Sunday, 15 May 2016

Book Review: Sea Gastronomy by Michael O'Meara

From the moment you first delve into Sea Gastronomy - Fish & Shellfish of the North Atlantic you know that you are dealing with a book that has been a labour-of-love for author and well-known Galway Chef Michael O’Meara. Produced in conjunction with Connemara-based publishers Artisan House this encyclopaedic book details the wonderful variety of seafood available around our shores.

In his introduction to the book, food writer Ernie Whalley laments the fact that as an island nation surrounded by some of the world’s best fishing grounds we often appear to be indifferent to the bounty available from our seas. It is hard to argue with Ernie’s analysis because for many of us, the prospect of preparing and cooking fish at home is something that is terrifying and as a result we tend to avoid it.

Sea Gastronomy Cover
As Chef/Proprietor of Oscars a popular Galway restaurant that specialises in cooking seafood, Michael O’Meara is a man who understands and loves his subject. In this book, which is packed full of recipes, he seeks to demystify seafood cookery and tempt us into our kitchens.
From an early age Michael knew that he wanted to be a chef and picked up his love of seafood from time spent with his father, a Waterford City man, who loved to go out working on the small fishing and lobster boats operating out of Dunmore East and Ballymacaw. Family holidays to France cemented his love of seafood which he carried with him when he trained as a chef and subsequently worked in the then Michelin-starred restaurant at Dromoland Castle and as private chef to Ryanair founder Tony Ryan. He eventually opened Oscars in 2000 and it has thrived ever since becoming a mainstay on the Galway dining scene.

Fish Cake prep
Running to 440 pages, the book describes the different fish cuts and how to source seafood in clear, concise terms. There are also a huge number of recipes which are laid out in a similarly straightforward fashion. Whilst some of the recipes use unusual ingredients, many also use seafood that is familiar and reasonably easy to acquire. Michael points out that fish and shellfish are wild foods and many are seasonal, so they are not always available but there are plenty of recipes to choose from in the book to cover each month of the year. The book also showcases Michael’s love for food photography and many of the beautiful images contained in it were produced by him.

Oat-Crusted Fish Cakes
I decided to get stuck in and try out some of the recipes starting with the Oatmeal-Coated Fish Cakes which seemed very doable. In his instructions Michael suggests using a variety of fish so I included equal amounts of fresh salmon, cod and hake. Normally, when I make fish cakes I tend to use cooked fish but here the raw fish was chopped into small pieces before being added to an equal amount of cooked and cooled, crushed potatoes. Bound together with a small amount of self-raising flour, some beaten egg and flavoured with herbs and dillisk,  the fish cakes were then formed into 8 equal sized balls which were flattened and pressed into some jumbo oat flakes before being pan-fried in a mixture of oil and butter until golden and cooked all the way through. The resulting fish cakes were moist, extremely tasty and a great hit with my family. I particularly liked the oatmeal coating which took on an almost nutty flavour when pan-fried. This was an incredibly easy recipe which even the most inexperienced cook could attempt.

My next dish was another seemingly simple recipe for King Scallops with Buttered Leeks and Chorizo. I was unable to get my hands on fresh king scallops but used some queen scallops instead which are smaller than the former and often considered to have sweeter meat. Involving minimal preparation consisting of chopping some leeks and slicing chorizo, this dish took approximately ten minutes to make and was delicious combination of textures and flavours.

Emboldened by my success with the fish cakes and scallops, I then decided to make the Grilled Mackerel with Russian Kale, Roast Cherry Tomatoes and Salsa Rossa. Mackerel are plentiful in our seas and as a result are often inexpensive to buy. For me, they are a hugely underrated fish with a rich oily taste that is second-to-none. I bought two whole fish at an embarrassingly low price and set about filleting them myself. This was easy to do and in no-time-at-all I had four fillets prepared and ready to be cooked. Salsa rossa is a punchy sauce which contains peppers, tomatoes, garlic, anchovies and herbs which, in the recipe given was made using a pestle and mortar, but I decided to employ my mini food-processor which worked a treat. After blanching the kale I then pan-fried the mackerel and tomatoes and assembled the dish. This was another triumph; cheap to prepare and beautiful to look at.
To finish my recipe road-test, I made the Pan-Roasted Cod with Pancetta, Tomatoes and Fried Polenta Cakes. I began by making the polenta cakes and after some vigorous stirring and time spent cooling in the fridge, they were ready to be stamped out with a cookie cutter and pan-fried. I also pan-fried the cod and made the pancetta and tomato based sauce. With obvious Italian influences, this was a dish where all the ingredients highlighted the wonderful sweet taste and flaky texture of the cod. Whilst this recipe took longer than the others to complete, it was still easy to follow.

