Monday, 22 February 2016

Review: Aniar Cookery School, Dominick Street, Galway

It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of the food in Aniar, the first and one of only two Galway restaurants to hold a Michelin star. I can still remember the first time that I dined there and I recall with sparkling clarity the tastes and textures of each dish that I ate that night. Aside from being delicious, what impressed me so much about the food was its sense of identity and its connection to the land and countryside that it came from. The cooking in Aniar unashamedly celebrates all that is great about Irish food and this it does in a modern and exciting way which I found intoxicating. I especially love the inclusive philosophy of the restaurant and the fact that whilst the food ticks all the fine-dining boxes it does so without being elitist or pretentious.
JP McMahon
Restaurateur and self-taught chef JP McMahon runs Aniar alongside his wife Drigín Gaffey. In addition to Aniar they also own two other successful restaurants in Galway - Cava and Eat Gastropub. One senses that JP is a man who doesn't like to stand still because, in addition to the pressures of running three busy restaurants, he was also responsible for bringing Food on the Edge - an international food symposium - to Galway in October 2015. Many of the world’s top chefs were in attendance and key issues regarding the future of food and the restaurant industry were discussed over the two days of the conference. Quite astonishingly, JP still manages to find time to work on his PhD in Art History and fit in media and journalism commitments. Not content with all that, he also runs a boutique cookery school in Aniar, personally delivering most of the courses himself.
Beef, Onion, Mushroom, Beer
The cookery school offers a range of courses including Breadmaking, Gastropub Classics, Tapas and Planning a Dinner Party amongst many others. Classes are held in the kitchen at Aniar and as result most of them take place on Sundays or Monday evenings when the restaurant is closed. The courses are understandably popular and get booked up quickly. However, prospective students can sign up through the restaurant’s website to receive email notifications when new courses come on stream.
I was keen to do the Understanding Food course which takes place each Monday evening over a 6 week period. After putting my name on the waiting list, I was delighted to finally start the course a couple of months ago. Classes are small and limited to six students so you really have the chance to improve your cookery skills and learn loads from JP.
Pork, Apricot
Being familiar with restaurant kitchens, I know that many of them can be small and cramped and whilst the kitchen in Aniar is compact there was still plenty of space for us all to get stuck in and do a lot of hands-on cooking. All ingredients and equipment are provided and the atmosphere is laid-back but focused at the same time as there is a lot to get through.
Each week of the course has its own theme which means that you can really explore each topic in detail trying out a number of recipes and different cooking techniques. Subjects covered include Bread, Beef, Pork, Fish and Poultry with the final week covering Vegetables and Desserts. On our first night we were each given a lovely Aniar apron which we wore with pride for the duration of the course. Detailed notes containing all the evening’s recipes are given to all participants at the beginning of every class. After the 6 weeks we each received a comprehensive booklet containing all the notes and recipes bound together.
Chicken Skin, Oyster Emulsion
Each weekly class begins in a relaxed manner just before 7pm with a cup of tea/coffee in the dining room during which time JP informally outlines the evening’s activities. Moving into the kitchen proceedings kick off with a demonstration where ingredients including all meat and vegetables are prepped. JP guided us through all aspects of the cooking and food preparation and with his calm and reassuring manner even the most inexperienced of us felt imbued with a confidence.
Lamb, Celeriac
The first of the classes dealt with Breadmaking and it is fair to say that we all threw ourselves into it with great enthusiasm, kneading and punching our bread dough as if we were boxers trying to win a title fight. During the course of the night we made a vast array of yeasted breads including a standard white loaf, foccacia, bread sticks as well as sourdough and soda bread. We also found the time to make a soft cheese and homemade butter which we flavoured with dillisk, a seaweed which is commonplace off the Irish coast.
Pork week was  a particular favourite of mine and I loved all the food that we cooked especially the dish using the pig’s head. On that evening, I was tasked with picking the meat from the head out of which we later made little breadcrumbed croquettes which we deep-fried until they were a lovely golden colour with a crispy texture. The croquettes were absolutely delicious and tasted wonderful with the accompanying beetroot purée and thyme gel that we had also made. I also loved the Pork Belly that we cooked and thought that the Pork Loin, Serrano Ham & Apricot dish with its punchy Spanish flavours was heavenly.
Mackerel, Trout Caviar
I really enjoyed all the subjects we covered but probably gained most from the Fish week as, like a lot of people, it is something that I am reticent to cook at home fearing that I will overcook it to the point that it is inedible. JP showed us how fish is really the ultimate in fast food being easy to prepare and quick to cook. Since completing the course in Aniar, I find that I am cooking fish much more regularly and that I am really enjoying experimenting with using it in different ways.  During the Fish week we also cooked scallops, shellfish and prepared a dish using a live lobster.
There were so many stand-out dishes over the six weeks that it is hard to single out one as my favourite. If pushed I think that I would have to choose the Egg Yolk and Turnip dish that we made in the final week. Not only was it beautiful to look at it but it really demonstrated how the simplest of ingredients could be elevated to a fine-dining standard. I also loved the Scallop & Artichoke dish that we made during Fish week and I thought that the Beetroot Parfait dessert was one of the most unusual but delicious things that I have ever eaten.
Cod, Chorizo, Barley
Each class ended in a convivial manner at around 10pm when we sat down together with a glass of wine and sampled the food that we had cooked. Many of the dishes that we made during the classes were variations of those that are served in Aniar, Cava and Eat Gastropub. Others we adapted as we cooked them to incorporate and use the ingredients that were available to us on each particular evening. At this point I should mention that participants are urged to bring a container in order to carry home samples of the food that they cook and this I would definitely advise doing as there are loads of leftovers and everything is so delicious.
I gained so much from the Understanding Food course. As a fairly competent home cook I particularly enjoyed the creative aspects of the course and was fascinated at seeing a top chef at work. I was genuinely sad when the course came to an end because I had enjoyed every single minute of it.
Further information on all the cookery courses run in Aniar is available from:
51 Lower Dominick Street
Telephone: 091-535947
This article first appeared in
Carrot Cake

