For an island nation, we sure took our time getting to grips with seafood.
We’re making up for it, though. Irish salmon and shellfish are world-class, Irish diners are more discerning and seafood festivals are up and running from Killybegs to Kilmore Quay. On her recent visit to Ireland, even the Queen began her State Dinner at Dublin Castle with a plate of Clare Island salmon.
Westport’s An Port Mór is one of many coastal restaurants confidently putting fish to the fore. And with prices ranging from €21.95 for a crab linguini to €27.50 for Clew Bay king scallops, increasingly knowledgeable diners should take the cue to expect quality and bang for their buck.
It’s a straightforward ask, but the results are needlessly complicated.
Take the Clew Bay prawn salad. It is simply described on the specials, but arrives with several prawns artistically arranged amongst beetroot, cucumber, tomatoes, scallions, chives, a sprinkle of flowers and several leaves. Atop of it all sits an unshelled prawn, like a pirate guarding his booty.
There’s some nice picking in the salad, and I like the tart cubes of beetroot and pickled tang to the cucumber, but the prawns themselves don’t stand up to be counted. The fuss ends up overwhelming the very reason I spent €10.50 on the dish in the first place.
Next up is a grilled fillet of halibut with lobster. It’s another simply-described special, and it comes on a bed of mashed potato, surrounded by a medley of mashed carrots, ratatouille, buttered beans, broccoli, roasted spring onion, courgette, cauliflower, red cabbage and spinach.
You know what I’m getting at. The halibut’s blouse of lemon and butter is gorgeously crispy from the grill, and the lobster, though a tad chewy, is drizzled in a very tasty wine, cream and tomato dressing. But the portion is too large, and the vegetables are too many and too hit-and-miss.
This may, of course, be a matter of taste. There are plenty of people who like large portions, and who, after paying the bones of €30 for a main course, may see nine vegetables as value for money. But less is often more, and I think the core ingredients should be trusted to do the talking.
The chef, by the way, is Frankie Mallon – a Euro-Toques member who was head chef at Cronin’s Sheebeen and previously worked at Belfast’s Roscoff with Paul Rankin. His is an award-winning restaurant, and the TripAdvisor reviews are glowing. Pictures of celebrity customers Enda Kenny, President McAleese and Clodagh McKenna beam down from the walls.
An Port Mór has the feel of a trattoria. There are terracotta tiles, sunny prints, a zingy shot of limoncello on the house, and breads come with black olive tapenade. The room is long and disjointed, but diners are clearly enjoying themselves, with a dinnertime blush to their cheeks.
The service is happily casual. When I arrive alone (my dinner date was unable to make it), the waitress takes a minute to prepare a better table. Finger bowls and black pepper come and go, I feel well looked-after, and they know when to engage and when to leave you alone.
As well as the specials, starters include a homemade soup and warm pig’s cheek and Inishturk crab salads, and you could go for a sirloin steak, breast of chicken or rump of lamb for a main if you’re not sold on the whole seafood vibe. The suppliers are listed either way.
For dessert, I ordered a mango mousse with strawberries and passion fruit. The mousse was just below room temperature, rather than chilled, and three raspberries were arranged amidst the listed fruits for good measure. A sticky toffee pudding and crème brulee were also on my shortlist.
Two glasses of house white (a Puna Snipe sauvignon blanc from Chile) washed it all down and a free plate of homemade petit fours, along with the limoncello, were an unexpected treat.
Like Kinsale, there’s a perennial buzz about Westport, and the restaurants punch well above similar-sized inland towns. But Irish seafood can be better than this.
With two glasses of wine, my meal came to €59, excluding the tip. I ordered from the specials, so I’d expect a meal for two to cost less than double that. There’s an early bird too.
Westport, Co. Mayo; 098 26730; anportmor.com
This review first appeared in The Irish Examiner.