Quietly, Galway, on Ireland’s wild Atlantic coast, has been witnessing a gastronomic explosion, leading it to this year be awarded European Region of Gastronomy status. Among the chefs igniting this gourmet revolution is flame-haired JP McMahon, who runs tiny, Michelin-starred, Aniar (Gaelic for “From the West”, pronounced “An Ear”), so named as its dishes are inspired solely by County Galway’s fields and rugged Atlantic coast. So imported lemons and black pepper are out. Instead, its chefs craft vinegars to provide acidity, and to spice things up, powders from seaweeds or plants. To extend flavours and seasons, they draw on age-old traditions of salting, fermenting and pickling.
When I visit, dinner starts, predictably enough perhaps, with homemade soda bread, moist and dark as an Irish peat bog, served with a choice of cultured butters. But then I’m served a slip of paper bearing an Ode to Bread that starts “Someone else cut off my head in a golden field”. An academic by background and self-taught as a chef, JP doesn’t do anything the ordinary way.
The nibbles (pictured) set the tone: a garlicky chicken heart on a stick, a baby parsnip sprinkled with dehydrated onion crumb, an eel and kohlrabi spring roll, and kelp and sea radish soup – all humble, unfussily presented, ingredients that JP lifts to fabulous flavour-packed heights. Presentation of both food and restaurant are pleasingly uncluttered, allowing you to savour the essence of each glorious ingredient.
Subsequent dishes push the boundaries with equal dexterity, such as the fermented potato (we’re in Ireland, after all) with smoked cod roe and cured egg yolk, snuggled inside an eggshell. Or the Atlantic cod that’s topped with foraged pepper pulse and pickled pine needles. The second of two desserts is candied beetroot with a yoghurt cream, topped with a beetroot leather like a floppy sombrero. This is contemporary Irish food at its pared-down best – and some of the best I’ve eaten anywhere. Get to Aniar when you can.
I visited Aniar while researching a feature on the food of Galway for Olive Magazine. To read more about Aniar, and other eateries in Galway, read my feature in the June issue of Olive magazine.