Talking Travel Grassroots Travel Suzanne Wright A Foodie in Ireland

A Foodie in Ireland:
Eating My Way from Coast to Coast
by Suzanne Wright




When I've heard people talk about Ireland, they have generally expressed so-called and commonly held “truths” as: “It’s really, really green,” “The people are friendly,” “The Guinness is strong,” or “The food is lousy.”

Wait! As I found out during a recent two-week trip, that last “truth” is a myth. Here's the real truth: the food in Ireland is amazingly good. In fact, my dining experiences in the Emerald Isle were the stuff of great gastronomic memories.


Consider these facts. The Republic of Ireland is a small (population: 3.9 million), largely agrarian island country about the size of West Virginia. The Irish live close to the land. Seafood is plentiful and very fresh — from salmon to oysters to prawns and mussels — and local catches end up as daily specials in local pubs.

Drive the rolling hills in the countryside and you will see sheep and cows ranging freely; the meat from some of those organically-raised animals are likely to end up on your plate. Roadside stands burst with fresh produce on offer to passing motorists; and farmers markets are a weekly — and sometimes more frequent — event in villages. Shops post hand-lettered signs for local eggs, farmstead cheeses, and butter. In other words, nothing has to travel very far in Ireland, so nearly everything you eat is fresh and nutritious.

In addition to Mother Nature’s rich bounty, there is “the roar of the Celtic Tiger,” a term used to describe the booming Irish economy of the past 10 or so years. In fact, according to author T.R. Reid in his excellent book, The United States of Europe, Ireland was the number one benefactor of the European Union. So, the locals are flush.

This affluence is demonstrated by a housing boom, but it is also responsible for many new restaurants. And please, think way beyond potatoes; chefs are adding contemporary twists to traditional dishes in a movement dubbed “Modern Irish.” From fine dining establishments to pubs, you will eat very well in Ireland. And the portions are generous. When I ask the general manager of a restaurant why the portions were enormous, he shrugs. “Irish men like to eat.” He makes no specific reference to Irish women. Doggy bags, incidentally, are not popular with the locals and not practical for travelers. Therefore, as a solo diner, I get into the habit of ordering two or three appetizers instead of an entrée so I can sample more delicious dishes. So, when dining in Ireland I suggest you bring a friend with you — even better, make a new friend en route. In Ireland, this is not difficult.

Flying into Shannon Airport, I start my food pilgrimage at The Lodge at Doonbeg Golf Club, a luxury seaside resort on the southwest coast in County Clare. Developed by the folks behind Kiawah Island, the resort opened in May 2006 and provides golfers with deluxe accommodations (18th- and 19th-century antiques, sleigh beds with Irish linens, polished hardwood floors, stone-topped vanities in the copious bathrooms, a spa created by Irish-born designer Clodagh, panoramic views of the craggy coastline), and a fine, links-style Greg Norman-designed course. In addition to the very welcoming suites and setting, the staffers greet you with firm handshakes and broad smiles. And then there is the food!

James Beard award-winning chef Tom Colicchio of Manhattan’s Gramercy Tavern and Las Vegas’ Craftsteak helped style the menus. In addition to Darby’s Pub, there’s The Long Room, a formal restaurant that is a good bet to gain a place of honor on the Irish culinary scene. Chef Aidan McGrath, who owned his own restaurant, Muses, and formerly worked at hotels including Sheen Falls Lodge, prepares such dishes as:

  • Liscannor scallops (from a village up the coast);
  • Saline and Sweet with Smoked Haddock and Organic Leeks;
  • a succulent Roast Canon of Burren Lamb (a region north of the Lodge) With Onion Au Gratin, Asparagus and Beets;
  • Gravalax of Salmon with oysters beignets;
  • Creamy Cep (mushroom) Risotto with Chicken;
  • perfectly roasted Filet of Turbot with Green Peas and Lobster Velouté;
  • tender Filet of Beef with Green Beans Wrapped in Parma Ham;
  • Light Champagne and Strawberry Mousse;
  • and classic Pear Tarte Tatin ... which arrived just as the orange sun was dropping into the inky ocean at 11:20 p.m. on a June night.

