Paola Bassanese is a freelance author and writer specialising in food, lifestyle and entertainment.
Irish Food Has Changed
If you ask the average person about Irish food, the answer is probably going to be something about Irish stew or coddle. However, the Irish food scene has evolved over the years—a fresh generation of chefs has injected new life into the cuisine by using the best, freshest ingredients available.
Meal 1: The Vintage Kitchen, Dublin
In the world of Instagram food hashtags, The Vintage Kitchen has taken a different approach, and its only social media presence is on Twitter. I approve, as Twitter is an excellent platform to gain exposure and have real-time conversations with clients, although I believe having a presence on Instagram, too, would make a real difference. Having said that, it’s already impossible to find a table at The Vintage Kitchen without prior booking.
I was really lucky when I went for the first time: I popped in the restaurant after The Tara Building grabbed my attention. The Vintage Kitchen is a few doors down the road the famously colourful co-working space on the corner of Tara Street and Poolbeg Street. As I was happily Instagramming away, taking pictures of Mullingan’s pub, featured in James Joyce’s The Dubliners (also on the same street), I saw a hive of activity in a deceivingly small restaurant.
From the outside, The Vintage Kitchen looks like just your average small cafe or bistro; when you walk inside, you see clusters of small tables using all the space available, with mismatched vintage chairs and a homely, yet modern, atmosphere. The kitchen is in full view, with the chefs working at a lightning-fast pace to ensure lunch service is efficient without unnecessary waiting.
I had the “privilege” of sitting next to the toilet (the perks of not booking in advance), the only table that was free at the time. I went in at the tail end of lunch service so some diners had started going back to their offices or meetings. The advantage of getting that table is that you see the chefs in action.
What I Ate
I loved my duck liver pate (creme) with lime jelly and pistachio crumbs, which came with excellent brown bread and apple chutney. The taste was intense and the texture very satisfying.
For mains, I ordered the mussels with orzo pasta in a spicy broth enriched with garlic and white wine topped with smoked salmon and baby kale, accompanied with thick and almost chocolatey Guinness bread. Once again, the flavours worked really well together and the broth really brought everything together, with a hint of tomato. It was almost like a deconstructed seafood chowder, but lighter. The Vintage Kitchen also has its own signature seafood chowder in the small plates menu, but I didn’t try it that day.
The menu has been designed carefully to combine ingredients using creativity and paying particular attention to flavour combinations. You can choose from small plates, large plates and desserts. The menu shows which dishes have certain ingredients people may be allergic to, such as gluten or nuts, so you can pick your dish accordingly. You can’t ask to add or remove an ingredient, I was told: You eat what is brought to you, so choose carefully.
If you want to order wine, it’s bring-your-own with a small corkage charge per bottle. These guys are super-busy because the place is always buzzing. Long may that continue, because they work hard and they deserve it.
Meal 2: The Green Barn at Burtown House, Athy, County Kildare
When it comes with lunch with a view, you can’t beat (beet?) The Green Barn at Burtown House: You basically see your lunch growing in front of you. In other words: The restaurant faces its own allotment, lush with fresh organic vegetables lovingly grown by the farmers at Burtown House. They grow all types of vegetables, and their rainbow Swiss chard even takes pride of place on each table as an ornamental plant, thanks to its gorgeous pink hues.
I went early before lunch service started, so I went for a walk around the vegetable garden first and admired the vigorous plants, from peas to cabbages, and I spotted some asparagus, too. They were not in season, unfortunately, as I was there in September.
I did a bit of research and found the spring version of the brunch menu, which featured a lovely breakfast dish featuring asparagus, poached eggs, toasted sourdough bread, Hollandaise sauce and cured ham. I would have loved to try it—I guess I will need to be back in the spring.
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What I Ate
For lunch, I had the hake with vegetables, salad and potatoes flavoured with garlic and rosemary. Cooking fish is an art and the hake was cooked perfectly: nice and crispy outside, flaky and tender inside, and beautifully seasoned with a spoonful of freshly made pesto. The flavours of all the vegetables complemented the fish really well, with subtle but earthy tones.
For dessert, I chose the coffee and walnut cake, plus more coffee (of the liquid variety).
I had a look at the rest of the menu and I couldn’t help but notice the noodles dish, which reminded me of a meal I cooked myself the previous evening using ingredients such as kale and walnuts.
I had a good view of the kitchen at The Green Barn, too, minus the view of the toilet, which was a bonus. It seems that my table, number three, has the best light for Instagram pictures. You have the kitchen on your right as you face the garden, which you can admire from the floor-to-ceiling windows. I noticed a great synergy between kitchen and front of house, with good camaraderie and organisation.
Because each meal is cooked from scratch, patience is key, although to be fair I didn’t have to wait long for my lunch. By the time I had started eating, the place was packed with a vociferous group of French cyclists who had almost taken over the whole restaurant. It’s always better to book in advance instead of chancing it like I normally do, but I was passing by and thankfully I got the timing right.
This is a fabulous family business with a great eye for interior design and inventive cooking.
Meal 3: Aqua Restaurant, Howth, Dublin
Jump on the DART train, and within 30 minutes from Dublin you are in Howth. If you walk around town, you can’t help but notice the huge billboards advertising Aqua Restaurant and, thankfully, the restaurant was worth the hype.
I read that you almost feel like you are on a cruise ship when you dine at Aqua, and now I understand why: With uninterrupted views of the sea, if you look at the currents you feel you are sailing through the waves instead of sitting still.
The website recommends to book in advance and I am glad I did because everybody wants a table with sea views. Thankfully, I chose the earliest slot for lunch service at 12.30pm to get the best chance of having lunch looking out to the sea.
I chose the lunch set menu, which is good value for money, and I selected the seafood chowder to start and the pan-fried hake for mains.
What I Ate
The chowder was creamy and satisfying with a fragrant note from chopped dill. The chowder could be a whole meal in itself, and I was already feeling quite full after eating it, but I can always find space for more food.
Service was very attentive, because within a couple of minutes from finishing my starter I was asked if they could bring the main, which arrived another few minutes later, perfectly cooked. The hake was gorgeous with a lovely crispy finish and flaky flesh. In my mind I was imagining how the chef cooked it (no view of the kitchen this time): I was picturing a tilted cast iron pan over the fire, to allow the melted butter to gather and then use that liquid gold to baste the fish.
The dish was served with mashed potato, a nest of crispy deep fried green onions which was excellent, as it added crunch and texture, and a delightful oil and herbs dressing reminiscent of a light pesto. The vegetables on the side were just plain boiled baby potatoes, carrot batons and broccoli.
I would have liked some fresh greens or maybe just presenting the vegetables in a fancier way. Then again, the fish was the star of the show and it didn’t need any distracting from the side dishes. However, I would have preferred something like a celeriac mash instead of potato mash, and possibly some rock samphire for garnish. I did like the pea shoots garnish, so I am being picky.
This is a place where it’s best to dress to impress and you only have two hours to enjoy your meal so no romantic lingering dinners spanning several hours, although I did wonder how many marriage proposals took place there, as it’s the perfect location for it.
I am writing this during the so-called “seafood week”, a social media hashtag to celebrate the best seafood. All these restaurants have delivered beyond my expectations, and I couldn’t have found a better way to sample what Ireland has to offer.
I paid for all my meals and all opinions are my own.
Irish Food on the Map
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