Meals to make you weep with gratitude
Updated: Jan 25, 2019
A wise man once said 'a good meal can make a holiday'... though I may be paraphrasing. I wanted to share some gems with you that we've discovered over the years, ranging from high-end to very casual. There are many others that could have made it on the list but these are the ones we are still talking about to this day, either because we loved the atmosphere or because of their exceptional staff, and all are here because we couldn’t stop talking about how good their food was. Two of my favourite spots in Dublin have made it onto the list as we go to them all the time and recommend them to anyone who'll listen. Here are my top spots, in no particular order.
Camille restaurant, Le Marais, Paris
Le Marais is probably my favourite part of Paris so it is fitting that my favourite restaurant is found here too. I read a glowing review of this place in the Sunday Times: they were not wrong as we had one of the best lunches of our lives here. I loved everything about this place: the waiters in their shirts and black bow-ties, the tiny tables crammed close together, the babble of Parisians enjoying their lunch, the great food and outstanding wine. Most of all I loved the warm and friendly service from the gorgeous older man who waited on our table and made us feel so welcome. I should also mention that we were there on 23rd December so it was extra magical. We were seated in the corner at the window so we could people-watch the inhabitants of the Marais as they went about their business. We noticed that the place was full of locals having lunch. Always a good sign. Menus are hand-written on a blackboard and propped up beside your table as you make your choice. I had the sea bass which came with a simple sauce vierge, and was so fresh and tasty. Apparently this place is famed for its duck which Martin opted for and it did not disappoint. Nor did the buttery mashed potato which came with it (I may have sampled a little…) It was our last day in Paris and we had planned a long leisurely lunch so we ordered a bottle of Côtes du Rhônes which was light and delicious. Then came dessert time. I read in the Sunday Times article that they make a damn fine tarte tatin, so I had to order that. No question. Made properly, it was one of my absolute favourite desserts. It came with a little jug of thick double cream and it was incredible. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. We finished off with a typically great coffee and floated out of there full of Christmas spirit. And wine.
Roscioli, Via dei Giubbonari, Rome
Restaurant Roscioli was the zenith of Italian food for us and we're not sure it can be topped. Also known as Salumeria Roscioli, it doubles as a deli with options to sit at meat counter, in the restaurant or downstairs in the wine cellar. We opted for the wine cellar which was exactly as we hoped: full of people, tightly packed tables and buzzing with conversation. It's not fancy but it's simply amazing. Roscioli is a fourth-generation family-run restaurant with a series of other delis across the city. It's an old-school Italian where they take their food, their ingredients and their methods very seriously. I defy you to find a greater Carbonara anywhere. You won't find any cream here: this is the real deal using egg and Parmesan but with their special ingredient: guanciale or pork cheek. This is why they tell you upon ordering that the Carbonara will take twenty minutes. I tell you: it's worth the wait. Though I tasted the Carbonara, I opted for my favourite Roman pasta dish, Cacio e Pepe. It's the best I've ever had and it's unlikely I'll taste better. Unctuous and rich with the perfect amount of saltiness and tang from the Pecorino and the right amount of pepper, I was truly in food heaven. We also managed to eat some Fiori di Zucca (stuffed courgette flowers) and Martin had the lamb chops but as everything was so delicious, we felt it would be rude not to at least try a dessert. We managed to share a tiramisu, which, yes you've guessed it, was pretty much perfect too. Just the right combination of Marsala, coffee and mascarpone, with not even a tinge of sogginess to the sponge. We enjoyed the most delicious bottle of Valpolicella Superiore, La Musella, which was unbelievable value at €26. Honestly, the same bottle in Dublin would easily set you back €50. Great coffee too. And to top it all off, the staff were friendly and welcoming so I cannot fault the place on any level. It was the most perfect of meals in a Roman institution and we've been talking about it to anyone who will listen since we got home. Make sure to book your table in advance as it gets very busy. A real treasure.