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Review: Afternoon Tea in Carton House, Maynooth, County Kildare

Carton House takes pride of place at the centre of 1,100 acre fully-walled country parkland estate in Maynooth, County Kildare which also tips over the county border into Meath. Conveniently located within easy reach of the capital city, Carton was originally owned by the FitzGerald family who were part of Strongbow’s invasion into Ireland. The estate has a fascinating history and has seen many changes during its 800 years.

In 1739, Earl FitzGerald commissioned Richard Castles - one of the pre-eminent architects of the day to design and build Carton House. Castles was also responsible for building many of the great Irish houses including Westport House, Powerscourt House and Leinster House which is now home to the Dáil (Irish Parliament).
Carton House
Over the years Carton has welcomed many famous guests including Queen Victoria and Prince Rainier & Princess Grace. Early in the 21st century, the house and estate were re-developed into a modern hotel complex with grounds containing two golf courses. Guests now have the opportunity to experience the unrivalled opulence and luxury of Carton House for themselves.
I have wanted to try the afternoon tea in Carton House for quite a while and was delighted to get the opportunity recently. As I drove through the grounds along the driveway in the approach up to Carton House, I stopped a couple of times to take in the estate’s beautifully maintained grounds. The house itself is stunning and literally takes your breath away when it comes into view. Having built up an appetite, I was really looking forward to my afternoon tea and having the chance to sit down and relax in the hotel’s elegant surroundings.
Tiered Stand
Afternoon tea is served daily from 12.30pm to 5.00pm in the original kitchen and Steward’s Room of the house. This magnificent high ceilinged kitchen retains many of its original features and is a lovely spot from where to enjoy afternoon tea. Old cast-iron teapots sit happily on the large stove and the overall feeling is evocative of a bygone era. Expansive couches provide comfortable seating and the afternoon tea is served on tiered stands at the low but nicely positioned tables.
The afternoon tea menu includes a good selection of loose leaf teas which are supplied by Suki Teas, a boutique master tea blender from Belfast who only use ethically-sourced, Fairtrade teas. The teas are flavoursome with bold, assertive notes and there is something to suit most tastes. If you like you can also order a glass of Champagne or a cocktail to enjoy with your afternoon tea. As I was driving this was a pleasure I had to forego but on this occasion I was more than happy with just my tea.
Green Tea Luponde
Although usually of fan of assam teas, I decided to ring the changes and go for the Green Tea Luponde which is sourced from the Livingstone Mountains in Tanzania. A single estate, hand-picked tea, this was fresh on the palate with a lovely crisp finish. It was a particularly successful pairing with the savoury elements of the afternoon tea.
By way of contrast, Finbarr, my guest for the day decided to go for the Earl Grey Blue Flower tea which, with its floral notes had a delicate and sophisticated flavour. The defining characteristic of Earl Grey teas is provided by the addition of bergamot, usually by the use of essential oils which can sometimes overpower the gentle flavour of the leaf but I thought this was a wonderfully balanced offering. Both teas were served in individual teapots with strainers provided on the side.
Selection of sandwiches
