The restaurants of Ireland stole the show at this year's Michelin ceremony, demonstrating inventive and original menus, all united by the use of some incredible local produce. Andy Lynes looks at the newcomers to the guide
Early last month, Aimsir made history by becoming the first Irish restaurant to enter the Michelin guide with two Michelin stars. What makes the achievement even more extraordinary is that chef, Cornwall-born Jordan Bailey, and his wife, Majken Bech-Bailey, only opened the Kildare restaurant five months earlier.
The accolade helped the Republic of Ireland steal the show in the 2020 guide, which saw the Greenhouse in Dublin promoted from one to two stars and new one-star awards for Variety Jones, also in Dublin, and Adare Manor in County Limerick.
In addition, Bastion in Kinsale traded in its Bib Gourmand for a Michelin star, and two special awards went to Irish recipients: Jurica Gojevic at Adare Manor, who won the Sommelier Award, while Michelin-starred Loam in Galway picked up the Sustainability Award. With no star demotions, the Republic of Ireland now boasts three two-star restaurants (Patrick Guilbaud in Dublin has held the accolade for 25 years) and 15 one-star establishments, as well as 20 Bib Gourmands. A decade ago there were just six starred restaurants.
So what has propelled the star-fest?
"The Michelin stars in Ireland are really varied in almost every way – type of cuisine, atmosphere, size, location and so on – so it's difficult to pin down individual factors," says Rebecca Burr, director of the Michelin Guide Great Britain and Ireland.
"My impression is this is not a sudden phenomenon – it's been developing over several years. Irish chefs have increasingly focused on high-quality, often local ingredients, and at the same time they have been strengthening their skills to showcase those products at their best. Simultaneously, talented chefs from elsewhere have been attracted to the country by the quality of the local produce and the commercial opportunities they see."
Bailey, who moved to Ireland from his position as head chef of three-Michelin-starred Maaemo in Oslo in January 2018, says that the restaurant scene has changed massively in the 18 months that he's been in the country.
"There's loads more new restaurants opening up. There's a new generation of chefs coming through and these guys have been out and travelled around and are bringing new things to the plate. The restaurants here are very diverse; you have Takashi Miyazaki of Ichigo Ichie in Cork and Damien Grey at Liath in Dublin. It's just on the rise. The restaurants that have opened over the past few months are destined to get stars next year."
Before opening Aimsir (Irish for ‘weather'), Bailey had not only never cooked in Ireland but hadn't even visited the country. His interest was piqued by his Irish sous chef at Maaemo, who waxed lyrical about the diversity of the landscape and the quality of the produce. Once there, he soon found a community of chefs ready and willing to help with his new business.
"In Ireland, news travels very fast. I'm pretty sure everybody knew I was coming over even before my parents did," says Bailey. "I had chefs reaching out on Instagram to say ‘If you need to go out and find suppliers or producers, or want advice or foraging spots, just give me a call'. We spent three months on the road, on and off. You go and meet one supplier and they recommend the guy down the road. It's never-ending; it's incredible."
Bailey's 18-course tasting menu is composed entirely of the produce he tracked on the road trip. The only thing he imports is sugar and he even has plans to make that himself in the near future to achieve a 100% Irish menu.
"We don't use any olive oil or citrus fruits and we've even said we won't take anything that's grown here in a polytunnel that can grow outside naturally. I just want to keep it very focused, adopting the same sort of ethos as Maaemo, but taken that step further. For me, it helps to have limitations because they push you to be more inventive and to really think outside the box."
That commitment to Irish produce didn't go unnoticed by Michelin. Burr explains: "The passion that Jordan Bailey feels for the produce of Ireland, and the pride he takes in every aspect of its preparation shines through. He has some excellent restaurants on his CV and he has clearly managed to communicate his ethos and knowledge of balance to the whole team."
Down to earth
But Bailey, who earlier in his career worked at two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham, admits that he had some initial reservations about how his adventurous, Nordic-influenced menu would go down with an Irish audience, party fuelled by advice from local chefs who warned that customers would have certain expectations.
"They said, you have to serve potato, you have to serve meat and sauce and veg, and I thought, OK, I don't know if this is going to work. We did a pop-up six months before we opened and served eight courses of things we thought were ‘out there' to most people in Ireland and it was very well received.
"If you're going to serve something crazy, you have to serve it with something familiar. For example, at the pop-up we did a grilled duck heart and we served it with a hay-infused hollandaise to make it a bit more approachable. It gave us the confidence to stick to what we were doing and we haven't had any guest say they don't get it or that they're not eating it."
Bailey has taken once piece of advice to heart and has based the first dish of his menu on potatoes, which he sources from nearby Ballymakenny. He roasts the potatoes whole, scoops out the flesh (which is fermented and made into miso for future use) and deep-fries the skin. He fills it with locally grown garlic, which he ferments to make black garlic, and a cream cheese made with Boyne Valley Bán goats' cheese from Meath.
"It's a crispy potato shell but it's liquid and warm in the middle. It's just like a big explosion. It's very familiar for Irish people – it reminds them of cheese and onion crisps and it makes them feel at home."
Although Aimsir's 24 seats have been fully booked since opening, the restaurant received more than 2,000 email enquiries following the Michelin announcement and there is currently a daily waiting list of about 200 for each of the Wednesday to Saturday dinner services. Bailey and Bech-Bailey's success has been sudden and dramatic, but indications are that it's no flash in the pan.
Restaurant critic Tom Doorley, who has been watching the scene since 1994 and currently writes for the Irish Daily Mail, believes there are more star-worthy restaurants in the pipeline: "The guide is a recognition, albeit it a very incomplete and imperfect recognition, of a very, very exciting restaurant culture," he says.