Pan-Roasted Cod
I was really impressed by Michael O’Meara’s book and I am delighted that I now have a reliable ‘go-to’ seafood book in my cookbook collection. Seafood Gastronomy has been nominated for a Gourmand World Cookbook Award for 2016 in the prestigious Cookbook of the Year category which will be announced at the end of this month. He is up against some stiff international competition but after having read through it and cooked many of the recipes from the book, I have my fingers crossed that he will bring the award home to Galway.

This article first appeared in
Sea Gastronomy - Fish & Shellfish of the North Atlantic
Hardback, 440 pages
Published by Artisan House
Price: €30
Salsa Rossa

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Restaurant Review: The Candied Walnut, Portarlington, County Laois

I would be lost without the sat-nav on my smartphone. It has successfully guided me to and helped me find the locations of many of the restaurants that I have reviewed around Ireland for The Taste. However on my recent trip to Portarlington I came close to hurling my phone out the car window in a fit of rage as the automated female voice became increasingly insistent that I turn left into a narrow pedestrian walkway after which I would ‘arrive at my destination’!

Celeriac Soup
The aim of my visit to the County Laois town was to dine in The Candied Walnut a popular local restaurant that had been recommended to me. Unconvinced that it was located down the laneway, I decided to park my car and take a little wander on foot… and guess what? There it was - tucked behind a modern apartment block. Relieved to have found it, I was still at a loss to understand how I was expected to drive down to it!

I had arranged to meet my friend Tim, a food blogger for dinner and was delighted to see that he had just arrived and was waiting for me outside the restaurant. It was busy on the Wednesday evening that we visited but this due to the fact that the main ground-floor dining room had been booked for a large group attending a medical conference. We were greeted warmly and led up to our table in the small and cosy upstairs dining room.

Spicy Chicken Wings
During the week a set dinner menu is offered but an à la carte menu is available at weekends. The Candied Walnut is also renowned for its Sunday Lunch offering. Priced at an unbelievable €21 per person for 2 courses or €25 per person for 3 courses, the set menu includes a nice range of dishes and we had no difficulty deciding what to order.
First up was a surprise pre-starter of Celeriac Soup which came presented in an espresso cup. Chopped chives were strewn on the surface of the soup and added a gentle onion flavour to the well-made, nicely creamy soup and we both enjoyed it.
Pork Belly
My starter of Hot & Spicy Chicken Wings, Celery Batons, Blue Cheese Dip looked like fairly standard fare at first but after taking a few bites I realised how good they were. The hot & spicy coating was as advertised but also possessed a complexity of flavour that you don’t often find. I loved how an initial sweetness gave way to spicy heat that complemented rather than engulfed the subtle flavour of the succulent chicken meat. I happily gnawed away at the wings, picking as much meat off them as I could. The accompanying blue cheese dip was extremely tasty but I would have preferred a slightly rougher texture with some small nuggets of cheese still visible.
Tim’s Slow-Cooked Pork Belly, 60° Egg yolk, Clonakilty Black Pudding was a beautifully presented and skillfully cooked dish. Generous cubes of soft slow-cooked pork belly were presented alongside spicy full-flavoured black pudding and a buttery-soft potato fondant. Unlike many other black puddings which are made using pork, Clonakilty uses beef along with oatmeal, beef blood and spices that results in a rich, textured pudding which was perfect with the pork. The sauce created by the egg yolk when pierced and a silky smooth celeriac purée accented the rich meatiness of this excellent dish.
Pan-Fried Cod
My main course of Pan-Fried Cod, Pea Purée, Fondant Potato, Beurre Blanc was another nicely presented and well-seasoned dish, comprising a large piece of well-cooked cod served on a bed of peppery wilted spinach and a pea purée. Whilst the purée could have been a touch smoother it was full of the wonderful sweet flavour of the peas and worked well with meaty cod and the fabulous beurre blanc.
Tim’s Wild Mushroom, Truffle Oil & Pine Nut Risotto, Rocket Leaves, Aged Parmesan Cheese, Panko Egg was a substantial but attractive looking dish with amazing depth of flavour. I’m not usually a huge fan of truffle oil as it can dominate. Here it had been applied with restraint and successfully managed to accentuate the flavour of the wild mushrooms without taking over. The dish was finished with some crispy parmesan wafers that added textural contrast and a deep-fried breadcrumbed egg which sat imperiously on top of the risotto, releasing its saucy centre when pierced with a knife. Whilst we enjoyed the wonderful flavours of the risotto, we both felt that it could have had a slightly looser texture.
Mushroom Risotto
Poached pears can be tricky to get right but my dessert of Poached Pear, Red Wine Syrup, Hazelnut Ice-Cream was an absolute joy to eat. Two perfectly poached pear halves sat side-by side on the plate and looked absolutely beautiful with a pale pink colour from the red wine syrup they had been poached in. Simply topped with small scoops of a well-flavoured hazelnut ice-cream with some candied walnuts on the side, this dish was a perfect example of how less is often more. I loved it.
Tim’s Banana Cheesecake, Ginger Biscuit was presented as a layered dessert in a small Kilner jar. A ginger biscuit crumb base sat under a cheesecake cream and some salted caramel. Finally the cheesecake was topped with some freshly sliced bananas with some crunchy candied walnuts on the side. This was a dessert with broad appeal which aimed to please and this it succeeded in doing.
Poached Pears
Service throughout the meal was outstanding and delivered enthusiastically. We both had a real sense that staff deeply cared that we enjoyed the whole experience and we did. The Candied Walnut under Chef/Proprietor Barry Hayden is producing some extremely tasty food and for the price we paid represents astonishing value for money. We both left with full bellies and a feeling that all was right with the world.
The Candied Walnut
Kilnacourt House
Bracklone Street
County Laois
Telephone: 0578636360

This article first appeared in

Banana Cheesecake

Friday, 6 May 2016

Restaurant Review: Ard Bia at Nimmos, Spanish Arch, Galway

There is something about Ard Bia at Nimmos that, for me, represents all that is great about Irish food. I have dined there numerous times but find that I am regularly drawn back to it when in Galway. These days all restaurants worth their salt declare a commitment to using local seasonal produce but in Ard Bia this is achieved with such ease and without a hint of smugness resulting in food that is delicious from the first mouthful to the last. I find this hugely appealing.
Bread & Dillisk Butter
Located a mere stone’s throw from the historic Spanish Arch, the restaurant is housed in the 18th Century Custom House on the east bank of the River Corrib which was rough and angry-looking on the windy Tuesday evening that I dined there recently. Inside, the restaurant was packed and buzzing with the chatter of happy diners enjoying their meals. Tuesdays can be very quiet in the restaurant world but not in the hugely popular Ard Bia so I was glad that I had a reserved a table.
I had arranged to meet my friend Brendan for dinner who was already waiting at our candle-lit table at the back of the restaurant near the kitchen pass. The dining room has an artisan, almost bohemian feel to it with its solid wooden tables and mismatched bentwood chairs. As I sat down Brendan and I immediately started swapping stories about all we had been up to, pausing every now-and-again to nibble on a delicious Brown Soda Bread which came served in an enamel bowl with an excellent Wild Garlic & Dillisk Butter.
Ham Hock
The succinct menu in Ard Bia changes regularly to reflect the changing seasons. It includes some interesting dishes and it is worth noting that vegetarians are well catered for. We quickly made our choices from the Spring Menu and relaxed back into our conversation.
Brendan’s Pea & Broad Bean, Wild Garlic Risotto, Hazelnut Picada (€8) starter was everything a good risotto should be with perfectly cooked rice used as a vehicle for other ingredients. It was enlivened by the addition of whole peas and broad beans whilst the gentle fragrance of wild garlic emphasised the flavour of the vegetables without overpowering their sweet taste. A hazelnut picada added a spicy texture to create a memorable plate of food. This was a beautiful looking dish and we both loved it.
Boxty Cake
My starter of Colleran’s Ham Hock, Pickled Shallot, Burnt Apple, Béarnaise (€8.50) was another superb offering full of well-balanced flavours. A light vinegar dressing cut through the richness of the soft shredded ham hock preventing it from seeming too rich whilst pickled shallots added a bittersweet element; all of which were wonderful with the crispy wafer of bread. A velvety smooth apple purée and a piquant béarnaise sauce completed the dish.
I have to admit that I am a committed meat-lover but found that I was immediately drawn to the Wild Garlic Boxty Cake, Sautéed Mushrooms, Tarragon Crème Fraîche, Courgette Ribbons, Red Chard (€18) main course dish on the menu. I was not disappointed. The star of the show - the potato boxty cake - could so easily have tasted bland and starchy but luckily the potatoes still retained some bite and texture. The boxty cake had been well-seasoned and included a good amount of wild garlic. It was paired with a vibrant looking beetroot purée and topped with a generous amount of sautéed mushrooms, some lightly pickled courgette ribbons and finished with a tart and slightly sour crème fraîche dressing packed full of tarragon.

Pan-Roasted Atlantic Cod
Swede is such an underrated vegetable so we were delighted to see it included on the menu. Brendan’s Pan-Roasted Atlantic Cod, Black Pudding & Swede Mash, Smoked Oysters Cream, Tender Stem Broccoli (€24) was a substantial and interesting plate of food that satisfied on a number of fronts. Firstly, I would never have thought of combining black pudding and swede together but with its rich earthy flavours it was truly outstanding and a perfect partner for the meaty cod. Secondly, the smoked oyster cream was a decadent addition but brought everything together with a certain panache. Given the size of our mains, there was probably no need to order any accompaniments, but this didn't stop us and we both thoroughly enjoyed our shared side of Honey & Rosemary Roast Carrots (€4.50).

Plum & Nettle Cake
Although we initially considered finishing our meal with a shared cheeseboard we eventually decided to order a dessert each. Brendan was delighted with his Plum & Nettle Cake, Walnut Parfait, Honeycomb (€7) but felt that the nettle flavour of the moist dense cake was a little lost against the assertive flavours of the other dessert elements. Having said that, he still managed to lick his plate clean. We both loved my Poached Pear, Rice Pudding Ice-Cream, Mint, Oat Crumb (€7) which was sweet and fruity in all the right ways. The pear had been poached to perfection and was soft and juicy and a pleasure to eat. The accompanying rice pudding ice-cream and oaty crumb emphasised the ambrosial character of the pear.

On the recommendation of our waiter, we washed everything down with a bottle of an organic Italian Ciu Ciu Bacchus (€29) which, with its fruity nose and crisp acidity worked especially well with both our full-flavoured mains.

Poached Pear
Service in Ard Bia appears relaxed and laid-back in keeping with the overall ambiance in the restaurant but is efficient and professionally delivered. There is something so effortlessly cool and cosmopolitan about Ard Bia at Nimmos and yet it is very much a restaurant with a sense-of-place. Owner Aoibheann MacNamara may originally hail from Donegal but she has developed a restaurant that inherently understands and appreciates what Galway is all about. The menu borrows ideas from other cuisines but the food still manages to feel very Irish. It is not hard to see why it so popular with both locals and visitors to the city alike.
Ard Bia at Nimmos
Spanish Arch
Long Walk
Telephone: 091561114
This article first appeared in
Ard Bia at Nimmos

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Restaurant Review: The Little Kitchen, Leeson Street Upper, Dublin 4

I loved The Vintage Kitchen on Poolbeg Street so I was excited when I heard that a ‘sister’ restaurant - The Little Kitchen - had opened on Leeson Street, also in Dublin. Part of the charm of The Vintage Kitchen is its eclectic décor and the cluttered, cramped feel of the restaurant where diners are packed in sardine-like to enjoy some stonking great food.

