As a native I can confidently say that we’ve never been too bestowed with fantastic dining in Oranmore. There have been a plethora of open and shut takeaways and others that indeed have become a mainstay on main street. Plenty do their thing that serves a market without really stepping outside the bracket of decent. Creating new higher standards demands a different set of rules on the playing field that others can choose to follow or continue competing in their playpen of mediocrity. Eventually however someone comes along that actions that change. Step forward Armorica. Occupying the space that in previous incarnations was once inhabited by the Boathouse and many years before by the Moorings it already seems to be in excellent hands. Led by the team of front of house manager Natasha Hughes and chef Nicolas Denis, the duo have taken on the reigns giving the restaurant a facelift and devising a menu that focuses primarily on the quality of local ingredients. Indeed both come from extensive industry experience and pedigree, with Natasha previously restaurant manager at Cava Bodega and Nicolas formerly working in well-known Galway establishments such as EAT at Massimo and Il Vicolo.
The dining room has been given a makeover with work carried out by garden designer and carpenter Nathan Nokes who has previously been involved in the renovation undertaking at Massimo Bar last year among many other projects across the city. The corridor from the main front door to the conservatory has wisely been blocked off by a smart and stylish new bar. It creates two separate spaces, a front bar like area with a softer more traditional dining room in the back, and in doing so conversely creates a cohesion to the overall space. Spaces within the space has cleverly and simply been achieved here and paradoxically makes the overall dining area feel more unified.
However, not surprisingly, what really excites me about this new venture is the food being served. Nicolas has devised a menu that has a primary focus on seafood and fish but is extensive enough to offer plenty of options for all tastes. Platters, in different combinations of wonderful quality local charcuterie, cheeses, fish, and house pickles are available to either share with others for a starter or as a light main course. Priced at €9.50 for a vegetarian platter to €18 for Irish smoked and cured fish. On a side note the house pickles, €4.50, are delicious and should be ordered as a snack while perusing the menu. The, perhaps overly extensive, starters menu has a strong seafood presence and among the stars here is the crabmeat, squid ink, parsley puree and tomato jelly priced at €12.50. Quality fresh and sweet crabmeat with a vibrant and fresh parsley puree, with a seasoning boost from the salty squid ink crisp you get an inclination of the ability and creativity of this chef in the kitchen. The scallops dish with chargrilled scallions and celeriac puree, available for €12, is another well-balanced and thought out dish; the scallops cooked expertly. Though I haven’t tried it myself, I have it under trusted recommendation that the warm smoked scamorza cheese with chicory, grapes, and marsala syrup at €9 is definitely worth trying. Ranging in price from €5.50 for soup of the day to €13 for 6 oysters, there’s certainly options in both preferences and price budget.
It’s on the main courses that Nicolas’ talents really shine. There are seven mains on the menu, four of which are available for under €20, the most expensive main at €26 for fillet steak. There are few places in Galway that serve this quality of ingredient with this level of cooking for those prices and they must be commended for that. The Friendly Farmer’s succulent pasture reared chicken breast served with gem lettuce, peas, smoked bacon, and cooking jus at €18 is moreish, comforting and yet has a light freshness that makes you feel like you’ve been slightly sinful without flirting with gout. The beef tournedos (fillet steak) with tender stem broccoli, pomme darphin, and béarnaise sauce makes no such promises and is as rich, hearty, and as delicious as you’d expect. This is plate licking cooking. Blackboards proposing the wares of daily specials offer fish dishes such as pan-fried hake served with a burnt fennel puree, asparagus and a chorizo and red pepper. Hake can be a delicate fish to cook and this was perfect. Order if seen again. In a minor gripe I’d like to see a vegetarian option that stepped outside the zone of risotto, albeit a most tasty one. I think we are beginning to grow up from seeing vegetarian dishes as an inconvenience to appease a section of the market to appreciating the beauty that can be had in creative meat free cooking. I’ve no doubt that in time Armorica can add to this section of their menu.