The following day, I head up the coast to the see the much-celebrated Cliffs of Moher. The site is impressive but overcrowded with tour buses. Instead, I opt therefore for a side trip through The Burren and its stark, almost melancholic, limestone landscape. Tucked into a clutch of trees, The Burren Perfumery which makes delicious-smelling, all-natural botanical toiletries for the Lodge bakes the fluffiest, lightest scones I’ve ever tasted and serves them with apricot preserves and a cup of calming herbal tea made from freshly picked whole mint and fennel leaves. All this is presented in an al fresco setting that nourishes both body and soul. I may never be able to go back to tea bags.

Afterwards, I board a ferry to visit Inisheer, the closest and smallest of the Aran Islands, one of the last outposts of Gaelic civilization. I board a horse-drawn buggy for a tour of the rugged island’s prehistoric forts, a 1960s wrecked freighter, 10th-century church, and a cemetery with buttercups scattered amid the tombstones.

Back on the mainland, I dine at Vaughan’s, an unassuming pub with knockout, award-winning food. After two slices of banana bread (the bread is wondrous in Ireland — always varied, always divine), I tuck into: chowder loaded with mussels, herbs and garlic; risotto with wild mushrooms and truffles; scallops with samphire (a vegetable from the sea, like an oceanic, skinnier, saltier version of asparagus); and brown bread and butter pudding. All is stunningly presented. And Red Breast whiskey — neat of course — is a nice discovery for a gal who eschews beer. However I noted the signs that proclaim “Guinness is Good For You.” (It used to be prescribed medicinally).

My trip is further blessed with stunning weather (sunny, dry, 75 degrees) as I set out for points south. I was nervous about driving in Ireland what with all the multi-tasking required of a solitary driver: driving on the “wrong” side of narrow, winding roads; consulting the map and watching for easy-to-miss “finger” signs; navigating traffic circles; snapping roadside pictures; taking notes; and trying to avoid hitting pedestrians, cyclists and livestock. Amazingly, I am able to navigate and still breathe in the sweet air and admire the stacked stone fences and blooming wildflowers.

Unfortunately, it is a “bank holiday” weekend and lots of other folks are also on the roads, including the encroaching tour buses on my tail as I try to circle the famed Ring of Kerry in the fine weather. I abandon course, skip kitschy Killarney and head straight on to Kenmare, one of Ireland’s “tidy towns,” and a Mecca for foodies on the Iveragh Peninsula.

When I stop for directions to Sheen Falls Lodge, the first of two hotels I will stay at in town, I get a bonus from the friendly traffic cop: a police escort from the edge of the village to the hotel! The former residence of the Marquis of Landsdowne, the lodge is nestled among 300 acres of woodlands. Someone is playing the piano in the formal La Cascade restaurant. The staff is solicitous. The views look out over the treetops.

I feast on a refreshing white tomato mousse with tomato and basil vinaigrette and pesto (which I can’t help but notice is the same color as the Irish flag); monkfish with buttered samphire and fennel purée and saffron potatoes; and astonishing blueberry mousse with rice ice cream and sweet curry sauce — more subtle and utterly delicious than it sounds. I sip two New World wines (the country seems especially fond of those regions): an almost effervescent Seidelberg Viognier from South Africa and a Sherwood Pinot Noir from New Zealand. I retire to my spacious butter-yellow room. The French door is open to the gurgling waterfall which lulls me to sleep.

I head to the Beara Peninsula and the much less crowded Ring of Beara. Traversing the Healy Pass is pure bliss: no buses, just my car and a few occasional others hugging the coastal and inland roads. Purple azaleas are in bloom and above me are cornflower skies. I pull off and let white-haired Kevin of Ellen’s Boat Service row me over to Garinish Island, past seal lions sunning themselves on warm rocks. He tells me actress Maureen O’Hara lives in the hills above Glengariff village. I spend a couple of hours traversing the manicured grounds of the islande. Back in Kenmare, I check into The Park Hotel which overlooks Kenmare Bay and was built in 1897 by the Great Southern and Western Railway Company to provide overnight accommodations for passengers. It’s rather like my great-aunt’s house with its shabby-chic furnishings (bisque lamps) and sweet touches like home-baked cookies.

At Packie’s, a snug bistro with white-washed walls and trailing vines, I enjoy my favorite meal in town and meet a garrulous threesome from Seattle (husband, wife and husband’s mother). I appreciate his assessment of the place: “Packie’s by name and by reputation,” referring to a steady steam of potential patrons who without reservations, are turned away. Over an evening meal of lobster-like Kenmare bay prawns and citrus salad with red pepper relish; perfectly cooked chicken livers with orange salad and a slick of cranberry sauce; and fresh strawberries with whipped cream, I discover we are on the same course heading to to Kinsale in a few days time. I share a cheese board and an apéritif with my new friends and promise to meet up with them later. I return to the hotel and enjoy my own private screening (in the 12-seat cinema) of the famous 1950s film The Quiet Man set in Ireland and starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.

