2014 brought lots of great moments, many of which were, I realise now as I look at my Instagram feed, connected with food. There was lots of travel (Scotland, France and Jersey) and lots of coffees, and brunch was a more regular event than it perhaps should have been. Turkish eggs were an addition, with sourdough toast and chili and lots of garlicky yoghurt, best served at Bibi’s, on Emorville Avenue. A blender, ice cream maker and slow cooker all arrived in our kitchen, along with a proper mortar and pestle, and I received some wonderful new cookbooks. Lots of new cafés opened in Dublin, and I found a number of new foods to love: Gubbeen cheese, aged Gouda, Toonsbridge mozzarella, miso soup, wheatberries, gyoza, and Skellig’s mint chocolate brittle, to name just a few. There was the continuing delight of a lovely food shop in Ballinteer and an Aeropress and a Saturday market nearby.
There was a good summer and many different beers and lots of meals with friends. There were trips to Lahinch, Dingle and the Causeway Coast and my first pint – or half-pint – of Guinness in a seaside pub. There were many walks in Sandymount and Monkstown (one of my favourite places in Dublin for its lovely opalescent light), and falafel wraps and fresh juice in Dun Laoghaire. There was a cookery break in Cloughjordan and an article in Cara. There was a blog award nomination There were cocktails in the Liquor Rooms at Halloween and Chorca Dhuibhne winter ale on the street in Dingle at New Year. There were lots of magazines, and more Jamie Oliver than I should really admit. There was lots of food and lots of fun. It was a really good year.
1. Stockbridge, Edinburgh
In particular, there was Peter’s Yard Bakery for soup and bread and Italian meringues, and Tom Kitchin’s ‘Scran & Scallie’ restaurant, which was the warmest, liveliest, cosiest restaurant I’ve ever been to, and particularly so on a cold January night when all we wanted was pints and stew, and Scottish flavours and a table not too close to the door. Stockbridge is definitely worth a detour to for food if you’re in the city, as there’s a lot of very charming cafés and restaurants, many of which are very inviting but not too pricy.
As a longtime Masterchef UK fan I was chuffed to spot the curly-haired man himself checking in on the restaurant, looking friendly, low key and happy to chat, although I couldn’t quite bring myself to approach him as I was afraid of what I’d hear myself saying. [Years ago I was left equally star-struck and round-eyed when I saw Joe Bastianach from Masterchef US in a Chelsea Market cupcake café]
Side note: Jersey, which has the makings of a solid food scene for 2015, with its fresh crab, local wine, fun restaurant scene, and its lusciously thick famous milk and cream. Two of the best options for food on the island: Crab Shack (serving giant, steaming bowls of crab linguine, with cones of pale yellow Jersey ice cream for afterwards) and El Tico Beach Cantina, for a cool Portuguese-flavoured brunch in stunning beach-side surroundings (I have a bit of a thing for beach cafés).
2. Eggs – The Fumbally Café, Dublin 8
We eventually decided to visit in September, and I fell in love with it instantly. I loved the big, bright, beautiful room; I loved the huge bowls of fruit and the bags of flour stacked up at the side of the room (like a Church of Ireland harvest service), but, what I loved most of all was the food, for it is really very, very good. Although the falafel salad plate is great, what you really need is their Green Eggs and Ham, which means garlicky scrambled eggs with tomato, torn basil, melted Gubbeen cheese and cubes of ham, and it’s exactly as good as it sounds.
3. Toasties + Turkish Eggs – Bibi’s, Emorville Avenue, Dublin 8.
Speaking of Gubbeen, and brunch, and Dublin 8, Bibi’s is another very important addition to this list – Maisha’s Gubbeen cheese and chorizo toastie is the ultimate in Sunday treats; the coffees are great and the Turkish Eggs are the best you’ll find in the Dublin 8 region, (which, in an era when the country’s most sought-after rental properties are on the South Circular Road, is really saying something).
