There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Loam, Fine Dining in Galway: Part 3 of the West of Ireland

Our day out in Connemara had been blighted (though not ruined) by the weather, but it was our wedding anniversary - 41st, since you asked - so there was more fun to come.

The Republic of Ireland currently has nine Michelin starred restaurants. Four, including the only two-starred restaurants are predictably in Dublin. Two of the remainder are in Galway suggesting the city, with its well established foodie reputation, is punching above its weight.

Enda McEvoy studied English and Sociology before making a career in cooking. He travelled widely to gain experience and was poached from Noma in Copenhagen to become head chef at Aniar in Galway where he won a Michelin star in 2013. Aniar maintained that standard even after he left to open his own restaurant, Loam, where he promptly gained Galway’s second Michelin star.

I chose Loam for our wedding anniversary foray into the world of fine dining after studying the web sites and sample menus of both restaurants and then tossing a coin. I certainly did not choose it for its exterior charm; just north of the city centre we walked past the bus station and a building site before finding it in the ground floor of a charmless building apparently unsure whether to be an office block or a shopping mall.

Loam, Galway
The restaurant frontage is the rectangle behind the two decorated pillars
A rough sleeper was bedding down in the covered area outside. I doubt his choice of location was intentional, but it administered a painful kick to the consciences of those arriving for an evening of conspicuous consumption. We probably needed it.

Inside is a spacious wine bar and beyond that, behind a wooden partition the restaurant. Outside it may look tacky but the modern design and light coloured wood make a pleasant interior, though it is unusually brightly lit for a wine bar/restaurant.

Looking at Lynne in the restaurant through the partition from the wine bar
The menu arrived along with complimentary glasses of sparkling wine - I had casually mentioned it was our anniversary when making the booking. They were generously sized, even more so if the contents were champagne and the quality, acidity and citrusy flavour made it a convincing substitute if it was not actually the real thing.

The ‘simplicity menu,’ three courses with two choices each, was limited but we were tempted by the seven course tasting menu, suspecting (rightly, as it turned out) that the laconic style held hidden surprises. I was particularly attracted by the idea of monkfish liver – I do not recall having eaten it, or any other fish liver before - and coolea, whatever that might be.

The seven course tasting menu, Loam, Galway
The menu changes daily depending on the available ingredients

The amuse bouche, which did not count as one of the seven courses, consisted of three small mouthfuls, all packing more flavour per bite than seemed feasible. Pickled kohlrabi, carrot and tarragon in a rice noodle had a lovely Chinese character, the herb parcel to dip in fennel mayonnaise was merely pleasant but the tiny cheese bun with bacon and onion was a revelation, making us reassess familiar ingredients and flavours.

The courses were small, but there were many of them and by the end we had eaten what my grandmother used to call an ‘elegant sufficiency.’

Hidden treasures appeared with the very first dish. Mackerel, beetroot and fennel was actually smoked mackerel with a dusting of fennel pollen, yellow beetroot carpaccio and fermented beetroot juice. Fermented beetroot juice, just a moistening to hold the dish together, and fennel pollen (I am unsure what that did) were new to me, as was yellow beetroot. The thin yellow slices and fermented juice set off the mackerel superbly.

Each course came with a recommended wine, and for the mackerel it was Empordà, a Catalan white with the Spanish virtue of freshness without a pronounced fruity flavour that would fight with the fish. The region used to be known as Empordà-Costa Brava, but they have dropped ‘Costa Brava,’ not wishing their wine to be considered mere holiday drinking.

The monkfish liver arrived with a tiny roasted onion, peeled baby broad beans (I could really not be arsed to peel a broad bean, so if you come to my house...) and a squid ink sauce. I approached the liver with trepidation but it was unnecessary, the texture was hardly liver-y, perhaps closer to roe, and the flavour was subtle, even mild. More punch came from the squid ink, but the effect was still restrained. Presumably locally sourced, these are ingredients that usually get exported, mainly to Spain and this Spanish style dish came with a very French Picpoul de Pinet which I enjoyed, though it is sometimes too acid for my taste.

 Coolea with carpaccio of sirloin was a stand-out dish. Raw and bloody, the sirloin was tucked round a small mound of coolea cheese and dusted with powdered ceps - the picture also shows a seed of some kind, though I can't remember what it was. The beef was thinly sliced, tender and full of flavour, the cheese soft and creamy, the combination perfection. Coolea farmhouse cheese has apparently been made in County Cork since 1979, but was new to us.  Created by Helene and Dick Willems, the company is now run by their son Dicky and his wife Sinead and continues to win awards as it has from the beginning. Sinead apart, their names do not sound Irish, so it is no surprise that the cheese is made to an old Gouda recipe, though I would not have recognised this soft creaminess as being Gouda.

Sirloin, coolea and mushroom, Loam, Galway
A carnivore's delight

It was accompanied by a Sangiovese/Montepulciano blend from Marche. A big rugged Italian with bags of sappy Sangiovese flavour and a tug of tannin it was a perfect match.