In terms of desserts there are currently three available, all priced at €7. The chocolate moelleux (fondant) is perfectly cooked with a molting centre as you would expect. This is served with an orange jelly that could be bolder and pack more punch in flavour but adds an alternative texture and a pistachio ice cream that is simply heavenly. The apple crumble disappoints a little, the hazelnut adding not much more than a little texture to make up a not entirely exciting or crunchy topping. The salted caramel ice cream, as with all desserts however, is a triumph. Nevertheless I can’t shake the feeling that the crumble was something of a compromise by offering an option to the perhaps more conservative diner who may balk at the idea of black olive flavouring in a crème brûlée. In reality it feels incongruous with the apparent intention of the menu. It’s not entirely offensive but rather pedestrian and given the quality of the other desserts it sticks out like a sore, well, crumble. The real winner in the desserts however, is the aforementioned black olive crème brûlée. Ever so slightly pushing the boundaries of taste, the bitter saltiness of the olives adds a most interesting but pleasant flavour note to an excellently made crème brûlée that really comes to life when eaten along with the thyme and lemon granite that is served on the side. This is delicate, skilled and considered cooking and provides a refreshing twist on a well-known classic.
The wine list ticks all the expected boxes albeit a tad pedestrian. Surprisingly, from me the whites list reads more interesting with a some attention-grabbing French wines such as Côtes de Gasgogne, a New Zealand Pinot Gris, and the under appreciated Viognier as an apparent “House White” for what looks like good value at €23. Also a nice touch to see a Cremant, a sparkling wine akin to Champagne, but from other regions in France such as Limoux. This one comes from the Loire, and is available for €9 per glass or €47 a bottle. The reds are dominated by France and the Southern Rhône Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache, Syrah is fruity but with enough body to hold up against some of the more hearty dishes. I’m bored of overpriced mediocre Argentinian Malbecs and this one at €36 per bottle is just that but perhaps I’m just getting grumpy from too many overpriced mediocre Malbecs. What is great to see however is the option of 150ml glass or 250ml small carafe on 5 of the whites and 4 of the reds.
Is Armorica without its faults? Not entirely and while teething problems are to be expected there is room for improvement in certain areas. Service, though by no means even slightly appalling, needs refining. For example, on one visit our waitress asked me how I wanted my duck rillettes cooked. The perplexed look on my face didn’t prompt a change of questioning nor even when I further offered a hint by gently asking, “Isn’t it a pate?” It’s not my intention to be callous as the service was friendly and eager but a basic knowledge of the menu and its dishes is essential and not out of the ordinary to be expected. Natasha leads the charge showing you that good service isn’t just simply about taking an order and delivering plates, and with her you feel in safe hands. Given time this confidence and warmth can surely only be adopted by other members of staff who will no doubt benefit from her experience and knowledge of the industry. The creation of a solid, reliable and cohesive service team can take a long time but food this good needs equally noteworthy service so let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later.
I also think the menu could be ever so slightly more focused. For me there’s no necessity for eleven or twelve starters and I feel a more concentrated menu would serve better. Equally an option or two more on desserts would be welcome. Is Armorica really a soup of the day and apple crumble type of establishment? That’s not my question to answer and the conviction to follow through with an ethos rather than ticking perceived and expected boxes can be a scary plunge to make. However the talent is there with both Denis in the kitchen and Hughes at front of house to carry this ideology through and they should have the self-confidence to believe that. Like the service I think that with time a menu will evolve and settle into its own. I’m nitpicking because I see the potential.
It would be easy to say that Armorica is a welcome addition to the Oranmore dining scene. Of course it certainly is but that would be narrowing its scope, as indeed too is it an addition to the Galway scene and so is undoubtedly worth the trip no matter what part of the city or county you find yourself in.
Armorica, Main Street, Oranmore, Co. Galway
Opening Hours: 5pm – 10pm Wednesday to Saturday, 12pm – 9pm on Sunday
Tel: (091) 388343