Having worked there very briefly over the summer, I can tell you that all of the ingredients used in the café are absolutely top-notch: there’s Gubbeen chorizo, bacon and cheese in the fridge; handmade tarts and bakes cooling in the pantry, and an open, lively and highly eclectic kitchen right in the middle of the café. There’s a big bright room with cookbooks to read. There’s earthenware that’s so beautiful that a twenty-something male engineer of my acquaintance commented on how nice it was. Except he called it crockery rather than earthenware, which was fair enough.
4. Fish – Ouzo’s Fish Shack on Dun Laoghaire Pier
One of the most picturesque and genuinely convincing pop-ups of the year, Ouzo’s Fish Shack brought a lot of excitement to Dun Laoghaire pier for a couple of months. The chips were good, the scampi was great, and the atmosphere around the shack was fantastic. Very clever – I hope it returns this summer.
One taste of their Dingle Sea Salt flavour and you’ll understand what I’m getting at. Super creamy, tempting Irish-themed flavours, and pretty much perfect with a piping hot Americano. Heaven.
6. Food to linger over – Avoca Salt, Monkstown
I had several very memorable meals here this year, all of which were excellent, unhurried and very food-focused. Alongside the Poulet Bonne Femme stand (you have to try their sandwiches), the James Whelan butchers and the Avoca coffee counter, the sit-down part of this venture, Salt is surely one of the most carefully considered and beautifully executed suburban restaurants in Dublin. There’s white wooden furniture, good service, a slightly American feel, and a great seasonal menu.
Salt is particularly fun for lunch, as there’s a real buzz around, and lots of different ‘types’ to gape at in daylight. Salads are excellent (Salt was the first place I tried Toonsbridge mozzarella, which was one of my favourite food finds of the year) and the sharing plates are great.
Make a morning of it: walk the West Pier, have a browse in Monkstown’s lovely shops, and then repair rapidly into Salt at noon, before the tables are full and the elbows come out.
7. Lunchtime boards; convivial atmosphere – Ard Bia, Nimmo’s Pier, Galway
The eclectic mix of people at Ard Bia at lunch time is sort of Galway City writ large, but with the artsy, literary and commercial types (all Irish Times readers, of course, but of different sorts), the American tourists, the babies, the Dublin expats and the Galwegian ladies-who-lunch all piled into tables around the cosy nooks of this tiny, old wood-panelled café.
Combine the calibre of the customers with the gregarious waitresses, the candles and the risk of the fire alarm going off at any given moment (in a good way!), and it quickly becomes clear that lunch at Ard Bia is never, ever dull. Add the fantastic menu with its Middle Eastern flavours and Irish influences, and a well-placed sideboard of candlelit treats, and you can see why Ard Bia is generally rammed. However, despite its liveliness, it’s a curiously calming experience: you leave feeling relaxed and well fed, like you’ve received a rather modern and eclectic form of what can only be described as hospitality.
Last time I was there I had the ‘Berlin breakfast’ board which included a soft boiled egg, cold meats, cheeses and pickles, and my mum had a vegetarian platter with Baba Ghanoush and cumin-infused hummus. Both dishes were excellent. If you’re in Galway, a visit to Ard Bia is pretty much non-negotiable. Go early. Go often.
8. Friday night food and drinks – Dillinger’s, Ranelagh, Co. Dublin
I haven’t been there in a while, but Dillinger’s does a great patter in Friday-night-drinks-with-snacks-and-friends. Their delicious shards of pork crackling are no longer on the menu (too crunchy, too loud, too ugly?), but they now offer the much more ladylike (and equally delicious) Jalapeño Cheese Poppers instead, which are essentially spicy, cheesy cauliflower croquettes. They’re unsurprisingly delicious with a cold bottle of Brooklyn lager or a whiskey sour.
9. Harry’s in Portstewart, Co. Derry
My childhood summer haunt and favourite place in Ireland, Portstewart Strand has always had many delights to offer. It has a wide beach with big waves, sand dunes, great views, horse riders, cars on the beach, surfers and washed-up, rare-looking jellyfish. It now also has a cosy, wood-panelled café in an old National Trust building, Harry’s Shack, which has strings of fairy lights, a stove and a very local, seasonal, Northern Irish flavour, with smoked mackerel, homegrown produce, fresh fish from Greencastle, and a locally roasted coffee blend all on the menu.
Harry’s Shack is under the same ownership as the Harry’s on the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal, which was Catherine Cleary’s restaurant of the year. The café in Portstewart was also recently named as John & Sally McKenna’s top restaurant for 2014, and I love their review of it, as it completely captures how I felt about the café too:
The experience of eating in Harry’s Shack, on the beach in Portstewart, is so startling that we wrote our response in caps in our notebook: TACTILITY. And we added: “They have gotten the tactility – the feel, the vibe – of the venture just right”.
A page or so later we added: “What they have gotten so right is the texture of the place – gritty; sandy, rugged; kick-off-your-shoes-casual – Normandy meets Martha’s Vineyard”.
The Martha’s Vineyard we are thinking of is the old MV, a place of beach culture without a Gwyneth Paltrow in sight. And here on the beach at pretty, comfortable Portstewart, a few miles up the coast from Coleraine, Donal Doherty and his chef, Derek Creagh, have given everyone what everyone wanted: stonking food in a room that might have been washed up on the dunes by the tides.
Harry’s Shack takes casual into another orbit. There are old school chairs. The design is up-cycled from cast-offs. The chances of getting a splinter in your hand or leg from the furniture looks pretty high. There is no finesse here, everything has been left to ruggedness, save for the elegance of the cooking, and the cooking is supremely elegant, shown in everything we ate, from a walled garden harvest salad with whipped St. Tola goat’s cheese, through a superlative whole sole with lemon-parsley brown butter, brown shrimp, cured cucumber, capers and cauliflower, then a lemon curd with redcurrant and elderflower granola.
We had lunch here when it had just opened, back in September, and we were very impressed by the whole outfit. We were back first thing the next day too, to warm up with hot scones and coffee after a walk on the beach (Ryan had been in the sea, so he was probably colder than I was). It was just as lovely the second time around, if not more so, as it was totally empty and completely calm for a little while, with just the waves and walkers outside for company. Very much worth a trip up North; go before it gets ridiculously busy again this summer.
Honourable mentions: the new Airfield café (not perfect but very, very impressive, and a fair replacement for their lovely old tearoom, which looked out over the old walled gardens. They now serve empanadas rather than scones and pots of tea, and there’s fleet of rather business-like aproned waiters milling around, but there’s still lots of light and floral colour about, so give it a go). The Big Grill – a lot of fun, and a good addition to the summer festival calendar. Lemon – no longer trendy, but still great quality, very popular and the staff go above and beyond to be friendly and helpful. 777 – a fun, funky place for brunch when you don’t feel like eggs Benedict and smoked salmon scrambled eggs. Kinara Kitchen – excellent at the Big Grill, and even better in Ranelagh, where we ate like rather greedy kings. Although we were seated at a noisy table, we were totally blown away by the flavours and tastes and meat skewers. The Pakistani spicing is similar to Indian, but with subtler, faintly sweet Persian undertones. Delicious, and a great option for a lively birthday dinner or a gathering of friends.
Not so good in 2014: The Greenery on Lennox Street, the food at The Black Sheep, Sister Sadie (good in theory, but let down by quite general reports of strange service and underseasoned soup)
Still on my list for 2015: Slice in Stoneybatter (and Stoneybatter generally), The Woollen Mills, Ballymaloe House, West Cork, Harry’s in Inishowen, Donegal, the new Fallon & Byrne looking out over the People’s Park in Dun Laoghaire, Kerry, Shells Café in Sligo, Etto (my brother and his girlfriend were there recently and had mussels with ‘nduja, fregola sarda – a Sardinian cous cous-like pasta – and a clementine panna cotta, all of which sounds beyond good), Pizza e Porchetta, and, finally, Luncheonette in NCAD, which jumped to the top of my list in December, after I tasted Jennie Moran’s fantastic food at an event she catered at the college.
Some of my favourite blog posts from the year: