If you’re lucky enough to get a second chance don’t waste it
I don’t know if this quote applies more to me, or Aniar. In the restaurant industry second chances don’t come around too often. It’s standards of meticulous consistency that set those apart. Competition is so fierce that if you don’t deliver now, that customer may be lost forever. However, I decided recently to give a second chance and it was incredibly worth it. What began for me as a disappointment 3 years ago has come fully circle to one of the greatest food experiences I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying.
I was first in Aniar in 2013 and consequently it was also my first Michelin experience. I naturally had high expectations but for a variety of reasons I was left what can only be best described as a little underwhelmed. At the time I was willing to cut slack as head chef Enda McEvoy, now at his own Michelin starred restaurant Loam, had recently just left and I figured that if any problems were to be experienced it would be in the standards of food. Besides from the dull, bistro like boiled baby potatoes that were served with my main course, the food was excellently executed, delivered wonderful flavours, and even produced one of the finest desserts I’ve had to now, which was the beetroot parfait. Not that there’s anything wrong with baby potatoes by the way, it was just incongruous with the rest of the meal. Moreover it was the service that didn’t quite cut it for me. It was inconsistent and aloof and not what I would have expected from Michelin service, and have since come to know is not standard. I continued to support Aniar vocally and I was delighted to see it retain its star in subsequent years, as I appreciated the impact that JP McMahon, his wife Drigin Gaffey, their staff, and the star were having on standards of food in Galway. This sort of impact not only benefited diners through better quality food but also the local economy and I eventually decided that between Aniar and I, one of us was wrong. Note: I am aware that I have already established that it was Aniar at fault but for the purpose of dramatic effect I ask you to retain attention. The Michelin guide couldn’t be wrong 3 times since. The marriage was sullied from the beginning and it was time to give it another chance.
Aniar has undergone a number of changes since then. A refurbishment during the most recent winter break has seen the dining room freshened up. The menu structure has also changed since I was last there with the usual a la carte menu now gone, being replaced by a tasting menu. You may choose from 6 courses for €70 [€105 with wine pairings], 8 for €85 [€130], 10 for €100 [€155], or 12 for €115 [€180]. For example, if you, as we did, choose 6 courses, you decide one course from each of the sections below and one of either the sorbet before main course, or the pre dessert.
For mostly traffic related reasons, we arrived late and frantic but were immediately put at ease by restaurant manager and Sommelier Zsolt Lukács, who is both extremely knowledgeable on his wines and calming and welcoming in his approach. Indeed all staff were extremely knowledgeable and yet understated and relaxed in their service, which is a difficult, delicate balance to pull off. This was most definitely in stark contrast to what I had experienced before and is very obviously the standard here that I was unlucky not to experience some three years previous. It was seamless. There is also a lovely interaction with the kitchen staff with chefs serving snacks and bread, bringing a connection to the kitchen that is often not accessible in other establishments. This contact with customer and their response to the food is, if nothing else, a clever motivation tool that as a home cook I get to enjoy regularly from my guests but professional chefs rarely get to experience. Food is about connection and quite often professional kitchens are slightly disconnected from that involvement with their diners. This simple interaction speaks volumes of the whole team and food philosophy here at Aniar.
Delicious snacks of ham hock and shallot soon arrived, followed in quick succession by a tempura Jerusalem artichoke and onion which was another really tasty mouthful. You know when the bread is as good as it was here then you’re on to a winner. This consisted of a small, delicate and hugely flavoursome blue cheese scone, soda bread made with treacle and Galway Hooker beer, and the house sourdough. This was served with Cuinneog butter topped with Achill Island sea salt alongside the house butter whipped together with buttermilk and topped with crispy fried onions. It was painfully difficult not to order more bread when I was asked but I knew better. I’m entirely aware of the enormity of this statement but I think it was the best soda bread I have ever had. A brilliant start to the meal and a sign of what was to follow.
For my cold starter I had the dexter, oyster, gooseberry. This was essentially a beef tartare and was magnificently, light, refreshing and moreish. For my warm starter I choose the scallop, artichoke, rye. Deliciously, and expertly cooked scallops, in an artichoke foam, the rye assisting slightly more in texture than taste but ultimately a delicious plate of food. These were some of the best scallops I’ve tasted.
Main course followed: the pheasant, celeriac, cavolo nero. Brilliantly simple, tender pheasant breast, grilled celeriac disks, celeriac puree, and cavolo nero (kale). With three main components the dish allowed the superb quality and simplicity of the ingredients to do all the work, which displays maturity and confidence in the quality of the produce used in the kitchen.
We opted for the palate cleansing pre dessert of parsnip, cider, and buttermilk. This consisted of a parsnip and cider granita, with a buttermilk emulsion. Wonderfully balanced, this dish tantalizes the idea of sweet dessert and at the same time wipes away the heaviness of the dishes beforehand, leaving you both satisfied with what has gone previously with a want for what is to come. Parsnip is naturally sweet and it is used to its full potential here, offset wonderfully by the acidic nature of the buttermilk and cider.
For dessert, I choose sea buckthorn, treacle, nori. This dish is a nori ice cream, sitting on toasted meringue, treacle cake, and sea buckthorn puree. I decided before eating that the idea reminded me of salted caramel ice cream. In reality it tasted nothing like that but in the concept it hit similar taste points. Nori is a seaweed so the ice cream provided a creamy, salty, quality. The treacle cake was an excellent texture giving that deep molasses flavour that only treacle can. The sea buckthorn, a berry from a hardy fruit tree, is beautifully orange in colour and also citrusy orange in flavour with elements of mango, and a mild sour note. While the individual elements of this plate are well executed, they are quite robust flavours, particularly the nori ice cream which is on its own slightly jarring. The meringue is the basic sweet component that ties everything together, conducting everything to the same tune and makes this an intriguing and complex dish; and one that I’m still thinking about.
As John is not a fan of cheese in any form I was the lucky recipient of both cheese courses: goat’s cheese, pear, hazelnut and; cheese, chutney, rye crisp. The latter was a small cheese board of fantastic local cheeses, but the undoubted star of this course was the former. A silky smooth goat’s cheese ice cream sat upon a thin slice of poached pear, with hazelnuts, pear puree and a caramel. Extremely clever, it took all the elements of the familiar promise of the ingredients on the menu and shifted your understanding of what the dish could be. It was fantastic. The pastry chef here, Claire Conway, is an extremely talented young chef, with a wonderful understanding of flavours and yet, whether by collaboration or individually, has the confidence to push the boundaries of taste. One to watch I think.
We were then presented with petit fours, of praline crunch, marshmallow, and berry pastille. Another simple, delicious, delight to put a smile upon our faces before we left. John finished with the forager’s tea, a warming and cleansing tea containing among others borage and mint. I had 2 glasses of an excellent, rich, and full bodied, no nonsense, yet seductively smooth Malbec (Crios de Susana Balbo, Mendoza, Argentina) at €9.50 per glass.
The nature and philosophy of this restaurant is that if you are reading this menu, it will not be the very same if you go to visit even next week. The menu changes daily in details, though retains similar elements of each dish for a period of time. The seasons are constantly evolving and providing new bounty. Aniar takes full advantage of that, exploring the best and often untold of the West’s ingredients and taking it to contemporary cooking with modern techniques.
Sometimes second chances are unquestionably rewarding. This sort of dining experience, if you only do it once, is most definitely worth it. If you visit Aniar you won’t be disappointed. If you are, go back again.
Total bill: 2 x 6 course tasting menus, 2 glasses Malbec, forager’s tea – €162.50 excl. tip