I love the moment during an afternoon tea when the tiered cake-stand is delivered to the table and how, in the moments immediately after you try to visually absorb all the treats that are being served. It is this moment which brings out a certain child-like glee from deep within me and is why I don’t think I could ever tire of taking afternoon tea.
Here the cake stand had three layers; one for the sandwiches, one for the scones and preserves and one for the cakes and pastries. Everything looked mouth-wateringly good and we couldn’t wait to tuck in.
The tempting selection of sandwiches included an Open Prawn Cocktail on Rye Bread and a Smoked Salmon & Chive Cream Cheese Roulade which were both generously filled and delicious to eat. Similarly, the Turkey, Cranberry & Stuffing had been well-made and included a crowd-pleasing filling of succulent turkey and a flavoursome herb stuffing served between thin slices of white bread.
Tomato, Basil & Cherry Tomato Brioche
Next up was a sandwich containing Honey Baked Irish Ham on Wholegrain Bread. I have eaten many disappointing ham sandwiches in my life but this one was truly great, packed full of delicious, tender meat. I loved the flavour of the ham and could detect the subtle hint of the cloves which had obviously been used to prepare it.
All the sandwiches were fabulous but my favourite was definitely the Tomato, Basil and Cherry Tomato Brioche. Although it looked like a simple bread roll filled with cheese and tomato, every element was outstanding. The mini-brioche roll was superbly made with a delicate crumb that accentuated the flavour of the ingredients that were used to fill it.
We then moved on to the cakes and pastries which were beautiful to look at. At their simplest, macarons contain only three ingredients but they can be tricky to get right. Both the Lemon and Raspberry Macarons were flawless in their execution and with their intensely fruity flavours were heavenly to eat. The Sticky Ginger Cake was exactly as described… sticky and full of complex spicing which included cinnamon, a hint of nutmeg and the aforementioned ginger.
Santiago Cake is an almond confection which originally hails from Spain. Here hazelnuts had been included along with the almonds and in my opinion, the cake was all the better for it, delivering an intriguing flavour profile. Beautifully light, the cake was topped with a with a 5 Spice Cream which made it seem even more indulgent. The Choux Pastry with Chocolate & Orange Ganache was rich with a lovely citrus kick due to the inclusion of orange-flavoured liqueur in the ganache.
Santiago Cake
After a brief hiatus during which our teas were replenished we concluded our leisurely afternoon tea with the Selection of Scones served with Raspberry Jam & Clotted Cream. The mini, bite-sized scones were full of plump dried fruit including sultanas and dried cranberries which I thought was a nice variation on a classic scone. Sweet with a lovely short texture we loaded them with the clotted cream and raspberry jam and slowly savoured every mouthful, not wanting our idyllic afternoon tea to come to an end.
At €24.50 per person (Monday to Friday) and €29.50 (on Saturdays and Sundays) I think that the afternoon tea is well-priced. I loved the relaxed ambiance in Carton House and would have no hesitation in recommending the afternoon tea as the whole experience was wonderful. The food was well-presented and delicious to eat. Service was friendly, attentive and delivered in a professional manner. This was an afternoon tea to remember.
Carton House
County Kildare
Telephone: 01-6517782

Monday, 15 February 2016

Restaurant Review: Bang Restaurant, Merrion Row, Dublin 2

I have passed by Bang Restaurant numerous times but have never actually dined there. Determined to address this situation, I booked a table for an early evening dinner there a couple of weeks ago.

