Gastronomic delights: Ireland's modern food scene
Updated: Oct 13, 2020
Growing up in the arid culinary landscape that was the midlands of Ireland in the 80s, I could never have imagined how vibrant and diverse the food scene in Ireland was going to become. Some of the best meals I've had in the last ten years have been on these fair shores and there are fantastic independent cafés and restaurants popping up all over the country. You can pretty much get a decent coffee in most towns nowadays and with healthy eating on everyone's agenda, there are plenty of organic and health food stores that now double up as eateries.
There is usually a food-based reason behind my weekend break choices and I'm thankful that we are now totally spoilt for choice in the capital in terms of international cuisines. We've come a long way from sorry-looking plates of soggy vegetables, overdone meat and wine that could strip paint off walls.
I'm naturally drawn to places serving locally-sourced produce from independent producers and it's great to see so many using artisan roasters like Bell Lane, Imbibe and Cloud Picker to supply their coffee, and micro-breweries to supply their craft beers. I think it's so important to support our local businesses and shout loud about the ones that are doing it well.
Here are the ones that really stood out for me over the past six months. Some are cafés and some are restaurants.
Dublin: Two Boys Brew, Richmond, Green 19 Hang Dai Chinese
Limerick: La Picola Italia, Zest Café
Offaly: Woodfield Café
Sligo: Coach Lane
Westmeath: Bastion Kitchen, Fine Wine & Food Co
There are lots of reasons to visit Sligo but Coach Lane has to be one of the best.
I'm going out on a limb here and saying that this is one of the BEST places to eat in Ireland. I think I might be right though. It's always jammed to the rafters, no matter what night you visit. You know you're onto a good thing when a fresh-from-the-oven loaf with chilli jam is popped in front of you as soon as you're seated.
If seafood is your thing, then Coach Lane should be on your hit list as this is their speciality. The crab and avocado toasts are not only a work of art to look at (see top image) but are so fresh and full of incredible flavours, and the scallops just melt in your mouth. I usually opt for their fish pie which is so delicious but on my last visit decided to try their Milanese risotto instead. It's the best one I've had outside of Milan. The bread, plus the generous portions of food means we I've never been able to squeeze in a dessert but next time for sure. They have a short but excellent wine list. Try the Syrah - a snip at €27. We always opt to eat in one of the booths in the bar but there is a more formal restaurant upstairs. I've been coming here for years and always book a table when I come to Sligo.
Richmond, Portobello Dublin 2
Students who hung out in Rathmines in the 90s will remember the Richmond's former incarnation, Gig's Place. Well if there's ever a reason to erase the memories of those 3am bottles of Liebfraumilch, this is it. The food is incredible, which is why they've been awarded a Bib Gourmand. This is contemporary cooking at its best: simple, unfussy but packed full of interesting flavours. It's high-end cooking without the price tag and the Early Bird is excellent value at €25.75 for two-courses and €29.75 for three, available all night on a Sunday.
The food is not the only reason to come here. The place itself is gorgeous with comfy leather booths & good tunes playing unintrusively in the background. Their wine list is one of the best I've come across & very well priced. Unlike many other Dublin restaurants they have a number of great options for under €40. Our favourite is the Ventoux, silky smooth, very moreish and only €33. The overall vibe is a relaxed one and the staff and management are fantastic - so professional but warm & friendly. If you've got a special occasion coming up, I couldn't recommend more highly. Actually sod that. Eating here is a special occasion so treat yourself... Here's what we had.
To start: warm fennel bread with parmesan butter, pressed pig head with carrot, apple, salt & vinegar crackling and a smoked haddock dish with leek, Dijon cream, & sourdough (kindly offered from the Brunch menu as they'd run out of trout). Absolutely divine, down to the perfectly charred bread. Main courses: steak and halibut with seasonal greens Dessert - shared. We couldn't fit in one each. Richmond date pudding with toffee sauce, salted peanuts and gingerbread ice cream. Yep - every bit as good as it sounds. 10/10 - we bloody love this place and can't wait for the next visit.
La Piccola Italia, Limerick
I love an old-school Italian - you're almost always guaranteed a hell of a meal. Penne alla Vodka - that should be your first reason to visit. Oh my, it was seriously splendid. Perfectly al dente pasta with a creamy tomato sauce, slightly smokey from the pancetta (yep fell off the veggie wagon again...) & with a slight chilli kick. Divine and full of flavours. I was seriously in 'licking the bowl' territory. He practically had to prize it out of my hands.