"For example, I think it's pretty extraordinary that Chapter One in Dublin hasn't been very seriously considered for two Michelin stars, and Forest Avenue, also in Dublin, should have a star. There has never been a better time to eat out in the city than now and there's an extraordinary rate of new openings and most of them really good. Uno Mas, which won a Bib Gourmand, is one of the most exciting openings in Dublin over the past year."
The Michelin Guide was tight-lipped about the possibility of the first three-Michelin-starred Irish restaurant, but Doorley believes it's a matter of time: "There should certainly be one at this stage, but the fact that there are now three two stars means we're heading in the right direction. I think it's going to come," he says.
One obvious contender for the accolade is Mickael Viljanen at the Greenhouse, which is due to be refurbished in January next year. Although Viljanen insists that his next goal after winning two stars is "just to be a little bit better", he does acknowledge that he has been thinking seriously about what he puts on the plate.
"The change in our restaurant has been the focus on the produce. If we have a milk-fed lamb dish, we want to make sure that dish is about lamb. There are fewer items on the plate, but they're better thought out, better composed, and it eats better. We try to think of the whole dining experience more than we did, in terms of a sequence of dishes – not too heavy, not too light and what's to go after it."
Bailey, however, has no qualms about describing three Michelin stars as "the holy grail" and something that he is striving to achieve, but not at any cost. "I'm not going to kill myself to get there, especially as you really don't know what you're chasing for. There's no checklist you can tick off, but that is the ultimate goal. We've been open five months – imagine what we'll be in five years."
The new Irish stars
Adare Manor, Limerick
"My first reaction when I heard the news about the star was to cry," says Mike Tweedie, head chef of the Oak Room at the five-star Adare Manor, which is set in 840 acres of parkland in Limerick. "It was amazing to finally achieve something after spending my whole 15-year career working towards this goal."
Tweedie was born in Devon and previously worked for Michael Caines at Gidleigh Park and the Greenhouse in Dublin before becoming head chef of the Oak Room in November 2017, when it reopened following an 18-month renovation.
Both the à la carte and seven-course tasting Market menus reflect the almost 3,000km road trip Tweedie undertook with Loughlin Druhan, Adare Manor's director of culinary, to compile a list of about 50 small, artisan suppliers, including New Leaf Urban Farmers in Ballyneety, a 20-minute drive from the hotel.
"I take nearly 1,000kg of beetroot off that supplier every six months. We make a fermented beetroot tartare with it and serve it with a horseradish ice-cream and watercress. Everyone gets the dish: you have it as an appetiser on the à la carte or part of the tasting menu. It's very simple, but it's just a nice way to start the meal. It's a Limerickbased product and I want to celebrate it."
Variety Jones, Dublin
After more than a decade working in Michelinstarred restaurants in Dublin, including Chapter One and the Greenhouse, chef Keelan Higgs (pictured, left) decided to go a different route for his first restaurant, Variety Jones. The restaurant, located in a converted tattoo parlour, is named after the pseudonym of one of the founders of the darknet drugs operation the Silk Road. It's part of a new wave of Irish food, according to Higgs.
"I think it's no longer necessary to have the white tablecloths and the dickie-bow service. The food is getting more approachable, but the standards are still there," he says. "We've a lot of chefs who went away to the UK, Scandinavia and Europe and they've made their way back and are now doing their own thing. We've upped our game and Michelin are taking more notice as a result."
Higgs' own travels took him to Washington DC to work as a consultant, where he was inspired by the open-flame cooking at the Dabney, owned by Sean Brock alumni Jeremiah Langhorne.
"We do have gas cookers and induction hobs, but I also have a cage that burns logs and I cook directly on the embers," says Higgs. His menu focuses on seasonal, organic Irish vegetables and incorporates techniques such as fermentation in dishes including veal sweetbreads, ox tongue, tartar sauce, chicory and fermented horseradish.
"It's a sharing-style menu. Ideally, the customers come in and say we'll have whatever the chefs wants to prepare, so we just send dishes out to share between two people and they break bread together. They relax and enjoy themselves more. If we can give them tasty stuff to start off with – snacks that they can share – they start to trust us and we can guide their experience. That's the main thing we do differently. We want people to feel at home."
Glasgow-born Paul McDonald and partner Helen Noonan opened Bastion, described by Michelin as "an intimate wine bar cum bistro", in the medieval fishing port of Kinsale on the south-west coast of Ireland in 2015. A budget of just £30,000 meant they had to paint the restaurant themselves and buy their furniture from Ikea.
"The first two years we just about kept our heads above water. We were doing small plates and then we moved onto à la carte and a small tasting menu. And all during that time we had Michelin in. They came within nine weeks of opening because they'd been getting calls and emails from our customers. The first year we got a Bib and retained it ever since."
But with McDonald's fine dining background, working for chefs Tom Aikens and Aiden Byrne and as head chef of the G Hotel in Galway, it was inevitable that he would aim higher. Encouraged by conversations with Michelin inspectors, McDonald made the decision to only offer an eight-course tasting menu with a vegetarian option in order to improve consistency and increase the restaurant's chances of bagging a star.
"I knew dropping to just a tasting menu would alienate a lot of our customers. We really felt the pinch, so if the star didn't come, we knew we were dead in the water. But it did come and within 10 hours we'd had 300 emails for reservations, and they haven't stopped since."
McDonald singles out a carrot dish as representative of his offering at Bastion: "The carrot comes up so often in customer comments, and it's a bit of an under-promise and overdeliver. We cook the carrot in carrot juice with star anise, coriander and sugar. We make a carrot purée with brown butter and cardamom and serve it with Velvet Cloud sheep's yogurt from Mayo and juniper crumble.
"The produce we're getting right now is second to none – it really is. All round us on this island there is unbelievable produce, and I can say that objectively because I'm not Irish."
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