Think about Irish food. What comes to mind? Maybe an ostensibly-traditional meal built around corned beef; perhaps your mind turns to thoughts of a traditional Irish breakfast: some combination of eggs, sausage, pudding, beans, and tomatoes. In other words, food that's comforting and filling, but not necessarily a cuisine that inspires dedication, obsession, and culinary temples. But the history and current state of Irish food is more complicated than that might suggest. A recent article in Smithsonian examined the sometimes convoluted history of corned beef in Ireland (and among the Irish) noting that pork, rather than beef, was and is a staple of the Irish diet. And in Ireland itself, a number of chefs and food writers are working towards advancing Irish cooking.
In 2010, the New York Times profiled Darina Allen — author of numerous cookbooks, founder of a cooking school, and a proponent of the Slow Food movement — and posited her as a figure occupying a similar echelon to Chez Panisse's Alice Waters. And if you travel throughout Ireland, you'll note several restaurants that have been honored with Michelin stars, arguably the highest level of acclaim in contemporary dining. Some seek to reinvent traditional staples of Irish cooking, while others take a more global approach. Among the commonalities: a deft usage of the Atlantic Ocean's proximity. A quick glance at the food offered by these restaurants offers up a number of appetizing ways to prepare fish and shellfish.
The dinner menu at Dublin's Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, located at the Merrion Hotel, is expansive, encompassing everything from blue lobster to deer poached in mulled wine. And while Irish beef plays a role in one entree (paired with foie gras), seafood occupies a considerable amount of space. The restaurant opened in 1981, and is the only establishment in Ireland to boast two Michelin stars. Writing for the Irish Times, critic Catherine Cleary noted "you can see the restaurant has weathered the years of inconspicuous consumption without dialing down its old school sense of occasion." Those looking to experiment at home can take note that a book encompassing recipes and a history of the restaurant is available.
In Waterford, within the Cliff House Hotel, you’ll find Michelin-starred The House Restaurant, which offers a constantly-changing array of dishes, offered both à la carte and as part of a tasting menu. Here, you might find dishes built around salmon taken from Bantry Bay; beef; or Irish cheese. And the presentation favors a deconstructed approach, with dishes that take on an almost architectural quality. Executive Chef Martijn Kajuiter has been responsible for the food there since 2007; among his initiatives was a co-operative garden to help raise produce for the restaurant.
As the name of Kilkenny’s Campagne suggests, the influence for this acclaimed restaurant is a French one. Campagne, which opened in 2008, has a menu that focuses on meat (including beef, duck, and venison entrees) alongside a dedicated vegetarian one. That vegetarian menu offers some of the more adventurous items to be had there, including a celeriac mousse and a salt-baked beetroot. In addition to its Michelin star, Campagne was awarded Best Restaurant in the 2014 Irish Restaurant Awards.
A relatively recent addition to the Irish restaurant scene is Belfast’s OX, which won Best Newcomer at the Irish Restaurant Awards in 2013. In the Irish Examiner, Pól Ó Conghaile wrote that the restaurant "aims high without getting on a high horse," and noted that several of the aquatic dishes on which he dined came from nearby Strangford Lough. Their menu is seasonal, and the restaurant emphasizes a focus on local ingredients, encompassing everything from the food served to the beer available.
Returning to Dublin: Thornton's Restaurant is another space known for the consistent acclaim received by its food. (It has received a Michelin star each year since 1996.) In a 2010 review for the Independent, critic Paolo Tullio referred to his meal there — which included beef, sea urchin, and foie gras served with truffle powder — as "the very pinnacle of gastronomy." The restaurant’s menu offers both tasting and à la carte options. Dishes offer an impressive cross-section of ingredients, with the names of certain dishes — Comeragh Mountain Lamb, Wild Garlic, Broad Beans; Braised Pig's Cheek with Celeriac Purée and Poitin Sauce — suggesting local ingredients given a bold new context.
Whether it's through the local nature of the ingredients they use or the blend of global techniques with staples of traditional menus, there’s an expansiveness to these restaurants’ menus that impresses. They cause you to think about certain dishes in a new way, they shed a light on facets of Irish food that had previously been obscure, and these restaurants serve as a reminder that certain cuisines have more to offer than one might expect.