Second reason to visit - prawns. Fresh like they'd just been plucked from the sea. They were simply served with chilli and garlic and packed a real punch.
Other reasons to visit - an excellent Caprese salad and great wines for a good price. Listen to your waiter when he recommends something - he knows his stuff and he was totally spot on about the Primitivo. Oh and we got a digestivo on the house at the end. So in a nutshell - great food, delicious wine and charming staff who are serious about what they do but without any pretensions - it ticks all the boxes for me. It doesn't look like much from the outside but appearances can be very deceptive. Anyway I'm convinced when it comes to Italians, the less fancy it looks from the outside, the higher the chance of an incredible meal. That theory certainly paid off here.
Green 19, Camden St, Dublin
While numerous hipster joints have come and gone, Green 19 has stood the test of time and is still one of the best spots for a casual feed in Dublin. There aren't too many places where you can get an excellent cocktail in this city for €10. Last time we opted for a Jesus, Rosemary & Joseph - how could you not? The Mexican Green is pretty great too. It's got chilli in it so expect a kick.
If it's on the menu, the prawn skewer starter is frickin' amazing. Perfectly chargrilled prawns with a bit of bite served with salad and fennel slaw. Yum! There are also few places still standing where you can get a veggie main course for under €11 - their MASSIVE (in both senses of the word) lentil and mushroom burger comes up a shedload of skinny fries and is damn fine. Their fish & chips is great too. Green 19 - don't ever change....
Hang Dai, Camden St, Dublin
Don't judge a book by its cover. It looks totally sketchy from the street as you enter what looks like a takeaway with its harsh lighting and hanging plastic strips. But beyond those strips is some of the most innovative & imaginative Chinese food you could ever imagine. My mind was well and truly blown. You can believe the hype - their food is spectacular. Cep mushrooms & hazelnut dumplings & pulled pork in tofu custard followed by Drunken Chicken (me) and Featherblade Beef (Martin) Don’t just take my word for it - book a table immediately. You will not regret it. Great wine list too. And apparently they also make a mean cocktail though we didn’t have one. Next time for sure.
As you can see, it's got some serious disco vibes going on with DJs playing sets most nights. It's not at all intrusive though and makes for a fun night out.
Woodfield Café, Birr
It's no lie to say I would drive all the way from Dublin for a sandwich from Woodfield Café. What a little treasure of a place. It's an organic café located within the grounds of a garden centre, selling produce grown by themselves and local growers and it shows. All of the ingredients are of high-quality and everything we tried was full of flavour.
What we had: Top marks to the goats cheese salad on buckwheat with roasted veg, mixed leaves, alfalfa sprouts, cranberry and Balsamic. As you can probably tell from the pic, this one was pretty much perfect. All the ingredients worked really well together and the sourness of the cranberries was offset by the sweetness of the very good Balsamic. Divine. I’ve been a bit of a fallen vegetarian for the past few years and have been falling further as the years progress. However, as I had it on good authority that their sausage sambos are a work of art, I felt it would be remiss of me not to try one. Honestly that is one mean sandwich. Organic sausages with Dijon mustard, mayo, leaves and organic cheese which could only be described as divinity between slices of the most delectable sourdough bread. It made me very happy.
Stuffed to the gills, we still managed to fit in dessert. Their coffee is very good and tasted even better accompanied by a slice of raspberry roulade. The meringue was perfectly crunchy with just the right amount of cream and the raspberry was, excuse the pun, the icing on the cake. Thumbs up from me. The two girls opted for the apple pie and were given two quite enormous slices. I had a little sample and it was really good. The apples were just right: not too mushy but not too chunky either – just the way I like it. The bill for the three of us came to €57, which included coffees, teas, a homemade Kombucha and sparkling water.
It’s a fab spot and the location is perfect. Chickens are roaming freely around the grounds and the building itself is so charming with flowers and fairy lights everywhere. The interior is very cool and modern with slate grey walls contrasting nicely with the brightly coloured units and minimalist light fixtures. Also, the staff are very friendly and smiley. If you find yourself in the vicinity of Birr, you have to check it out.