Conveniently located just off St. Stephen’s Green on Merrion Row, Bang opens for lunch and dinner and is one of the city’s most popular restaurants with a loyal clientele many of whom work in the many offices and business nearby. The restaurant is deceptively spacious encompassing a mezzanine area, a downstairs dining room and a separate large ‘events’ space where corporate bookings can be facilitated. Decorated in neutral tones, Bang has a comfortable, contemporary feel. I loved the jazz music playing softly in the background which added to the relaxed atmosphere in the restaurant on the night that I visited.

Once seated at our table in the mezzanine area of the restaurant, we considered the different dining options. Three menus are available including Pre-Theatre/Early Evening and A La Carte menus. A 5-course tasting menu is also offered and was the one that we decided to go for. I’m a huge fan of tasting menus despite the fact that there may be limited choice, if any, for each ‘course’. I like that you get to sample a range of dishes as this gives you a greater insight into what the food is really like. Tasting menus tend to contain dishes which the chef has deliberately chosen to showcase his or her cooking talent and as such are often experimental. In practical terms this means that some of the food that you eat may be truly excellent but that also there may be the odd dud dish along the way.

Celeriac, Hazelnut, Apple
Happy to leave ourselves in Head Chef Niall O’Sullivan’s hands, we sat back and nibbled on some very tasty Brown Soda Bread which was served warm from the oven with a generous amount of Irish farmhouse butter on the side. The bread was excellent and it was without hesitation that we accepted a second helping when offered it. For me, the bread served at the beginning of a meal is like a restaurant’s calling card and is a good indication of the quality of the food to come. It’s fair to say that the omens were good after sampling the bread in Bang.

Our meal kicked off with an amuse bouche of Tuna, Cucumber, Avocado which looked absolutely stunning. Despite both being rather hungry, we had to pause and admire the beauty of this dish which consisted of a thin smear of squid ink flavoured purée onto which a slice of tuna had been delicately placed. Sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds, the tuna had been barely seared before it was thinly sliced and presented to us. The fish was full of sweet but almost meaty flavours which were enhanced by the cucumber gel and avocado purée which accompanied it. Slices of lightly pickled cucumber completed the dish.

Duck Confit, Egg, Artichoke
Next up was Celeriac, Kombu Seaweed, Smoked Hazelnut & Apple. This was another wonderfully presented dish which, to look at, was reminiscent of an Impressionist painting. Here paper-thin slices of celeriac were draped like delicate silk over which a few smoked hazelnuts were strewn in a seemingly casual manner. In reality they had been carefully placed so that the dish looked visually balanced. Marble-sized balls of compressed Granny Smith apple added a sharp fruitiness which worked well against the earthy sweetness of the celeriac and the crunch of the smoked hazelnuts. Just before eating, and with a certain amount of pomp and ceremony, our waiter poured a small amount of celeriac ‘consommé’ into the bowl. This had such an intense flavour and really brought the dish together. Slight acidity was provided to the consommé by the addition of the merest amount of vinegar which balanced the dish. This was amazing on every level.

Slow Cooked Pork
The Jerusalem Artichoke, Duck Egg, Confit Duck, Buckwheat dish was another winner and was rich and indulgent to eat. Hidden underneath a light and airy artichoke foam was a perfectly cooked warm but still runny duck egg yolk. As I explored further, piercing the egg yolk to create a rich sauce, I discovered further treasures below in the form of meaty shredded duck confit and some Jerusalem artichoke crisps. This was lovely to eat and we both enjoyed it tremendously.

The Slow Cooked Pork, Onion Risotto, Malted Onion, Cavolo Nero, Onion Ash was a substantial dish but undeterred we also ordered a side of Triple Cooked Chips and Roasted Garlic Aioli to share between us. The pork was wonderfully tender and had been cooked to the point that it literally melted-in-the-mouth. It was unbelievably tasty but for me the standout element of this dish was the risotto which was creamy and packed full of the sweet flavour of onions. The chips were also magnificent with crispy exteriors giving way to soft fluffy centres. We demolished the lot.

Triple Cooked Chips
Dessert consisting of a Dark Chocolate Bar, Passion Fruit Sorbet and Hazelnuts was superb. The so called ‘chocolate bar’ was in fact a cake-like confection made of chocolate ganache sandwiched between layers of the lightest chocolate sponge. It contained a centre of chocolate craquelin which provided pleasing textural contrast. The chocolate used was suitably bitter but the accompanying passion fruit sorbet and gel mitigated this lending the dish the appropriate amount of sweetness and left us both feeling that all was right with the world.

Chocolate Bar, Passion Fruit
Our meal finished with a plate of the most delightful Petits Fours including Elderflower Fudge Chocolate Passion Fruit Ganache on a Cacao Nib Tuile, Raspberry Jelly and a Madeleine with Passion Fruit Curd. Each of these was delicious but the star was definitely the fudge which, having a sweet-tooth, I loved.

I was so impressed by my meal in Bang Restaurant. The food was outstanding and the whole experience was one that I will not forget quickly. Service was exemplary and delivered in a warm and engaging manner. This is a restaurant that I will not pass by again without going in. I loved everything that I ate and was still talking about the meal on my journey home.

The Tasting Menu cost €69 per person with optional matching wines a further €34.95 per person. Our side order of Triple Cooked Chips added €4.95 to our bill.

11 Merrion Row
Dublin 2

Telephone: 01-4004229

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Restaurant Review: Bastible, South Circular Road, Dublin 8

Although Bastible has only been open a few short months, it has certainly made an impact on the Dublin dining scene garnering rave reviews for the food on offer under Chef/Proprietor Barry FitzGerald.
The restaurant is situated deep in the heart of Dublin 8 at Leonard’s Corner on the South Circular Road. At first glance, this busy junction may not seem the obvious location for a restaurant but this has not deterred diners who have been flocking in their droves to eat there. Curious to see whether all the plaudits were deserved, I recently managed to secure a table for an early evening dinner and despite battling through wet and windy weather conditions to get there, I was looking forward to my meal.
Sourdough Bread & House Butter
The dining room in Bastible is compact but has been cleverly designed to create a feeling of spaciousness. I particularly liked the subtle nautical theme, which thankfully hasn’t been overworked to seem contrived. In line with current restaurant trends, Bastible has an open kitchen and it is from here that Barry FitzGerald works his magic preparing food for eager diners.
Seated in an intimate alcove we happily sipped on cocktails as we perused the menu and nibbled on the excellent Warm Sourdough Bread & House Butter. My Dublin 8 Negroni made with Punt e Mes Vermouth, Dubonnet & Lillet Blanc - an aromatic French wine usually served as an aperitif - was particularly good and a lovely way to whet the appetite. In a similar vein, Paula’s Aperol Spritz was a lively offering which was light on the palate and also delicious.
Crisps, Smoked Trout Dip
The menu in Bastible is brief containing three starters, three mains, four desserts (including a cheese option) and a ‘daily special’ main course. A good range of dishes is available and whilst on one level the choices offered would be challenging to a conservative diner, I felt that the menu was well thought out and made good use of ingredients that are slap-bang in season. Whilst we waited for our starters to arrive we devoured some terrific Homemade Crisps which were everything good crisps should be… well-seasoned, full of potato flavour and CRISP! The accompanying Smoked Trout Dip with its velvety texture was the perfect foil to the crisps. A salsa verde made from chervil, parsley and capers completed the dish, cutting through the richness of the smoked trout.
My starter of Smoked Carrot, Fresh Cheese, Chervil & Spelt was a beautiful looking dish which really showcased this most humble of root vegetables. Thin baby carrots were smoked gently to highlight their inherent sweetness and were then served alongside wafer-thin slices of lightly pickled carrot draped on a pillow of fresh soft cheese. The subtle lactic tang of the cheese imparted a wonderful freshness whilst spelt added body without detracting from the flavour of the carrots. This was such a clever dish and one that I will remember for a long time.
Paula’s Veal Sweetbread, Potato Butter & Roasted Onions would have been so easy to get wrong as sweetbreads require very precise cooking. Here the sweetbread had been perfectly cooked and was a joy to eat with its wonderful caramelised exterior giving way to a firm, yet tender centre. I loved its seductively mild and creamy flavour and the rich, indulgent nature of this dish. Simply garnished with some burnt onions, slivers of beetroot and the most irresistible potato butter, it was amazing.
The ‘daily special’ was beef and whilst we were both tempted, I found it hard to ignore the lure of the Partridge, Pearl Barley, Blood Sausage & Prune. I love game and tend to gravitate towards it whenever I see it on a menu. Partridge is one of my favourites and I was delighted to see it offered in Bastible. Unlike many other game birds, partridge has a mild, delicate flavour but in the right hands, it can be successfully paired with more assertive flavours. Here, the bird had been pan-roasted to perfection and was succulent to eat. It was served with chargrilled celeriac, rich fruity prunes and a flavoursome pearl barley risotto. Also included was some deeply savoury homemade blood sausage which could have overwhelmed the dish but when eaten with the partridge brought out the  underlying gentle sweetness of the bird. This was thought-provoking cooking which succeeded in challenging any pre-conceived notions that I might have add about game and how it should be served.

