It should surprise no one that I love watching food TV. I’ve seen it all: Chef’s Table, Chef’s Table: France, Parts Unknown, The Mind of a Chef, etc… When I found out that Top Chef was on Hulu, I promptly watched every single episode.
There were 12 seasons available.
Occasionally, one of those shows would depict something of which I became burningly envious: a tasting menu with wine pairings. During my recent vacation to Ireland, I finally experienced one at Aniar.
It was one of the most curious, inspiring meals of my life.
Aniar is owned and operated by JP McMahon and Drigín Gaffey and focuses specifically on what western Ireland’s land and sea have to offer. McMahon and Gaffey strive to serve food with a sense of terroir, which is something typically reserved for wine. However, food can also be emblematic of a region based on its environmental factors. Aniar’s cuisine is a shining example of that notion.
After a pleasant walk from our rented flat (I recruited my brother and girlfriend for my indulgent foodie bullshit mission), we arrived at a cozy storefront in the west end of Galway. Aniar has one Michelin star, but it felt inviting—not stuffy at all.
We decided on doing the eight-course Inis Oírr meal with the wine pairings. It included the following:
- Swordfish, kelp
- Clam, hay
- Beet, yogurt
- Herring, fermented cream
- Rye, curd, tomato
- Oyster, cucumber, arrow grass
- Potato, ham
- Pig’s head, onion
- Salmon, sea lettuce, roe
- Beetroot, cherry, red currant
- Lemon balm, blueberry
- Duck, carrot, turnip
- Strawberry yogurt, elderflower
- Goat’s cheese, pear, gorse
Don’t worry; I’m not going to detail every single dish. There were some incredible standouts, though.
The cured swordfish with kelp was a fitting way to start the meal. I’ve had swordfish but almost always in the form of a steak, overcooked on a grill. Cured swordfish, on the other hand, would stand up to the best sushi you’ve ever had.
The swordfish and the kelp sat on a cracker/wafer that looked exactly like a rock you might find on the shore of Galway Bay. The artistry evident in crafting that one component was unbelievable. The dish was simultaneously something I was completely familiar with and also something that was completely new.
That dichotomy (familiar vs. new) set the tone for the meal.
The oyster, cucumber and arrow grass also stunned me. To begin with, the oysters from the west coast of Ireland are exquisite. It’s honestly hard to go wrong with them. The accompaniments to the oyster are what caught my attention.
Sea grass grows wildly near the beaches in Ireland. The manager/sommelier told us that it tastes exactly like cilantro, but I was somewhat dubious. Also, full disclosure, he said coriander, because Europe. It did taste exactly like cilantro, though. It was fun to realize that an herb with such a specific taste has a counterpart in the world.
The cucumber was soaked in gin, which makes so much sense I’m mad I didn’t think of it. Additionally, there was a fine grain ice made from the seawater in the oyster shells and cucumber. It offered interesting elements of texture and temperature to the dish.
Both dishes in the next course were so up my alley.
First, there was a potato chowder and ham served in an eggshell. The presentation was playful and unique. The chowder, with bits of ham lurking at the bottom of the shell, was comforting and rich. It seemed simple, but it had a surprising depth of flavor. I think everyone scraped the inside of the shell clean, lest any of the potato go to waste.
That was followed by a pig’s head croquette. When you start to get into off cuts of meat, some people are put off or just don’t know what to do with them. It’s a shame because pig’s head and cow’s head/beef cheek are so flavorful.
Before the main course, there was a palate cleansing sorbet. I almost always prefer salty or savory to sweet. But for that course, I was a dessert person. The blueberry sorbet resting on a bed of lemon balm was bright and fresh and decadent. Making me into a dessert person—however briefly—is no small feat.
The thing I was singularly excited for was the duck. I love duck. If it’s on the menu, I almost always order it. That being said, ordering duck can be a gamble. It’s difficult to cook because it takes patience. If the fat isn’t rendered correctly, a duck breast becomes rather tough and unpleasant.
I had nothing to worry about at Aniar. The duck was cooked to a perfect medium-rare with crispy skin. I tried to savor every bite, knowing I might never taste something so delightful again. I involuntarily closed my eyes while eating, which I’m sure made me look like a caricature of a fine dining customer. But I don’t care; it was worth it.
I did, however, feel that there was one thing that didn’t quite hit the mark. The beetroot, cherry and red currant dish looked like a piece of art but was missing something. I like all of those elements separately, but they didn’t seem to offer anything special when combined.
This meal was easily one of the best I’ve ever had. The staff was attentive and seemed genuinely concerned with our experience. The dining room was much less formal than you might expect from a Michelin star restaurant—in a good way.
The dishes were each truly an expression of the region. Almost every dish was familiar in some way but also played with my expectations of the main ingredients. The meal was imaginative in spots and whimsical in others, and I left entirely satisfied and inspired.
If you have the means, eat at Aniar. It will be an experience.