Zallo Barri, Gernika
After a week of endless tapas in Basque Spain, we were keen to have a sit-down restaurant meal on one of the evenings on this trip. We did some research online and this place kept popping up on all the top-recommended lists so we ambled off to find it. It’s located on the outskirts of the town and when we arrived it was 9:00 pm on a Saturday night. There was not a single person in the restaurant. However the menu looked really interesting and we were intrigued as all of the reviewers online were raving about it. Bear in mind we were starving and wanted a bit of sit-down luxury for an evening so we ventured in. I don't usually enjoy being the only couple in a restaurant but the food we were served and the outstanding value for money of this meal is the reason this restaurant made it onto my list. Their set menu is €28 per person for a three-course meal, a bottle of sparkling water, a bottle of house wine (a beautiful Rioja Crianza) and coffee. €56 per couple for a pretty high-end meal. Amazing value. I ordered a green salad with feta and olives to start, which was enormous. All of the ingredients were so fresh and the feta, tomatoes and olive oil were of such good quality. I devoured it. It was accompanied by a basket of warm tomato bread – perfect for plate-cleaning. For my main course I ordered the ventresca. I’d never had it before and was told by the waitress it was from the belly of the tuna, apparently prized as the most succulent part of the fish. They’re not wrong. It melted in my mouth and was absolutely divine. Martin had the beef entrecôte and had the same experience with his. At this point we were so stuffed (but very happy) and still managed to squeeze in a dessert. The wine was divine, the coffee was perfect and we enjoyed every single bite.
We left after 11 pm and this point there was a single diner, who seemed to be a local, and a family party who were just arriving as we were leaving. We couldn’t understand how this restaurant was not turning people away in their droves. Perhaps in a country where tapas culture and casual dining is the norm, sit-down restaurants just don’t get the same footfall. Coming from Dublin, €56 for meal for two including drinks is unheard of. But maybe in Spain it’s all relative and €56 might be considered an expensive night out. We thought the food was outstanding and had a lovely evening here, despite our solo experience.
l'Archetto, Via dell'Archetto, Rome
The greatest thing about this restaurant is being able to sample three different spaghettis on one plate: order the Assaggini and then choose the ones you want. They have an enormous spaghetti menu with over 100 options so this way you get to try more than one. We were in pasta heaven and all three were delicious, especially the crema di scampi which had a brandy, parsley and tomato sauce, and the caccio e pepe, a Roman classic with Pecorino cheese and black pepper. The restaurant is located down a side street, a stone’s throw from the Trevi Fountain. I probably would’ve avoided eating here, presuming it to be a tourist-trap, but a friend’s Italian boyfriend sent me some recommendations of places that the locals like to go to, and this was one. We just about managed to get a table outside as it was really busy and filled with Italians – always a good sign. It’s located on a charming little cobbled street and we really felt like we were getting the full Roman experience here. Great food and excellent wine, served by slightly grumpy but charming waiters. It’s really reasonably priced, considering the location, and was so good we came back again the day after. We probably would’ve eaten there every day but we decided to try a few other places as recommended by our Italian friend. You can read more about our experience of Rome here:
Restaurante Maria Castaña, Santiago de Compostela, Spain This place was recommended to us by the hotel receptionist on our first night in Santiago, our setting off point for a four-day hike to Finisterre (you can read more about our adventures here: Camino de Santiago – the last leg ) It was so good we went back again on our return to Santiago at the end of the trip. Twice.
It looks like an English tavern on the outside, and is as cosy as one on the inside with its wooden tables and warm atmosphere. Our waitress was friendly and welcoming and the place was absolutely packed. We ordered a cheese board between the three of us and a variety of tapas including patatas bravas, tortillas, gambas, pimientos de padròn and croquetas. A veritable feast arrived to our table. The cheeseboard was the best I’ve ever eaten and my friends and I still talk about it. We’re talking huge chunks of at least seven different varieties of Spanish cheese, plus endless bread and crackers. For about €12. Honestly, we would’ve been satisfied with just the cheeseboard. But then again we were stockpiling for our four-day hike so everything else was demolished as well. We had a bottle of a local Crianza which was gorgeous: medium-bodied and so flavoursome. And seeing as we spent the following four days talking about how good that meal was, we had no choice but to go back again the night we landed back in Santiago. And the next day for lunch before we flew home. It would’ve been rude not to 😉
Il Vicoletto, Temple Bar, Dublin, Ireland
There are a number of good Italians in Dublin but this one is the real deal, borne out by the fact it’s packed to capacity most nights of the week. Booking is essential, especially at weekends. We’re talking tiny candle-lit tables close to each other, wall-to-wall wine display and a cosy, intimate atmosphere. The staff are all very friendly and extremely knowledgeable about food and wine. We’ve grown to trust their judgement implicitly.
And as for the food: well I defy you to find a better Italian meal in Dublin. They have a terrific value Early-Bird menu, but the specials from the à la carte menu are usually too tempting to resist, such as the vegetarian ravioli option, filled with basil and ricotta in a parmesan fondant. Their Parmigiana Melanzane is an excellent starter, as are the spicy prawns, and the Burrata special is so creamy and delicious. For the meat-eaters, the tagliata is perfection, apparently. They pride themselves on really good quality ingredients, including the olive oil and Balsamic vinegar which is given to each table with a basket of bread upon arrival. Their wine list is almost exclusively Italian, as you’d expect, and wide-ranging in price, but their Montepulciano is excellent, for a mere €28. I’ve been recommending this place to anyone who will listen for the past few years. I’ve had romantic dinners, Christmas nights out with the girls, and work celebrations here and all have come away enthusing about how wonderful it is. Don’t take my word for it – try it for yourself!
l’Artegal, Gordes, France
Gordes is one of those picture-perfect hilltop towns in Provence and is a must-see if you are visiting the Luberon area in Provence. We had read about l’Artegal online and wandered optimistically in its direction one Sunday evening without a booking. The location is gorgeous, right opposite the 11th century castle, and it has a pretty terrace at the front which at that moment had one unoccupied table. We were greeted by a very friendly host who informed us that they were holding the table for a couple but they had not shown up. Just in case they’d been held up, she told us she’d give them another twenty minutes, and if they hadn’t shown up the table was ours. As we were wandering past twenty minutes later, she caught our eye and gave us a massive smile and a thumbs up. We were in!
I never ceased to be amazed how friendly and personable everyone was in this part of France, and the two ladies working on this particular evening were no exception. It was a beautiful balmy evening and so nice to be sitting outside watching the world go by. We started with a glass of Champagne bien sur. A glass of bubbles always feels like a treat for me but was particularly memorable on this evening in this beautiful town. Bear in mind this part of France can be a bit pricey – the set-menu was €38 per person for three courses, but this was par for the course in most restaurants in Gordes. I have to say it was totally worth it. The food was fantastic. I had a crab and lobster starter, and sea bass for a main. Both were super fresh and absolutely delicious. And apparently the lamb was to die for. Perfect sized portions as well – we managed three courses and felt satisfied but not completely stuffed, washed down with a beautiful Ventoux wine. We had such a wonderful evening here, and the service was outstanding.
Bodegas Castañeda, Granada, Spain
This place is an institution in Granada and can look a little intimidating to the uninitiated. It’s always jammed to the rafters. Don’t even think about trying to get a table – standing at the bar is where it’s at. Be prepared to elbow your way to the bar and find a spot. You need to be a little bolshy here – everyone is. The bar staff are outstanding. They know exactly who has been served and who is next to be served. It’s a serious skill with people standing four-deep, I can tell you. And they didn’t wince at my halting Spanish.