Sea Bass
Paula’s Sea Bass, Sourdough, Broccoli Stems & Bisque Sauce looked like simple fare but in reality it was a sophisticated dish where everything on the plate worked to highlight and accentuate the subtle taste of the fish. We both loved the fact that broccoli stems rather than florets were included as an accompaniment. They tasted wonderful and given that so many people discard them, we vowed never to do so again as they were truly delicious. The bisque sauce had a depth and intensity of flavour which pleased on so many levels. A garlic rouille was also included but we both felt that it was too much for the fish and wouldn't have been missed it if had been left off. Despite the fact that neither of us were keen on the rouille we felt that overall, this was a very good dish.
Moving on to dessert, we faced a huge dilemma as we found it impossible to choose between them. In the end we decided to order three to share between us. First up was a Rhubarb, Lemon Verbena & Buttermilk Pudding. This was a stunning looking dish which contained barely poached strips of pretty pink forced rhubarb on the light and creamy buttermilk pudding. In effect this was like a lighter, less-set panna cotta. A scattering of a slightly spiced crumble completed the dish and provided a pleasing crunchy texture.
The Bitter Chocolate Cream, Clementine Sorbet & Cacao was also beautifully presented. Packed full of rich flavours, this dessert was surprisingly light to eat and I regretted agreeing to share it with Paula as I wanted it all to myself. In particular, the chocolate cream looked like it might be dense and heavy but it wasn’t. A cacao tuile provided textural contrast and was delicious in its own right. This was a dessert that was designed to please and emphatically succeeded in doing so.
Chocolate, Clementine
Young Buck, Drop Scones & Pickled Quince was perhaps the most straightforward dish of the evening but looked elegant in its simplicity. Made by Northern Irish cheesemaker Mike Thompson, Young Buck is a raw milk blue cheese that is gaining quite a name for itself. A good-sized wedge  of this salty, Stilton-style cheese was presented along with some short and crumbly drop scones and a quenelle of of quince paste, all of which worked together perfectly.
It is evident that there is a very passionate and talented chef at work in Bastible and whilst the hype surrounding the restaurant may have reached fever pitch after it opened it’s not hard to see why as the food and cooking is incredibly good. Most importantly you really get the sense that Barry FitzGerald is a chef who is proud of his roots and that he wants to share his love of Irish ingredients and food with all who dine in his restaurant.
Service throughout our meal was relaxed but attentive and in keeping with the atmosphere of Bastible as a whole. We felt that the meal was competitively priced with two courses for €32 or three courses for €38. I shall definitely return.
111 South Circular Road
Dublin 8
Telephone: 01-4737409

This review first appeared in

Young Buck, Drop Scones, Quince