Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Foodie Road Trip (Northwest/West of Ireland): Part II

TUESDAY: Sligo town and a mad one in Galway

Beautiful Sligo by blogger/photographer

On to day three and we couldn’t believe it was time to leave Inishowen already. And seeing as we had a bit of a journey ahead of us, we prepared a hearty breakfast of scrambled free range eggs (fresh from Wexford Lad’s farm), with some generous slabs of Jack McCarthy’s black pudding (as in McCarthy’s of Kanturk, Co Cork, naturally) and thick toasted white batch with butter. Not the healthiest start to the day but sure start as you mean to go on.

With the car loaded up, we said goodbye to Dunree and Inishowen and headed south for Co Sligo. From here our plan was quite loose, so it wasn’t until somewhere between Ballyshannon and Bundoran that we reached the decision to stop in Sligo town – primarily to pay a visit to a friend of Clonakilty Lass who owns a little café called Grappa in the town centre, but also to have a bit of snoop about for whatever else looked good. After around two and a half hours or so on the road, we pulled up by the Garavogue River and sauntered down Rockwood Parade towards the café.

Hargadon's traditional pub and restaurant in Sligo
After a coffee and a gossip in Grappa – a sweet little café that's very attentive to the needs of coeliacs, just FYI –we looked for a suitable spot to luncheon. (Ed note: We went to Conrad's kitchen which is now shut down, but a terrific spot if you're in the area is Source, a wine bar cum bistro cum cookery school offering an exceptional experience in locally sourced seasonal food and intelligently selected wines. Another is Hargadon's gastropub (and wine shop with their own South of France vineyard), a traditional pub/restaurant that offers hearty home cooking the like of which you'll be looking for on a trip like this, and where they know how to serve a pint.)

Overstaying our meter by a mere 20 minutes, thankfully sans clamp, we set off on our way once again towards Galway. With the addition of a quick pit-stop at Galway Girl’s family farm for some tea and fig rolls, it was approximately a further hour and a half before we were glamming ourselves up for the night ahead in Galway city – make-upping and preening within the confines of our bunks in our en suite dorm in Barnacles hostel (the only show in town for hostel accommodation, in my not very humble opinion).

Obligatory olde bike outside 'hip' Ard Bia
Heading out for dinner, I was curious to see how Bar No.8 was doing since the departure of Jess Murphy (now ensconced in her own restaurant, Kai), however the inclement weather and inappropriate footware I’d brought prompted me to point our group towards the slightly closer Ard Bia. Finding them in their new(ish) abode at the Spanish Arch, we bundled into the small entrance way and discovered the restaurant to be quite packed for a Tuesday night (always a good sign). After a short wait we were shown to a table in the back close to the kitchen. For some reason it took a ridic amount of time to be given menus or, more annoyingly, to make eye contact with the woman hustling busily to and fro past our table without as much as a nod in our direction.

Eventually though, the menus were delivered (and a bottle of prosecco ordered before they hit the table cloth), and we were back on track. On account of our impromptu feed in Conrad Gallagher’s bistro earlier – and the big breakfast before that…. and tea and biscuits afterward – we decided we’d split a mezze plate for starters. Three very tasty versions of hummus, including a beetroot one, and a delicious lamb sheek kebab, served with some lovely fresh salady bits and some decent pitta, went down a treat. For the mains, the three chefs couldn’t resist the offer of ray wing on special, so all three went for it: beautifully fried and served with crab butter, albino beetroot, and pak choi. We also scoffed the local Killary mussels with great chunks of chorizo and a hot and spicy (we suspected harissa) broth. This was actually a starter but the kitchen very obligingly made it into a main size portion and furnished some crusty bread for mopping up the tasty sauce. All dishes were well appreciated by our discerning palates, and yet again we found ourselves in receipt of good value for money. On the prosecco (which was decent) and a bottle of delectable Paddy Borthwick Paper Road Pinot Noir we scarcely spent €60, while the food over-delivered at the lower end of mid-range prices.

From there we headed out into the night, and what happened in Galway stays in Galway! Suffice to tell you it happened in the Quay Street vicinity, involving pubs including The Kings Head, The Quays, and The Front Door. Enough said.

Galway (most fun town outside Dublin). Pic from An Taisce
WDENESDAY: Galway again, Athlone and the journey to Viewmount House, Longford

Thanks to a prior arrangement to meet a friend for coffee in the morning, we got ourselves and our hangovers up at a ludicrously early our and hit the road before 9.30am. Painful it was but we were glad in the end. The early start cleared the heads in advance of brunch so that sensible decisions could be made about where to eat. Since über-talented New Zealander Jess Murphy had just opened Kai, it really would have been inexcusable to have missed it during our short visit to Galway – especially in favour of going for hangover grub at some unspeakable outlet, such as the kind that pours liquid cheese on your chips.

Thankfully, with our heads clear(er than they had been), we made our way to Sea Road to find her new eatery. Given that we were more than half an hour early for lunch, we tucked ourselves into a quaint but stylish banquet and ordered some of her bespoke herbal tea (a calming chamomile number with lavender and other ingredients) and a delicious buttery home-baked apricot scone with freshly made seasonal fruit jams (strawberry and vanilla and damson berry). The server (Jess’ husband) was relaxed, friendly and totally obliging, in spite of the fact that we’d tarnished the cool bohemian atmosphere of the place with copious trashy magazines, from which we read aloud causing maniacal giggling and other hideous noises – such was our frame of mind. They didn’t seem to mind at all, there was nothing but friendliness. Then finally, our wait paid off, and the lunch options for the day were written up on the board. At this point we noticed the small room was starting to fill up, the anticipation building as we looked on with delight at the menu being revealed.