Like its big sister, The Little Kitchen premises are tight-on-space with the kitchen located at the end of a small, narrow dining room which can cater for approximately 25 -30 diners. However this incarnation is decorated in a crisper style which, amazingly, makes it feel more spacious than its sibling. The menus are also similar and those who are familiar with The Vintage Kitchen will have a sense of  déjà vu when eating at The Little Kitchen but this is precisely the point and the intention of the owners.

The Little Kitchen Menu
Dining alone, I was placed at a small table at the front of the restaurant, beside the window looking out onto the Romanian Orthodox Church located across the road. From this vantage point I happily observed the world-go-by as I decided what to order for my dinner.
The menu is brief, offering 4 starters, 4 mains and 3 desserts including a cheeseboard option and is reasonably priced at €30 per person for 2 courses or €36 per person for 3 courses. The restaurant operates a similar BYOB policy as the Vintage Kitchen whereby no corkage is charged when you bring your own wine and order at least two courses from the menu.
Goat's Cheese Gratin
Although tempted by the Smoked Haddock Chowder, I decided to go for the Gratin of Organic Goat’s Cheese, Caramelised Pearl Onion & Beets, Grilled Tomato and Basil with Pak Choi to start. To be honest, I am a little weary of seeing the Goat’s Cheese/Beetroot combo on menus and for me it is quickly becoming the 21st Century version of Prawn Cocktail, that 1970’s ‘classic’! However, I was curious to see what The Little Kitchen would offer up and was delighted with the piping hot dish I was presented with. Packed full of large chunks of sweet juicy beetroot and a generous amount of bubbling goat’s cheese, this was a sizeable and very delicious starter that pleased and excited the palate. I loved the combination of the beetroot with the bittersweet caramelised pearl onions which gave way to the rich creaminess of the goat’s cheese. By way of contrast parmesan wafers imparted a crisp saltiness that was wonderful against the overall earthy sweetness of the dish. This was thoroughly satisfying food.
Fillet Steak
I rarely order steak when dining out but was immediately attracted to the Pan-Fried Fillet of Beef, Organic Black Pudding, Gravy, Crushed Basil Potatoes (€7 supplement) so ordered it for my main course. Fillet Beef can be a little tasteless at the best of times, but here the meat had been sensitively cooked medium-rare as requested and possessed a gentle sweetness that was delightful against the full-flavoured black pudding. The accompanying crushed basil potatoes which came presented in their own mini saucepan had been flawlessly cooked and added a burst of colour and a fresh herby fragrance to the dish.  A superb gravy spiked with mustard brought everything together whilst some roasted parsnips and a floret of lightly battered, deep-fried broccoli finished the dish. I was feeling very happy and very full!
Half-Baked Chocolate Cake
Although both the starter and main courses were sizeable, I felt honour-bound to order dessert and quickly decided on the Half-Baked Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Ice-Cream which sounded too good to ignore. I was warned that this was cooked to order and would take a few minutes to arrive but I was happy to sip my sparkling water, relax and wait for it. They say good things come to those who wait and it’s fair to say that this dessert was very good. Served simply presented in an oblong ramekin with a large scoop of vanilla ice-cream on top, the cake yielded up a centre of a hot, deeply-flavoured chocolate sauce that was wonderful against the cool ice-cream. Each mouthful was a pure pleasure to eat and a ‘must’ for any chocoholics!
Half-Baked Chocolate Cake
Service throughout was perfectly pitched and added to my overall enjoyment of the meal. The Little Kitchen may be an offshoot of an existing restaurant and whilst I accept that comparisons are inevitable, I also feel that the food should be judged in its own right. I really enjoyed my meal and the food that I ate. The menu is simple but there is a sense of generosity about the food that is served and I left with an enormous sense of well-being and a determination to return soon.
Saturday 10am-2.30pm
Tuesday-Friday 12.00am-2.30pm
Tuesday-Saturday 5.30pm-10.00pm
Sunday and Monday
The Little Kitchen
129 Leeson Street Upper
Dublin 4

Telephone: 01 6697844

This review first appeared in

The Little Kitchen