THE WILD HONEY INN
Phone: 065 707 4300
The chef calls his food “modern bistro”. I call it sublime. And it’s served in what is, essentially, a pub, so there’s no prissy fussiness. A landmark.
I was musing on how Ireland has changed as I meandered from home in County Cork to sleepy Lisdoonvarna on a beautifully warm and sunny evening. This was because I had just realised (in Summer 2014) that I had been reviewing restaurants (first for The Sunday Tribune, then for The Irish Times and now for the Irish Daily Mail) for 20 years. It seemed fitting, in a sense, that I marked the anniversary, with a visit to The Wild Honey Inn, one of those places which I’d been aiming to visit since it opened 2010.
Why fitting? Well, when I started writing about restaurants back in 1994, you could travel a long distance in Ireland without finding anywhere to eat a decent meal. Much has changed in the intervening two decades and The Wild Honey Inn is emblematic of some of that change; in my view, the most significant part of that change.
It doesn’t define this pub/restaurant in County Clare but some of what The Wild Honey Inn is all about is proving that you can serve exquisite cooking without charging a fortune, that “foraging” doesn’t have to be a kind of hipster obsession, that local produce is, indeed, often the best and that it has a taste of place. The Wild Honey Inn does all that and adds in a very generous measure of good, old-fashioned Irish hospitality. They enjoy making people feel good.
Yes, it’s essentially a pub that serves exceptional food. In fact, given that this is Ireland, it seems almost sacrilegious to mention the word “pub” in this context. It may have Smithwick’s taps (and also a fine collection of craft brew beers), but the cooking, far too modestly described by the chef as “modern bistro”, approaches the sublime. Yes, I have found yet another great place to eat.
The pub is significant. It means that the context in which you get to eat Aidan McGrath’s fabulous food is entirely relaxed. This is not a temple to gastronomy; it’s room full of happy people tucking in.
Let me just outline the meal I ate there last Summer. This was a solo outing for me so I tucked myself away in a corner with my book and glass of wine and persuaded myself that I was on holidays.
I started with a variation on the theme of tartiflette, substituting local, organic, creamy goat’s cheese for the usual pungent Reblochon but keeping the waxy potato and lardons of bacon (although they were elegant ribbons rather than slices). This was a chunky, rustic, unpretentious little dish that seemed to embody the style of the whole operation.
Then came wild and locally landed halibut which is something that we rarely see these days (virtually all of the halibut you see on menus is farmed in Canada or, if you’re lucky, Scotland). This was a steak, thick and meaty, cooked with real skill and judgement to the perfect level of doneness.
With this came sections of baby leek no thicker than a pencil, perfectly sweet and tender, and baby heritage beets which had been cooked very slowly – a kind of confit, if you like - in a pungent, green tasting olive oil and sharpened with lemon juice. There was also a silky puree of the more familiar dark beetroot, its contrasting sweetness and earthiness sitting very comfortably with that piece of outstanding fish.
I should also mention some impeccable mashed spud (buttery but not too buttery) and a little salad of baby leaves, sensitively dressed.
Then came a Burren hazelnut tart. This sounded pretty specific, and so it proved. The nuts are from Gregan’s Castle on Corkscrew Hill so they really are Burren hazelnuts. And what a wonderfully intense flavour they delivered in this section of sponge held in crisp pastry. Tart, but sweet, apple and rich ice cream provided the right degree of moisture and balance. This was a memorable pudding.
I finished with a slice of Coolattin raw milk cheddar from West Wicklow, a cheese of such intensity that it’s heading in the direction of Parmesan. Nutty, salty, acidic, tangy, it was a revelation.
That’s the kind of thing we can expect from Aidan McGrath, a chef whose CV includes L’Escargot and The Dorchester in London and Sheen Falls Lodge in Kenmare: a commitment to finding superlative produce and presenting it in a way that never messes with its core qualities, a complete absence of fuss and the cheffy vanities that less able and confident practitioners can’t resist.
There’s a short wine list, sourced from first class suppliers, that covers all the bases and includes a few pleasant surprises.