So this is what you need to know: if you’re coming here for a few drinks before going for a meal, then cancel the meal. You won’t need one. In true Granada style, you are given a free tapas dish with every drink, a different one every time. Again the skill of the bar staff came into play. I never once saw anyone write anything down, yet they knew exactly what dishes you had, and gave you a different one next time. And they were damn fine tapas. We came here for a drink after visiting the Alhambra and left four drinks later, a little tipsy and nicely full. I think we spent €16 between us. Cheapest lunch ever?
Café de Paris, Castelsardo, Sardinia
What a surprise this place was. As you can see from the pic it’s far from pretty and definitely would not inspire you to enter based on appearances. What did intrigue us was the queue of people on the street waiting for a table. The staff were taking names and sending people away for a drink until they could accommodate them. We knew nothing about this place but after a peek at the very delicious sounding menu decided we’d also jump on the band wagon and join the queue. They sent us off for an hour, which gave us an opportunity to explore this very pretty town.
Castelsardo is a hill-top town located on the coast in north-eastern Sardinia and looks really dramatic when lit up against the night sky, with reflections on the sea below. We were staying elsewhere so unfortunately this was our one and only evening here. We ate a meal fit for a king. It’s not in the most picturesque location as it’s on a side-street so no views of the castle but I promise you the only thing you’ll be looking at is the delicious plate of food in front of you.
As I mentioned, the place itself is far from fancy but it’s the food and staff that make the experience. Our waiter was great fun and really chatty. He spoke perfect English as he’d lived in Ireland a few years previously. We started our meal with some chilled Mirto, a Sardinian liqueur which comes from the myrtle plant. Definitely an acquired taste, I decided to stick to wine. I ordered the Parmigiana Melanzane to start which is one of my favourite dishes and one which few people get right. Here it was perfection. The others were tearing into giant prawns which looked incredible. I had the seafood pasta as a main which was filled with the freshest mussels and clams and a little chili. So tasty. My two companions at this point appeared to be eating half a cow and looking verrrry happy about it. It’s really reasonably priced and wine is cheap as chips. Such a great meal and one we still talk about fondly.
Ananda, Dundrum, Dublin
This is Indian food like you’ve never had before. It’s a high-end verging on fine-dining experience but with none of the pretensions. Just fantastic food and wonderful service. The chefs are masterful and I’d go so far as to say that their dishes are works of art. The combination of flavours and spices in every dish are astounding. There is no such thing as a mediocre dish in this restaurant. Everything is mind-blowingly good. Even their poppadums are top notch.
While I’ve experimented with many of the main courses, once I’d discovered their starter of tandoori jumbo prawns there was no going back and I order it every time. It would be my ‘last meal on death row’ request. The prawns are huge and juicy and have a spicy kick to them, chargrilled with lime and carom and served with crispy onions and avocado on the side. You can’t believe how good they taste. My favourite main courses alternate between the dal bukhara, the monkfish tail, the butter chicken (the best one you’ll ever taste) and the murgh korma which is, get this, chicken breast stuffed with wild mushroom, pistachio and fennel served with a cardomom and saffron korma. Yep it’s as good as it sounds. The dishes are always inventive with a twist on traditional Indian cuisine.
The service is another reason we return again and again. It’s warm, friendly and extremely professional without being intrusive. And it’s the small things, for example the staff remember the wine we’ve had in the past and recommend similar ones that they think we would like. It’s impressive. In terms of pricing, it’s a little more expensive than your usual Indian restaurant but that’s because you’re not having standard fare. You’re in for the treat of your life. In saying that, it’s not crazily-expensive by any stretch of the imagination. You can still get a starter for €8 and the main courses start from €16.50 and go up to €35.50. Not extortionate by any means and worth every cent. They also make some damn fine cocktails. Just sayin’!
Visitors to this city tend to frequent the old town and in particular las siete calles ( the seven streets), to eat. A great place to start but you’d be missing out on the best tapas in the city. I’d go so far as to say it was some of the best tapas I’ve ever eaten anywhere. This place is a little gem, located in the El Ensanche area of Bilbao, ostensibly the financial district, but don’t let that put you off. It’s a really pretty part of town with trees and street sculpture everywhere and has loads of great bars and restaurants. We stumbled upon El Globo one evening and saw that it was absolutely stuffed with people at 6pm, with others standing outside on the street with drinks, mostly locals after work. So of course we had to elbow our way in.
