Given my family's pride in its heritage, you'd think that I'd have grown up stuffed with Irish food. But except for the corned beef and cabbage trotted out for Saint Paddy's Day, our domestic bill of fare was basically Main Street U.S.A.
When I made my first trip to Ireland 17 years ago, I found out why there wasn't much in the way of Irish food at my family's table: there wasn't much in the way of Irish food in Ireland. Sure, Ireland had the basics--good things like smoked salmon, lovely butter and nutty brown soda bread--yet the cooking had no spark, no inspiration.
Today, Ireland is a changed place. Nicknamed the Celtic Tiger, it has one of Europe's strongest economies (growing at a rate of more than 6 percent a year) and a serious food scene. There's lots of buzz about Dublin, with its hip hotels and hopping nightlife, but the real culinary news is in the rural southwest, which until now has been known less for its food than for the Blarney Stone and the Ring of Kerry, a beautiful (albeit tourist trampled) route with ooh-aah vistas. Perhaps the region has become a gastronomic center because it's blessed with ideal growing conditions, thanks to the gentle Gulf Stream-tempered climate and the merciful rain that seems to fall briefly every day. Or perhaps it's because, as a local pundit told me, "Ah, what do you expect? There's the County Cork influence down there, and those Cork people are a clever, driven lot."
On a recent trip, I headed into the countryside of southwestern Ireland, along hedgerow-bordered roads that twisted like snakes fleeing the wrath of Saint Patrick himself, to visit three of Ireland's finest restaurants. Each told a different part of the country's culinary coming-of-age story.
A Castle and Black Pudding with Foie Gras
I'm always suspicious when I approach a Merchant-Ivory place like Dromoland Castle in Newmarket-on-Fergus. (It's a short drive from Shannon Airport, a major gateway to Ireland.) When I saw the sweeping green lawns, the stately trees, the glistening lake and the weathered stone turrets of this early-19th-century castle, I was afraid that everything inside would be stuffy.
I worried anew in the Earl of Thomond dining room, where the waiters wore swallowtail coats and a begowned woman plucked a harp and sang Irish ballads. (My impulse is to throttle anyone singing "Danny Boy," though I have to admit that her lilting rendition softened my cynic's heart.) Happily, the only thing stuffy about this place is the furniture--and that's as it should be.
Chef David McCann's food reflects Dromoland's personality. "My experience and training is all classical," he says, "but that's just the foundation for what I do." A prime example of his innovative approach is his black pudding (a sausage made with pork, pork blood, grains and spices) set on a buttermilk pancake and topped with pan-seared foie gras and glazed apple. I could hear my doctor whispering, "Don't go there." But God hates a coward--and what a dish! With the tart apple and the almost neutral pancake acting as intermediaries, the strong flavors of the black pudding and the foie gras came together beautifully.
What followed was an equally skillful combination: fillet of fresh sole on scallions and leeks, enriched by a light cream sauce and garnished with crab tortellini. The brown-bread soufflé on the dessert list seemed like a reach, but as it turned out, the little nuggets of bread added a wonderful chewy texture to the fluffy soufflé. I can't imagine not ordering it the next time I'm at Dromoland Castle.
McCann's position at Dromoland is his first as executive chef anywhere, although he worked at the legendary Connaught hotel in London for years. His predecessor at Dromoland set high standards by winning a Michelin star for the place. That McCann has not been awarded a star yet says more about Michelin than it does about his delightful cooking.
(Newmarket-on-Fergus, County Clare; 011-353-61-368144; fax 011-353-61-363355.)
A Manor House and Lamb with Couscous
The drive to Sheen Falls Lodge in Kenmare lifts you up through the mountains, then drops you down to the sea. (If you've ever been tempted by thoughts of vehicular suicide, the twisty, narrow Route N71 could be your road of choice.) You really don't see Sheen Falls until you're almost on top of it: the tree-shaded manor house sits next to white-water falls that tumble into a tidal estuary.
The manor, constructed on the site of an old hunting lodge, is essentially new, with a contemporary, clean look. The restaurant, La Cascade, is just as tasteful in appearance, though it does have one shiny ornament: a Michelin star, earned by Fergus Moore, the chef.
Moore changes the menu daily according to what's best at the market. He uses sauces sparingly--"on the side," he says, "as sort of a garnish"--and emphasizes simple preparations. It's the kind of freewheeling cooking, astonishing in the depth of flavor it delivers, that we might call California cuisine. But it's firmly tied to Irish ingredients.
This depth of flavor was remarkable in my main course of chunky spring lamb noisettes, which stood in a circle, like ancient Druid stones, around a timbale of olive-flecked couscous moistened with a subtle garlic jus. I'd started with house-smoked salmon on a mound of fried eggplant, and I'd finished with a luscious passion-fruit soufflé, which diverted me from the cheese course I had lusted after.
Moore firmly believes in the future of Irish cooking, and he actively recruits Irish staff for his kitchen. "I want to make sure that my countrymen see what's possible at home," he says.
(Kenmare, County Kerry; 011-353-64-41600 or 800-221-1074; fax 011-353-64-41386.)
A Chalet, a Peacock and Tempura
All I knew about Shiro was that it's Japanese and has a Michelin star. The restaurant is obscure, even in Ireland; most maps don't show anything on the jagged little peninsula it's on, including the town it's in, Ahakista.
I imagined a cottage on the sea with an austere Zen interior--The Quiet Man goes Kyoto. What I found was a hilltop Brothers Grimm chalet guarded by a peacock. Kei and Werner Pilz (she's Japanese, he's German) opened Shiro several years ago after moving from Berlin with their two boys. "We wanted a small place so we'd have something to do," Kei explains. "I could get very fresh food here." The couple set up two tables in their parlor. "We never expected this."
By "this" she means solid bookings year-round, with summer tables reserved 12 months in advance. At one point in the early Nineties, a guest said, "You must be thrilled to have a Michelin star."
"What did this mean, a Michelin star? We had heard nothing!" Werner recalls. "We were sure it was a joke." It took them six months to get their hands on a MichelinGuide and confirm that the information was true.
The recognition is deserved. Werner, dressed in an indigo happi coat, waits on the tables. Kei does the cooking. (There's no staff, just the two of them.) The menu, which changes weekly, begins with zensai, appetizers that might include deep-fried shiitakes or an oceany mix of squid and sea-urchin roe. The main courses are sushi, sashimi, beef teriyaki and tempura. I opted for the tempura. Kei has devised a batter using chopped rice noodles, which make the crisp prawns look like hedgehogs on a bad hair day. But they are perfect.
"We couldn't have done Shiro anywhere but in Ireland," says Kei. If corned beef and cabbage represent the his- tory of Irish cooking, Kei's ingredient-driven cuisine must epitomize its future.
(Ahakista, County Cork; 011-353-27-67030; fax 011-353-27-67206.)
MALACHY DUFFY, an editor at Bloomberg Personal Finance, writes about food and wine and eats Irish cheeses whenever he can.