Zest café, Limerick City Gallery of Art
This was such an unexpected surprise. It looks almost like a school canteen in terms of decor, but don't let that put you off - it's a brilliant little place for lunch. Be sure to come hungry as their portions are huge, but you'll definitely need to leave room for cake as they are pretty spectacular. The café is part of Limerick City gallery of Art (which is always worth a visit by the way) with windows overlooking the lovely People's Park. Their salad plates are seriously impressive - four options for €7.99. You wouldn't get that in Dublin I can tell ya. And these are no boring salad options either so you won't feel hard-done by. I had kale with edamame and cashews, Asian slaw, chickpeas and feta with orange and flaked almonds and a tasty potato salad with red pesto. I could just about finish it.
I still managed to fit in a cake though. You cannot leave here without trying one. This time I opted for the Snickers cheescake with an Oreo base. Yep it was as good as it sounds. Their coffee is excellent too and I love the duck-egg blue plates and cups. Very pretty. My bill was €13 in total.
Bastion Kitchen, Athlone
I love this part of Athlone. All of buildings on this street are brightly painted and well-maintained and have retained an olde-worlde charm. The Bastion Kitchen is one of those places that has really added to the character of the west side of town. Service is always friendly and and it seems like the staff enjoy working there and are passionate about the good food that they serve.
Their special lunch deal is great: a (large) cup of soup, a falafel pitta and a coffee – all for €11.50, which is remarkable value in today’s world. The potato and leek soup is really flavoursome and the pittas are absolutely delicious and so filling. They make a damn fine falafel which is served with homemade pesto and hummus and heaped with crunchy salad.
Just FYI - you cannot walk out of there without sampling a cake or two. The coffee cake is an absolute winner. It’s so easy to get wrong but theirs is pretty much perfect – really moist with a strong but not overpowering coffee flavour, topped off with a little dollop of fresh cream on the side. However nothing beats their polenta cake which is possibly one of the best cakes I’ve ever tasted. And I’ve tasted a lot of cakes. Flavoured with orange and almond and topped with pistachio, it just melts in your mouth. Lunch for the three of us with coffees and teas came to a grand total of €50.
Two Boys Brew, NCR, Dublin
After listening to everyone I know raving about this place, I eventually made the trip across town for brunch here to see what all the fuss was about. I'm delighted to say it lived up to all the hype. The verdict: bloody amazing and one of the best brunch dishes I’ve had in Dublin. I had miso mushroom toast with poached eggs and whipped ricotta which was every bit as good as it sounds. The coffee was excellent and we just about managed to share the finest cake known to humanity: orange blossom & almond with a huge blob of creamy deliciousness on top. We’ll be back.
Fine Wine & food Co, Athlone
Yet another super addition to Athlone's ever burgeoning food scene. The name alone was enough of an enticement to me but sadly the wine part will have to wait for next time - this was a flying lunch visit with my sis. But what a great lunch.
Fine Wine and Co is all about the artisan experience and also doubles as a shop, stocking, as they say on their own FB page 'luxury, handmade artisan goods produced primarily in the Midlands and border counties'. And it shows. It's a small lunch menu with a soup option, one sandwich made fresh to order and a hot dish. We both opted for the sandwich, one as a veggie version. Oh my - this was everything you want in a sandwich. Huge hunks of bread with high-quality ingredients - emmenthal from Tipp, chorizo, leaves and the most divine cranberry and pear chutney. So good.
The cakes on the counter were soon calling our names so we opted for the raspberry & pear cake and a lemon curd & blueberry tart. They were luscious and I hope the pics do them justice. So moist and oozing with flavour. On top of all that, I had one (actually two...) of the best coffees I've ever had in Ireland. No question. I'm a complete coffee addict & always on a quest to discover new suppliers. Their coffee is supplied by Bell Lane which is locally manufactured in Mullingar. Smooth, flavoursome and perfectly made by the baristas. Check them out if you're interested in coffee.
They open later on Fr and Sat nights until 9 for wine and cheese boards, but also offer antipasti like hummus and pesto with crackers. I know where I'll be headed next time I'm home. A great little spot and I can't wait to come back.
I'd love to hear your recommendations as I'm always willing to travel for food. Let me know where you think I should try next.