Review: Aniar, Galway

19th September 2011
Pól Ó Conghaile

By now, we’re used to restaurants talking up local and seasonal ingredients.

This is a good thing. But don’t you sometimes get the feeling that ‘local’ and ‘seasonal’ are deployed more as marketing clichés than statements of passion and intent?

Aniar, the newest addition to Galway’s buzzy restaurant scene, is different. Chef Enda McEvoy is not just deploying local ingredients. He is elevating them almost to an artform.

Take the starters, a list of five dishes from which I choose pigs’ cheeks with hazelnut, apple and kohlrabi, and L. orders scallops with oyster, dillisk, wood sorrel and smoked potato.

The simple descriptions only hint at the exquisite arrangements on our plates.

The stringy, slow-cooked pigs’ cheeks are hidden inside crunchy croquettes and surrounded by cubes of pickled apple, dehydrated hazelnut, cucumber jelly and pickled slices of kohlrabi (a type of turnip).

The scallops, painted with purees, powders and splashes of bright green sorrel, bring a sparkle to L’s eyes. Both dishes are sprinkled with pickled taste bombs that turn out to be wild garlic (ramson) seeds. And both manage to balance their complex mix of flavours to a tee.

The main courses are just as delicately fine-tuned. There are five choices here too (as there are for dessert), and this time we order the wild brill and a loin and belly of lamb.

The brill is beautiful. Drilling down into the treasure beneath the soft fillet, I find electric-green samphire that tastes of the ocean, clams yawning open to reveal their chewy cargo, steamed leaves of little gem, nutty peas and carrots that taste like… well, carrots.

The same, straightforward evocation of flavour from individual ingredients is evident in L’s lamb, raspberry-pink lumps of which beam up from her plate. Even the roast spuds that we’re issued as a side dish, drenched in butter, taste as if they were dug up that morning.

A menu dotted with wild herbs, seaweeds and berries reflects Aniar’s billing of itself as “a terroir-based restaurant”. Terroir refers to the soil and climate imbuing food and wine with the flavours of a region, and carries lots of potential for pretentiousness, but McEvoy is shored up by a stint in Copenhagen’s Noma, voted best restaurant in the world for two years running.

Noma gave foraging its 21st-century cred, and McEvoy makes regular trips to the seashore, forests and fields of Galway in search of bounty for his kitchen. Much of what he finds is pickled and brined, and the meat and seafood, as you’d expect, are locally and sustainably sourced. Even the wine list comes courtesy of small artisan producers – with 20 varieties available by the glass.

In fact, the only ingredients that do not seem to come from Ireland are the salt and lemons (that’s why there is no chocolate for dessert!). There’s undoubtedly a touch of the Birkenstocks to it, and Damien Rice should be removed from the stereo. But really, who cares if McEvoy spends his spare time free-diving for scallops, as long as he keeps coming up trumps on the plate?

And he does come up trumps. Aniar’s food is light, confident and within sight of the heights being hit by Mickael Viljanen, the foraging Finnish chef across the bay at Gregan’s Castle. Alex, our waiter, knows the dishes inside-out too – talk to him, he truly augments the experience.

The restaurant itself is surprisingly small, painted pale green and peppered with wildflowers and washed-out wood. It has the feel of a café, and several other diners are in raptures.

My dessert, including raspberries, toasted oats, whiskey cream, honey and sorrel comes topped with a crackle of rhubarb meringue so airy, it dissolves in my mouth before I can chew it.

Can Aniar work?

I asked the same question about Mulberry Garden in Donnybrook, and I can only give the same answer – I hope so. The prep work necessary to produce this calibre of food must be intense, and you’d have to wonder how the sums work in a room seating just 28 people.

That, however, is a question for another day. For the moment, just book a table and enjoy the first flushes of a restaurant that suggests tantalising potential for the team behind it (Aniar is owned by JP McMahon and Drigín Gaffey, who run Cava next door).

Local and seasonal, indeed – it’s a taste of Galway on the plate.

The tab:

Our bill, including tea, coffee and wine, came to €122.75 before the tip.

The details:

Dominick Street, Galway; 091 535947; aniarrestaurant.ie

 

This review originally appeared in The Irish Examiner.