The counters were stuffed with the most delicious looking pinxtos, and what was really great was that they were all labelled. When your Spanish is basic, and bars are busy, it can be difficult to know what you’re getting, particularly if you are a non meat-eating pescatarian like me. This place was a joy – there were so many fish and veggie options. We ordered a beer and stood at the bar picking at a selection of different pinxtos. I’d recommend the txangurro (crab) gratin and the marinated salmon. The little mini sandwiches are also great. Really cheap too – on average €2.50 per pinxto. I should also mention that the most expensive glass of wine on the menu is €2.20. You can get a great glass of Rioja Crianza for €1.40. We had a couple of drinks, lots of food, and our bill was less than €30 between us, including a tip. You really get good value for money in this part of Spain and I’d highly recommend this city, and this great bar.
Here we had the best pizza of our lives. In fact it was the highlight of our trip to Naples, a city I’d be happy never to set in foot in again as long as I live. Lombardi was recommended to us by the receptionist in our beautiful hotel (the only other good thing about this trip): Hotel Palazzo Caracciolo, and not only was the pizza fantastic, but the staff really made our night too. Giulio, our host for the evening, was an exuberant character and clearly so passionate about the food they were serving, the ingredients they use, and in ensuring that we had the best possible experience in their city. And he did that in spades.
Bear in mind that this place is not fancy. It’s quite the authentic Neapolitan experience with old-fashioned decor and it feels ever so slightly run-down. But none of that matters as you will be in heaven at the first mouthful of pizza. I can still remember how good it tasted. There is a small pizza menu, all with few ingredients, but my god how good are those ingredients. I had a very simple mozzarella, tomato, basil and ricotta pizza. And it was perfect. The base was so thin and crispy, and the ricotta was the best I’ve ever tasted, complemented so perfectly with the basil and tomatoes. Simple. Glorious.
We waited quite some time as they have a small pizza oven which can only cook one or two at a time and the place was pretty full. But we didn’t mind at all and sipped away at our wine and chatted to Giulio as he passed our table. At the end of the evening he brought us some Limoncellos on the house. And then two more. We asked him to join us and it was a lovely end to an otherwise not-so-lovely Neapolitan experience. He was so proud of his city and of his restaurant and was such interesting and charming company. No pizza has ever compared.
L’Envers du Décor, Saint-Émilion, France
This little bistro was recommended to us by our host in Bordeaux and was the highlight of a very wet day in Saint-Émilion. It’s an extremely picturesque town but crammed with tourists. I wanted to sample some of the local wines so one day we decided to take the train as it’s less than an hour from Bordeaux. The restaurant is located down a little side street. We managed to get in just before the lunch rush and got a table at the bar. They were turning people away moments later. It has a warm and cosy atmosphere and there were a number of locals eating at the bar beside us which was a good sign, particularly in a touristy town.
I went for the fish of the day special which was melt-in-your-mouth delicious. I ordered fish as I saw they had chocolate fondant as a dessert special and wanted to ensure I could fit one of those in too. I was very glad I did. It was perfect, oozing with warm chocolate and it came with pistachio ice-cream, which is my favourite. Absolutely divine. Needless to say, we enjoyed a bottle of the local wine. What else would you do on a wet day in one of France’s greatest wine regions? It would’ve been careless not to.
There is one other terrific meal I’d like to include but it is not on this list for a very good reason – I sadly cannot remember the name of the place and cannot find any reference to it online but we think it might be called Bar Truanes. It was in Dumbria in Galicia, Spain, and I was walking part of the Camino de Santiago with my best friends. I refer to it in my blog about the Camino here. It was one of the greatest meals I’ve ever had, served by one of the kindest souls we’ve ever met. It will live in my memory forever.