The village of Kenmare utterly charms me, in part because according to John Brennan, general manager at the Park Hotel it boasts five “stellar” restaurants, 10 “excellent” ones and a dozen “good ones.” After viewing the town’s standing circle which dates back 3000 years (to a soundtrack of mooing cows and baying sheep), and then dilly-dallying at the “victualler” (the slightly sweet-smelling butcher shop with the crisp white-outfitted butcher), I enjoy an exceedingly pleasant lunch of pasta and wine at Davitt’s. I then amble through several bookstores and head back to the hotel’s contemporary spa, SÁMAS, where I while away the hours until dinner and indulge myself in an Indian rose massage and a visit to the beautiful outdoor vitality pool. I walk next door to the Lime Tree for my final meal here, a dining experience that features great calamata and white bean spread; sweet, tiny mussels with chorizo; and smoked salmon, the latter more mellow than U.S. versions.

The drive from Kenmare to Kinsale takes me through rolling and rather pungent farmland; manure is a staple of organic gardening. Kinsale’s sister city is Newport Rhode Island and the kinship is readily apparent. It is an affluent harbor town with an abundance of good restaurants, though its long-standing status as culinary capital is being increasingly challenged by the likes of Kenmare and other villages.

The Perryville House is perched on a hill overlooking the marina. The Georgian building with its ornate wrought iron door and balconies brings to mind New Orleans. The guest rooms are spacious and meticulously maintained. I re-connect with my new friends from Seattle and we go to Man Friday, the oldest restaurant in town. The meal is fine and memorable, especially the goat cheese salad which is zingy and creamy. The companionship is equally good; we laugh and compare culinary notes. I am reminded why sharing a meal is so embedded in human culture.

Lunch the following day at Fishy Fish’s sparkling new location is also memorable. While we wait for a table we watch a kitchen staffer shuck oysters. Although the service is sluggish (open only for lunch, it is always busy), the sautéed whitefish, salmon, shrimp, tomato and potato salad sparked with sweet chili sauce are all winners. I finish the copious bowl with a light Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. A shell is presented with the check; the waitress lets me keep it as a memento.

My new friends give me a personal recommendation in Kilkenny, a good stop on the way to Dublin. They suggest the comfortable Hibernian Hotel, formerly a Victorian Bank house. TThe opening game of the World Cup Football is tonight and the town is jammed with city revelers on a weekend break. I’m fortunate to snag a cancelled room — the last — for a single night. I walk next door to Zuni to arrange dinner. It’s the first, and in fact only place in which I encounter an attitude.With an arched brow, the manager icily informs me they are “full-up.” Desperate I explain I am a food writer in town for a single night. I am told to come back at 6 p.m. It’s now 3 pm.

I change into a smart outfit, return to the restaurant, and cross my fingers while I wait at the bar. The culinary gods and goddesses must be watching over me because there’s been a cancellation. I am ushered into the restaurant through closed black doors. The décor is modern; the chefs are clad in black. The food is stellar: a simple tangle of rocket and red onions topped with Parmesan slivers and dressed in a lemony vinaigrette; a rich risotto studded with smoked haddock and scallops and lobster claw meat kissed with a slightly sweet, mild curry; (from my table I can see the kitchen and watch the chef gently place each scallop on the plate’s perimeter.); a luscious sour cherry tart with sauce anglaise and ice cream.

Satiated I walk out into the street and look for a post-prandial non-smoking pub to catch a bit of “football” (soccer to us Americans). As it turns out they all are non-smoking. Ireland was the first country in the world to ban smoking in all workplaces). The pubs are busy, and with the World Cup fever bookmakers with names like Tully’s are doing a swift business.

My final drive is to Dublin where I can blessedly surrender the car, though I admit I have become found of my Nissan Micro. Along the way at produce stands, I see hand-lettered signs for “Wexford strawberries and potatoes.” I can’t resist picking up some strawberries, plump and sparkling like rubies. I check into The Merrion Hotel, an elegant five-star property on a quiet street opposite the regal, white marble government buildings and just a short stroll from busy pedestrian-only Grafton Street.