Carrot, Hazelnut and Whey consisted of goats' cheese whey (I am unsure what that is - surely cheese is made from curds not whey?) with slow roast carrot, hazelnuts and nasturtium. The mixture of unexpected ingredients went remarkably well, but the dish was something of a saddle between two meaty peaks. The Alsace Pinot blanc was not entirely successful either, in Alsace they usually get the best out of this often dull grape, but not always.

Lamb, turnip and pea; two perfect pink cylinders of lamb with peas, watercress, parsley and tiny turnips looked a picture and was full of subtle and perfectly melded flavours. Turnip is a rediscovered vegetable (I blame Baldrick) and is worthy of renewed prominence, though the search for new traditional varieties produces some odd results. The wedge of purple turnip had a strangely floury texture and perhaps it should have been left in obscurity. The accompanying Rioja Crianza was good enough, but I would have hoped for a bit more finesse with the meal's centrepiece.

Lamb, turnip and pea, Loam, Galway
 Pear, Elderflower, the first of two desserts, was a refreshing, palate-cleansing combination of pear, cucumber, granny smith and lemon verbena with an elderflower sorbet and beetroot coulis. I would normally shudder at the suggestion of cucumber in a dessert, and beetroot coulis is a strange concept, but it all worked magnificently; fresh, acidic and sweet. Maybe the ability to see how unexpected ingredients can come together to produce something new, unexpected and delightful is what separates Michelin starred chefs from normal people.

And finally there was the real desert. Strawberry, Juniper involved strawberry ice cream with shards of juniper meringue, sweet pickled cherry, lovage sponge, coconut butter, white chocolate mousse, white chocolate bonbon, hazelnut crumb and a hint of smoked hay. There were many elements, some very small but all (except the almost undetectable smoked hay) made their contribution and the multitude of textures provided variety beneath the dominant sweetness of any dessert.

Strawberry, Juniper - Loam, Galway
And so finished our dinner at Loam. We might have been tempted by the additional cheese course if anyone had tried to sell it to us, but we were well enough fed without. With our coffee we asked for a brandy, but learned that they had no licence – licensing arrangements are clearly different in Ireland – and perhaps we should be grateful for being saved from over-indulgence.

Chef/proprietor Enda McEvoy is dedicated to local ingredients. The menu sometimes boasts that all ingredients are sourced from the west of Ireland but for our visit it only said ‘most’ – the coconut plantations and cocoa groves of County Clare await global warming. I applaud his attitude; his food and commercial success are rooted in the community and vice versa. It also cuts down the food miles – if you ignore our driving 50 miles, flying 200 and driving another 50 to be there. [In 2009 we stayed in an eco-lodge in the Periyar nature reserve in Kerala which boasted that their restaurant sourced all its ingredients from within a radius of 50km. The sourced their customers from an average distance of 5,000km.]

Lynne rated it the most exciting menu we have encountered. The local climate, though, lacks sunshine so the chef must work with flavours that are subtle, sometimes muted. My preference tends towards the more vivid and sun-drenched so although dazzled by the artistry and invention, I was slightly less enthusiastic than Lynne.
As we settled the bill and added a tip I found myself thinking again about the rough sleeper outside and decided to give him (‘him’ is based on a shoe, which was all we could see of the individual) the same as the tip, but he  was asleep and I felt it unwise to wake him.

In the morning I returned to take the picture at the top of this post. I also photographed the door with the restaurant’s name and found the rough sleeper had now moved right into the doorway. ‘That wasn’t very nice,’ said a voice as I continued on my way, ‘taking a photograph of that poor man.’ The speaker was the young man sitting on a green crate beside the red dustbin in the corner of the photograph at the top. I explained that I had been photographing the restaurant’s name not the rough sleeper, because we had eaten there last night. He apologised and said he had misunderstood, though he did not sound totally convinced. I told him I was glad that he had cared enough to speak out.

He was 100% right to challenge me, and I was 50% right in my justification. I would have photographed the doorway whether the rough sleeper had been there or not, but as it was they were inseparable.

Loam, Galway
I thought hard before deciding to include this photo. The photography in this blog is not art, it exists to record what I saw, and I saw this and if others see it, it may do some good – and the individual cannot be recognised.

How I dealt with my conscience is my business and the links below are not an attempt to persuade you, dear reader, to do it for me, but here they are, anyway.

The Simon Community in Galway do important work with the homeless, as do the 7 other Simon Communities around Ireland (and there is another in London where the charity was founded though it has been far more successful in Ireland)

The Salvation Army, Crisis at Christmas (who now operate throughout the year) and Shelter are important nationally in the UK.

Nearer home are the House of Bread in Stafford and The Silverdale foodbank, part of the Newcastle Staffs Foodbank

This list does not pretend to be in any way comprehensive.

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