it was initially concerned with identifying venues where you might find a decent brew but the Irish coffee revolution is now being equally driven by the explosion in homegrown roasters, many of them delivering world class coffee beans. Co Cork alone has, in recent times, added two more brilliant new roasters — West Cork Coffee Co and Red Strand Coffee — to the portfolio, to join Golden Bean, Badger & Dodo and Cork Coffee Roasters. Seek them out in these fine coffee shops below.

Soma Coffee Company, Tuckey St, Cork (facebook.com/SomaCoffeeCompany); Doppio, College Road, The Lough, Cork (facebook.com/DoppioCork); Canteen Limerick, 26 Catherine St, Limerick (www.wearecanteen.com); Filter, 19 George’s Quay, Cork (facebook/F-I-L-T-E-R); Cork Coffee Roasters, Bridge St, Cork (www.corkcoffee.com); Alchemy, 123, Barrack St, Cork (facebook.com/Alchemy-Cork).

Sandwich

The sandwich remains the nation’s favourite snack or even meal, though the days of pappy, industrial white sliced pan appear to be gone forever as the discerning punter seeks out quality ‘real bread’ to match the increasingly innovative ‘fillings’ within. Some, such as House Café do so much more than just sandwiches and then some take it a step further still, baking their own bread in-house, with Ali’s Kitchen producing some of the finest sourdoughs to be found in the city.

Sonny’s Deli, 3 Albert Rd, Marina Terrace, Cork (facebook.com/SonnysDeli); Joe’s & Bros, 22 Gilabbey St, Cork (facebook.com/JoesAndBros); Green Bench Café, 18 Montague St, Dublin 2 (greenbenchcafe.com); Ali’s Kitchen, Rory Gallagher Plaza, Paul St, Cork (aliskitchencork.com); The Sandwich Stall, English Market, 39, Grand Parade, Cork; House Café at Cork Opera House, Emmet Place (facebook.com/HouseCafeatCorkOperaHouse).

Burger

The burger has come a long way in this country, most especially, if you’re one of those convinced there still remains a healthy scraping of grease on the roof of your mouth, a leftover from post-Munster final chip van batterburgers in the 80s. Back then, even the notion of Liberty Grill’s Moroccan Spiced Lamb Burger with Feta Cheese, Pomegranate & Mint, let alone the opportunity to eat such a creation, would have entirely dissolved the national cerebral cortex!

Son of a Bun, 28 MacCurtain St, Cork (sonofabun.ie); West Cork Burger Company, 6 Washington St, Cork (westcorkburgercompany.com); Bunsen Burger, Dublin & Cork (4, French Church St, Cork/bunsen.ie); Liberty Grill, 32 Washington St, Cork (libertygrill.ie); Gourmet Burger Bistro, 8 Bridge Street, Cork (gourmetburgerbistro.ie); Coqbull, Cork & Limerick. (5, French Church St, Cork/ www.coqbull.com).

Fish & Chips

Here it is, invariably, the most controversial of all categories, boasting the most lethal potential to divide friends and families. So with the motor running, false moustache and plane ticket to Brazil in the bag, here’s my selection:

Harrington’s, Strand St, Dingle (facebook.com/HarringtonsFishandChips); Lennox’s, 137 Bandon Rd, Cork (facebook.com/JackieLennoxChipShop); The Fish Wife, 45A MacCurtain St, Cork (facebook.com/thefishwifecork); The Golden Fry, Ballinlough Rd, Cork (facebook.com/GoldenFryCork); Kettle of Fish, Cross St, Galway & The Square, Gort, Co Galway (facebook.com/KettleofFish); Genoa Takeaway, 30 Grattan Square, Dungarvan, Co Waterford (facebook.com/Genoas).

Take-Away Street Food

God forbid the State should do anything other than attempt to hinder one of the best opportunities for creative young chefs to strut their stuff with a minimal outlay on overheads but, despite often ignorant and bullying policing of the sector, it continues to yield some very exceptionally fine, fun and funky foodstuffs. What’s more, many eventually end up swapping their temporary homes for more substantial bricks and mortar outlets, gradually moving up the hospitality chain, which is precisely what has happened to Rocket Man and My Goodness, the latter recently taking a premises in Cork’s English Market. And then you have The Big Blue Bus, a beautiful old Roadmaster bus, the class of ‘venue’ you wouldn’t ever trade, even for the Taj Mahal!

The Big Blue Bus @ The Bernard Shaw, Festivals all over Ireland & 11-12 Richmond Street, Dublin (thebigbluebusireland.wordpress.com); Emye Vegetarian Ethiopian Food, various farmers markets (facebook.com/EmyeVegetarianFood); Mike Barret’s Lobster Roll, Midleton Farmers Market; Rocket Man, Farmers Markets & 38 Princes St, Cork (rocketman.ie); My Goodness. Farmers Markets & The English Market, Cork (facebook.com/MyGoodnessFood); The Food Depot Gourmet Street Kitchen (fooddepotireland.com).

Bar Food and Pub Grub

Glow with the flow #Christmas #LovingTheLights #Crosshaven

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Though the term ‘gastropub’ remains anathema to those reared solely on gallons of black porter and the occasional bag of Tayto, there is no denying, a pub that chooses these days NOT to serve food will have to work very hard indeed to survive. Rachel Burr, Michelin Guide editor for Britain and Ireland, suggested a few years ago that the best path to a star in this country was through pubs doing just this and has remained true to her word with the recent stellar recognition of The Wild Honey Inn.

Wild Honey Inn, Kincora Road, Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare (wildhoneyinn.com); Ashe’s Bar, Restaurant & Accommodation, Main St, Dingle (ashesbar.ie); The Purple Heather, Henry St, Kenmare (thepurpleheatherkenmare.com); Toddie’s at the Bulman, Summercove, Kinsale, Co Cork (thebulman.ie); Cronin’s, 1 Point Road, Crosshaven, Co Cork (croninspub.com); Blair’s Inn, Cloghroe, Blarney, Co Cork (blairsinn.ie).

Café Culture

#Bantry #westcork #happyplace #Organico

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While the Parisian existentialists were content with coffee and Gauloises, in days of yore, an Irish ‘café’ was an establishment that as well as offering morning coffees and afternoon teas, also provided ‘dinner’ in the middle of the day. Of course, you can still get your ‘dinner’ in all of the places listed below but you can also make do with a small snack or even while away an hour or two over nothing more than a cuppa and a slice of ‘cutty’ cake, providing seating isn’t at a premium. And most of all, whether you’re a Parisian existentialist or a Cork-Mother-of-Seven, you can sit back and luxuriate in the rarified art of prolonged conversation.

Organico, 3 Glengarriff Road, Bantry, Co Cork (organico.ie); Café at Stephen Pearce Pottery, Shanagarry, Co Cork (facebook.com/TheCafeatStephenPearcePottery); Crawford Gallery Café, Emmet Place, Cork (crawfordartgallery.ie/Cafe.html); GIY Café and Food Education Centre, GROW HQ, Farronshoneen, Dunmore Road, Waterford. (giy.ie); Farmgate Café, English Market, Cork (farmgate.ie); Idaho Café, Caroline St, Cork (idahocafe.ie).

Casual Dining

‘Casual Dining’ has been a buzz-phrase in the sector for quite some time, a new style of food delivery that has been very much putting it up to the formerly dominant silver service fine dining model. Here we define it as

good, even excellent, food served in exceedingly relaxed, fun and funky surroundings.

Shells Café, Strandhill, Co Sligo (shellscafe.com); Diva Boutique Bakery & Café, Ballinspittle, Co Cork (divaboutiquebakery.com); Toonsbridge Cafe, Toonsbridge Macroom, Co Cork (facebook.com/ToonsBridgeDairy); Elbow Lane Elbow Lane Brew and Smokehouse, 4 Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork (elbowlane.ie); Knox, 32 O’Connell Street, Sligo (knoxsligo.ie/contact-us); The Winding Stair, 40 Lower Ormond Quay, Dublin 1 (winding-stair.com).

Wine Experience

At work. Waiting for the Australian wine tasting #cheers 🍷

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Ireland’s ever increasing infatuation with wine is nothing new. In 1740, while 1,000 tons of wine went from Bordeaux to England, 4,000 tons went to Ireland, wine historian Ted Murphy dubbing it the ‘Guinness of its day’.

The rise of popularity of organic and natural wines, led by the evangelical purchasing of wine importers Le Caveau and Mary Pawle Wines, is drawing in a whole new breed of young quaffer.

Some venues listed below are dedicated entirely to wine with nibbles in the supporting role, others, particularly Bastion, are restaurants with exceptional lists and then a place like the little Spanish ‘cubbyhole’, Feed Your Senses, is included for a small but original (self-imported) list and for providing a cracking, if tiny, venue in which to raise a glass!

The Black Pig, 66, Lower O’Connell St, Kinsale, Co Cork (facebook.com/theblackpigwinebar); L’Atitude 51 Wine Café, 1 Union Quay, Cork (latitude51.ie); Green Man Wines, 3, Terenure Road North, Dublin 6 (greenmanwines.ie);

Feed your Senses - Alimenta tus Sentidos, 27 Washington St West, Cork (facebook.com/FeedYourSenses); Bastion, Junction of Market St & Main St, Kinsale, Co Cork (bastionkinsale.com); Knockranny House Hotel, Castlebar Road, Westport, Co Mayo (knockrannyhousehotel.ie).

Ethnic

Some night.

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If you were to put together all the ‘ethnic’ restaurants in the country, you’d still struggle to compete with the sheer breadth and range available in Dublin, but with Cork boasting two of the country’s finest such chefs, Gautham Iyer and Takashi Miyazaki, all is far from lost. La Cucina, in Limerick, may be owned and operated by a second-generation Italian and his Irish wife but the offering is entirely authentic (and better than a lot of the offerings I’ve come across in Italy itself!). The food offering in Iberian Way is largely based on good imported charcuterie and cheeses supplemented with a decent wine list, but their inclusion is a nod to the very sizeable Spanish population in Cork, which is beginning to add their own flavours to the ‘national pot’.

Iberian Way, 72 Douglas St, Cork (facebook.com/IberianWay); La Cucina Centro, Henry St, Limerick (lacucina.ie); Iyer’s Café, 38 Pope’s Quay, Cork (facebook.com/iyerscafe); Miyazaki, 1A Evergreen St, Cork (facebook.com/miyazakicork); Pickle, 43 Camden Street, Dublin 2 (picklerestaurant.com); M & L Szechuan Chinese Restaurant, 13/14 Cathedral St, Dublin 1 (mlchineserestaurant.com).

First Date/Romantic Restaurant

There’s nothing like the rearing of a clatter of feral young childers to render it nigh impossible to recall when a body might have had a requirement for a ‘romantic’ restaurant, not to mind one suitable for a first date but, in those rare moments of respite, an overworked parental imagination tends to go into overdrive, pulling out all the stops and demanding nothing less than the very stars themselves — or, failing that, a bank busting, once-in-a-lifetime blowout to the likes of Inismeáin Suite or Ballyfin Demesne. The ever classic Tannery is a great buzzing spot to recall a time when you were in the first flush of love’s pre-child raising bloom while Gregan’s has the additional attractions of the Burren to supplement its myriad charms.

The Tannery, 10 Quay St, Abbeyside, Dungarvan, Co Waterford (tannery.ie0; Inismeáin Restaurant & Suites, Inismeáin Island, Co Galway (inismeain.com); Ballyfin Desmesne, Ballyfin, County Laois, Ireland (ballyfin.com); Longueville House, Killarney Road, Mallow, Co Cork (longueville.ie); Gregan’s Castle, Corkscrew Hill, Ballyvaughan, Co Clare (gregans.ie); Fleming’s Restaurant, Tivoli, Cork (flemingsrestaurant.ie).

Family Friendly Restaurant

#templebar #dublin #ireland #badasscafe #streetphotography #cafe

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Some, such as Scoozi’s and the Bad Ass Café, specifically target the family market; others, such as The White Horse, offer thoughtful children’s menus and then you have those venues that welcome the entire family with little or no ‘segregation’ on the menu — it is no coincidence that the respective proprietors of both 12 Tables and the Puffin Café are also parents of young children.

Puffin Café, Long Strand, Castlefreke-Warren, Clonakilty, Co Cork (thepuffincafe.com); 12 Tables, Tramway House, Douglas, Cork (12tables.ie); Scoozis, 2-5 Winthrop Lane, Cork (scoozis.ie); Bad Ass Café, 9-11 Crown Alley, Temple Bar, Dublin 2 (badasscafedublin.com); The White Horse, West Village, Ballincollig, Co Cork (whitehorse.ie); The Castle Café, Blackrock Castle, Castle Road, Cork (thecastlecafe.ie).

Party Restaurant

Getting in the festive spirit! #christmas #festive #bar #restaurant

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It gives me great joy, nowadays, to continually encounter groups of young ’uns, barely passed legal voting age, partying it up at the dinner table rather than heading straight to the boozer. No doubt, they get to the industrial scale imbibing later in the night, long after I’m in bed, but it nonetheless warms the cockles to see food play a greater part in festivities. All below are very warm and welcoming places to kick off the Jimmy Choos and cut a tabletop rug alongside the salt cellar.

Jacques Restaurant, 23 Oliver Plunkett St, Cork (jacquesrestaurant.ie); Rachel’s, 28 Washington St, Cork (rachels.ie); Ard Bia@Nimmo’s, Spanish Arch, Long Walk, Galway (ardbia.com); Isaacs, 48 MacCurtain St, Cork (facebook.com/Isaacs-Restaurant-Cork); Cornstore, 40A, Cornmarket St, Cork (cornstorecork.com); Electric, 41 South Mall, Cork (electriccork.com).

Irish Bistro Cooking

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‘Irish bistro’ is a phrase I use to describe a certain type of restaurant that could just as easily fit into the ‘casual dining’ section but is marked out by a special commitment to using the very finest local, seasonal Irish produce and will often alter menus at the drop of a hat for the arrival of an especially attractive new ingredient. Needless to say, the standard of cooking is invariably top notch, the better to illuminate the qualities of ingredients.

Star Anise, Bridge St, Cork (www.staranise.ie); The Chart House, The Mall, Dingle, Co. Kerry (thecharthousedingle.com); Kai Café & Restaurant, 20 Sea Road, Galway (kaicaferestaurant.com); The Square Table, 5 The Square, Blarney (thesquaretable.ie); Good Things@Dillon’s Corner, 68 Bridge St, Marsh, Skibbereen, Co Cork (thegoodthingscafe.com); Bay Tree Bistro, 16 Merchants Quay, Waterford (thebaytreebistro.com).

Seafood

To all those who spurn Irish seafood, claiming it is ‘never as good as it was on holidays’ in France/Spain/Italy, please remember there is every chance that splendid seafood dish abroad featured Irish fish or shellfish as the rest of Europe recognises that we produce world class raw materials from the ocean and imports accordingly. More and more restaurants, especially on the Irish coast, are making this maritime bounty the centerpiece of menus and Fáilte Ireland have worked hard behind the scenes to pair producers with restaurants to increase the quality of the offering and the results are on the plate. The wonderful chef, Caitlin Ruth, of Deasy’s, changes menus daily depending on what arrives in basket or creel while the superb Eithna’s offers traditional dishes with contemporary twists. Oscar’s might well be included alone for chef/proprietor Michael O’Meara’s magnificent cookbook, Irish Sea Gastronomy.

Fishy Fishy, Kinsale, Crowley’s Quay, Co Cork (fishyfishy.ie); Eithna’s By The Sea, Mullaghmore, Co Sligo (eithnasrestaurant.com); Fish Shop, 6 Queen St, Arran Quay, Dublin (fish-shop.ie); Deasy’s Harbour Bar & Seafood Restaurant, Ring Village, Clonakilty, Co Cork (facebook.com/Deasys-Harbour-Bar-Seafood-Restaurant); Jacks’ Coastguard Restaurant, Cromane, Co Kerry (jackscromane.com); Oscar’s Seafood Bistro, Dominick Street, Galway City (oscarsseafoodbistro.com).

The Gourmand’s Choice

To review restaurants professionally entails a never-ending pursuit of the ‘next big thing’ and familiar old, favourites can become neglected.

Recently re-visited Café Paradiso and The Ivory Tower are still at the top of their game, recalling a time when their arrival, in the early ’90s, reinvented Cork’s then-status as the capital of Irish cooking and threw down a gauntlet to the rest of the country.

The others on this list are four of the very best restaurants in the country, their chef/proprietors, true alchemists of flavour and innovation, forever questing for new and highly creative ways of delivering superb Irish produce.

Sage Restaurant, The Courtyard, Main St, Midleton, Co Cork (sagerestaurant.ie); The Ivory Tower, First Floor, The Exchange Buildings, 35 Princes St, Centre, Cork (ivorytower.ie); Café Paradiso, 16 Lancaster Quay, Cork (cafeparadiso.ie); Loam, Geata Na Cathrach, Fairgreen Rd, Galway (loamgalway.com); Pilgrim’s, 6 South Square, Townlands, Rosscarbery, Co Cork (pilgrims.ie); Idas, John St, Dingle, Co Kerry (facebook.com/idasrestaurant).



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