Created from four meticulously-restored Georgian townhouses arranged around two 18th-century style gardens, it boasts a casual, yet impeccable restaurant, The Cellar, in (where else?) the basement. Recipient of the “Best Hotel Restaurant in Dublin” award at the coveted Food and Wine Magazine Restaurant of the Year Awards in 2005, it evokes a white-washed rathskellar, tiny lanterns lighting the linen-covered tablecloths. A flute of gorgeous Billecart-salmon rosé in hand, I nibble on a silken foie gras and chicken and fennel terrine with celeriac remoulade; the signature dish, lightly battered haddock and chips with bright minted mushy peas; and Irish summer berries — raspberry, blackberry and strawberry — in a puddle of frothy Bailey’s sabayon. The waiter brags that chef Ed Cooney is on the Irish Culinary Olympics team. Sated once again, I retire to my room, a regal cocoon with a stunning marble bathroom and plump bed.

At 10 a.m. the next morning, the doorman flags down a hop-on/ hop-off bus tour right outside the hotel. In addition to the bus drivers, who each seems to replicate actor Colin Farrell’s cocky behavior in their witty banter, the highlights of the tour are: the massive, seven-floor Guinness Storehouse. It is the country’s number one visitor attraction with killer city views from the top-floor Gravity Bar. Also on the tour is St. Stephen’s Park, the largest square in Europe.

Cobblestoned Temple Bar, the tacky pedestrian-only pub and tattoo parlor area south of the River Liffey, is redeemed only by the unexpected surprise of Monty’s of Kathmandu, a modest Nepalese restaurant and winner of the Bushmills’ malt “best ethnic restaurant in Dublin.” I recommend the not-too-spicy jyoti chicken and rice with a side of curry vegetables.

After 13 days of adventurous eating, I need some real exercise. So I join the Dirty Boots Trek for a day-long, nine-mile hike in the Wicklow Mountains. Andrew O’Connor, the affable and terrifically fit owner, brings everything I need: boots, an extra jacket and rain pants and ... lunch.

Described as “easy to moderate,” this sedentary writer would describe the trek as “challenging.” The first half is mostly uphill on rocky terrain, while the second half is mostly downhill on spongy peat that threatens to twist my ankles. O’Connor and my trail mates, two young women from Belgium and a suburban Dublin father, encourage me as I huff and puff. And it is a worthy pursuit in spite of the loathsome “midges” (no see-ums in American parlance). The scenery includes the longest glacial valley in the British Isles, sparkling lakes, dramatic ridges, grazing sheep, a darting rabbit. When we make it to the top, I’m elated by the view. Although it’s not a fancy meal, I’m ravenous and grateful for the sandwich, fruit, candy bar, and mini apple pie. I’m equally grateful, upon my return to The Merrion, for a restorative full body massage from Caitriona.

I reckon I’ve earned dinner tonight, my final splurge before I board a plane tomorrow. Chapter One Restaurant is the basement of the former home of distiller John Jameson next to the Dublin Writer’s Museum, a happy coincidence. I slake my thirst with Irish (of course) whiskey and opt for the six-course tasting menu on the recommendation of the charming and attentive Declan Maxwell. A parade of delicious dishes appear, expertly paced over three hours, including: light and summery lobster and clam cocktail with avocado, tomato and coriander; a toothsome fricassee of mushrooms, potatoes and asparagus; a savory guinea fowl and veal tart with peas à la française and sauce béarnaise; John Dory (a fish not someone I met) with mussels and a soy and ginger vinaigrette. For the wines, I put my faith in the charismatic Ian, who has won Sommelier of the Year in Ireland and pairs each course with a series of New and Old World wines.

Having happily cleaned my plate from coast to coast, I regret to report that during my meal at Chapter One I stopped taking notes somewhere around the fifth course, and just enjoyed my meal. And that is exactly what I am confident you will do if you head to Ireland with an inquiring gastronomical mind set and a good appetite.

If You Dine in Ireland

For general information on the country, visit

For more information on specific places mentioned in this article, visit the following:

In Doonbeg and environs: Doonbeg Golf Club and Resort:

The Burren Perfumery:

Aran Islands’ Doolin Ferries:

In Kenmare: Sheen Falls Lodge:

The Park Hotel Kenmare:

General information on Kenmare:

In Kinsale: The Perryville House:

General information on Kinsale:

In Kilkenny: The Hibernian Hotel: and Zuni:

In Dublin: The Merrion Hotel: and Monty’s of Kathmandu: