John McKenna’s Top Picks
Ireland’s leading food critic and one of the country’s most authoritative voices in food journalism, John McKenna has been writing about the burgeoning Irish food scene for 25 years. Before your next trip to Ireland, be sure to check out McKennas’ Guides, a series of guide books by John and his longtime collaborator and partner Sally McKenna, including the annual 100 Best Restaurants in Ireland and Where to Eat and Stay on the Wild Atlantic Way. Below, the award-winning writer shares 10 must-have food experiences in Ireland.
Breakfast at Ballymaloe House, East Cork
Myrtle Allen – the Alice Waters of Irish food – opened Ballymaloe House fifty years ago, and has just celebrated her 90th birthday. The house may be world famous, but the cooking is as local and seasonal as you can get, not least their breakfasts where, for instance, you will enjoy a choice of two butters – jersey milk and West Cork farm – and where the porridge, made with Macroom Mill oats and served with jersey cream and brown sugar, is a lesson in how to make something simple into something sensational.
Craft Beer in L. Mulligan, Grocer, Dublin
The craft beer revolution is sweeping through Ireland at a ferocious rate – at one point in 2013 there were twenty breweries in development – and one of the first bars and restaurants to champion the new wave of beers was L. Mulligan, Grocers, in Dublin’s arty Stoneybatter district. It’s a beautiful old pub repurposed as a hip and friendly restaurant, and their sourcing of artisan ingredients matches the pitch-perfect selection of craft ales, stouts and beers. The Dublin pub, re-invented.
The English Market, Cork
Farmers’ markets have enjoyed spectacular success in Ireland during the last ten years, but Cork’s English Market remains one of the great visitor experiences. Scores of food stalls are staffed by the most quixotic and amusing vendors and mongers, and when you have shopped and gawked to your heart’s content, head upstairs to the Farmgate Café and eat the produce of the market, cooked to simple perfection.
Bed & Breakfast in Shelburne Lodge, Kenmare, Co Kerry
Great B&Bs (bed and breakfast lodgings) continue to thrive in Ireland, and Maura Foley’s Shelburne Lodge is one of the very best. Her cooking at breakfast is an inspired confection of fruits and and grains and eggs, revealing the experience and judgement of an expert restaurateur who ran a restaurant in Kenmare town, a place with the highest standards of cooking in Ireland.
Caitlin Ruth’s cooking in Deasy’s Harbour Bar, West Cork
West Cork is famous in Ireland as the home to the artisan pioneers, who first started making farm cheeses and other artisan specialities. One of the chefs who best showcases these foods is Caitlin Ruth, who cooks in a water’s edge pub called Deasy’s, just outside Clonakility in deepest West Cork. Head here for local smoked pollock, pumpkin ravioli with lobster, the freshest crab claws ever. And Ms. Ruth’s secret is this: she hails originally from Dublin, Ohio.
Chapter One, Dublin
Dublin’s restaurant scene is fiercely competitive, but scratch the surface and a consensus quickly emerges even amongst the most dynamic cooks. And that consensus says that Ross Lewis is not only cooking the best contemporary food in Dublin, but also that he is running the best restaurant in the capital. Standards of service match the standards of the cooking in a quite unforgettable alliance.
Pulled pork sandwich in Brother Hubbard, Dublin
Garret and James of Dublin’s iconic Brother Hubbard café grabbed the prize for Best Sandwich in Dublin in our city-wide competition, and their pulled pork on sourdough bread with spinach and celery remoulade grandstands the meticulous attention to detail that you will find in everything this kitchen produces.
No other city in Ireland has a character like Galway, and no Galway restaurant has a character like Jess and David Murphy’s Kai, the jewel in a city where the restaurant culture has been especially creative in the last four years. All the best foods of Ireland’s West Coast are here – Connemara hill lamb; Brady’s dry-aged beef; Toonsbridge fresh buffalo milk mozzarella; Connemara fish and shellfish – and Mrs. Murphy’s colourfully curated plates are a joy.
Brown’s Restaurant, Derry, Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland’s maiden city is the start and end point of the Wild Atlantic Way, a 2,500 kilometre coastal drive that winds from Donegal to Kinsale. The good news for anyone starting the drive is that chef Ian Orr, in Brown’s Restaurant in the city’s Waterside district, is cooking at the top of his game right now, showcasing the superb pastured meats and Atlantic fish of the region.
Rua, Castlebar, Co Mayo
Head upstairs to the café in his modern delicatessen and enjoy the Mayo Mezze Plate created by Aran McMahon: soda bread with Cuinneog craft butter; Claremorris free-range egg; Rua chicken liver pate; Westport quince jam and the fine local Carrowholly cheese. Follow it up with some of Pat Carolan’s roasted lamb cutlets, and you have all the flavours of County Mayo.
About John McKenna
John McKenna has been writing about Ireland’s food culture for twenty-five years and has won four Glenfiddich Awards, the André Simon Special Award and a Slow Food Ireland Media Award. John writes and edits the McKennas’ Guides, Ireland’s independent food guides, which are published in both digital and print form.
The annual 100 Best Restaurants in Ireland, which is one of the McKennas’ Guide titles, is regarded as the definitive index of the leading restaurants in Ireland. This year the stable of guides also includes a book on Where to Eat and Stay on the Wild Atlantic Way.
John also edits Megabites, Ireland’s contemporary online magazine, and co-directs videos for the Irish Food Channel, an independent You Tube channel detailing all that is good in Irish food.
A columnist for The Irish Times for over twenty years, John now writes about Food and Health in The Irish Times Health and Family. John is from Belfast, but now lives in West Cork with his longtime collaborator and partner, Sally McKenna.