Example of beautiful simple food at Kai
Everything was in season and local as possible: a beetroot and miso soup; a colourful peperonata with organic leaves and edible flowers on toasted ciabatta; a fragrant salad of roasted broccoli and organic leaves with feta and caramelised hazel nuts; some Ortiz tuna in a coriander mayonnaise on toasted bread; and a gooey moreish cheddar and bacon quiche with light but satisfying pastry. It may sound simple on paper, and perhaps it is all quite simple, but to achieve simplicity this beautiful requires skill and artistry. To achieve simplicity this delicious requires that very rare talent bestowed on only a handful of chefs. Once again, we ate food that over-delivered on the price we paid.

You won’t find a current menu on their website, because Kai doesn’t roll that way (what with everything being so local and seasonal it changes every day) However, you will find a sample of the fabness to be found there, as well as other important details like how to find them... I can’t stress enough though that Kai is a special place worth finding.

On to Athlone...

So, after another magical encounter of the foodie kind, we got back in the car and decided to head to Salthill for a walk and an ice cream. Sadly, however, the weather had taken a turn for the worse, so we changed our course for Athlone, partly thinking of conditions improving as we headed east, and partly thinking of finding somewhere to hang out and enjoy ourselves some more.

The Left Bank Bistro in Athlone provided the very thing. I’d not been in since 2009, when I reviewed it as part of a piece for Food & Wine on places to visit over Easter – it has just the right kind of comfy vibe that makes you want to hang out and indulge a bit. Perfect for long weekends (or Sundays when you’re just in that kind of mood), and I was happy to find that the place was the same as the last time I’d visited. We parked ourselves in the café-like front of the bistro and – you’ve guessed it – ordered a few glasses of wine for the girls (who still hadn’t shared any of the driving with our long suffering friend Wexford Lad). As we sipped and chatted, we glanced nonchalantly over the menu. We never did get those ice creams in Salthill so it wouldn’t hurt to sample a little something, surely? It would have been rude not to!

The chicken wings stared temptingly at us from the lunch menu, as did creamy ham and mushroom pasta. I remembered the heartiness of a beef and Guinness stew I’d eaten on my last visit and imagined how good those chicken wings and/or creamy pasta would be right at that moment. However, I did cop on in time to realise that this would have been pure gluttony and, much worse than that, would possibly ruin our appetites for the main event at VM in Longford later on. So instead we contented ourselves by perusing the home-baked cakes and confections perched on the counter, settling on a piece of light but rich lemon Madeira cake with a lemon curd filling, and another of coffee mocha Madeira cake with coffee butter icing. Each piece was gargantuan and served with fresh whipped cream (both under a fiver) and we demolished them quickly declaring the lemon as the winner. It’s hard to beat lemon curd, in fairness. Then we hung out for what seemed like another hour at least, chatting and relaxing without a care, or the need to order anything more.

Finally, though, we had reached the last leg of the journey – the one I was dying for – so into the car we got and away to Longford and Viewmount House for the ultimate and most grand feast of the lot.

The car rolled through the open country roads at pace, Lady Gaga blasting from the ipod – me singing atrociously in between giving wrong directions – and all of us now too excited to read any more stories about how bad Cheryl Cole’s hair was at the US X Factor launch (which was very, very bad, FYI). Finally, after three days of touring and eating and drinking, we arrived at the gates of Viewmount House, relieved to have made it after brains and google maps had sent us wrong – and I being a Dubliner couldn’t orientate myself when not travelling in a straight line from Dublin.

I had ventured up to VM once before in 2009, having heard some buzz about the place soon after it had opened. It’s only an hour or so from Dublin (which may surprise those not aware) and I had been impressed by the keen cookery and use of excellent local, seasonal produce. This time I was excited to see how things had progressed. As we got out of the car, I immediately spied chef Gary O’Hanlon coming from the garden on his way back to the kitchen to begin dinner service. Maybe it was his Donegal lilt as he gave us a big cheery welcome, or maybe it was the basket of fresh herbs and chive flowers in his hand, but as we entered the house we felt like we were going to feel right at home here. We also got the feeling we were in for something special.

...the remainder of the VM review is covered in its own blog post (as it was quite epic). See Part III to find out about what is clearly one of the best restaurants in Ireland.


  1. Great story here! I love Kai.
    Jess is great and I wish her the best of luck with her new venture.
    Bar 8 is still not a bad place to stop for nibbles though :0)
    And I had the same feeling about the staff at Ard Bia. I felt that we got ok value for money on the food/drinks but they could have been a little nicer ...that's all.

    1. Hi Mona- sorry I'm only seeing this comment now! (I confess my blog has been criminally neglected for a long time...which I'm only now addressing). A few people have agreed about that, unfortunately, which is a shame for an otherwise great place. Thanks for reading the post and the update on 8 §:)

  2. Other places in Galway worthy of mention that we did not visit include: Oscar's seafood bistro (, Kappa Ya (, Asian Tea House (, Cava (, and the very beautiful Aniar ( where ex-Noma chef Enda McEvoy creates stunning dishes from locally grown, wild and foraged foods.