There is something about Ard Bia at Nimmos that, for me, represents all that is great about Irish food. I have dined there numerous times but find that I am regularly drawn back to it when in Galway. These days all restaurants worth their salt declare a commitment to using local seasonal produce but in Ard Bia this is achieved with such ease and without a hint of smugness resulting in food that is delicious from the first mouthful to the last. I find this hugely appealing.
Located a mere stone’s throw from the historic Spanish Arch, the restaurant is housed in the 18th Century Custom House on the east bank of the River Corrib which was rough and angry-looking on the windy Tuesday evening that I dined there recently. Inside, the restaurant was packed and buzzing with the chatter of happy diners enjoying their meals. Tuesdays can be very quiet in the restaurant world but not in the hugely popular Ard Bia so I was glad that I had a reserved a table.
I had arranged to meet my friend Brendan for dinner who was already waiting at our candlelit table at the back of the restaurant near the kitchen pass. The dining room has an artisan, almost bohemian feel to it with its solid wooden tables and mismatched bentwood chairs. As I sat down Brendan and I immediately started swapping stories about all we had been up to, pausing every now-and-again to nibble on a delicious Brown Soda Bread which came served in an enamel bowl with an excellent Wild Garlic & Dillisk Butter.
The succinct menu in Ard Bia changes regularly to reflect the changing seasons. It includes some interesting dishes and it is worth noting that vegetarians are well catered for. We quickly made our choices from the Spring Menu and relaxed back into our conversation.
Brendan’s Pea & Broad Bean, Wild Garlic Risotto, Hazelnut Picada (€8) starter was everything a good risotto should be with perfectly cooked rice used as a vehicle for other ingredients. It was enlivened by the addition of whole peas and broad beans whilst the gentle fragrance of wild garlic emphasised the flavour of the vegetables without overpowering their sweet taste. A hazelnut picada added a spicy texture to create a memorable plate of food. This was a beautiful looking dish and we both loved it.
My starter of Colleran’s Ham Hock, Pickled Shallot, Burnt Apple, Béarnaise (€8.50) was another superb offering full of well balanced flavours. A light vinegar dressing cut through the richness of the soft shredded ham hock preventing it from seeming too rich whilst pickled shallots added a bittersweet element; all of which were wonderful with the crispy wafer of bread. A velvety smooth apple purée and a piquant béarnaise sauce completed the dish.
I have to admit that I am a committed meat lover but found that I was immediately drawn to the Wild Garlic Boxty Cake, Sautéed Mushrooms, Tarragon Crème Fraîche, Courgette Ribbons, Red Chard (€18) main course dish on the menu. I was not disappointed. The star of the show – the potato boxty cake – could so easily have tasted bland and starchy but luckily the potatoes still retained some bite and texture. The boxty cake had been well-seasoned and included a good amount of wild garlic. It was paired with a vibrant looking beetroot purée and topped with a generous amount of sautéed mushrooms, some lightly pickled courgette ribbons and finished with a tart and slightly sour crème fraîche dressing packed full of tarragon.
Swede is such an underrated vegetable so we were delighted to see it included on the menu. Brendan’s Pan-Roasted Atlantic Cod, Black Pudding & Swede Mash, Smoked Oysters Cream, Tender Stem Broccoli (€24) was a substantial and interesting plate of food that satisfied on a number of fronts. Firstly, I would never have thought of combining black pudding and swede together but with its rich earthy flavours it was truly outstanding and a perfect partner for the meaty cod. Secondly, the smoked oyster cream was a decadent addition but brought everything together with a certain panache. Given the size of our mains, there was probably no need to order any accompaniments, but this didn’t stop us and we both thoroughly enjoyed our shared side of Honey & Rosemary Roast Carrots (€4.50).
Although we initially considered finishing our meal with a shared cheeseboard we eventually decided to order a dessert each. Brendan was delighted with his Plum & Nettle Cake, Walnut Parfait, Honeycomb (€7) but felt that the nettle flavour of the moist dense cake was a little lost against the assertive flavours of the other dessert elements. Having said that, he still managed to lick his plate clean. We both loved my Poached Pear, Rice Pudding Ice Cream, Mint, Oat Crumb (€7) which was sweet and fruity in all the right ways. The pear had been poached to perfection and was soft and juicy and a pleasure to eat. The accompanying rice pudding ice cream and oaty crumb emphasised the ambrosial character of the pear.
On the recommendation of our waiter, we washed everything down with a bottle of an organic Italian Ciu Ciu Bacchus (€29) which, with its fruity nose and crisp acidity worked especially well with both our full-flavoured mains.
Service in Ard Bia appears relaxed and laid back in keeping with the overall ambiance in the restaurant but is efficient and professionally delivered. There is something so effortlessly cool and cosmopolitan about Ard Bia at Nimmos and yet it is very much a restaurant with a sense-of-place. Owner Aoibheann MacNamara may originally hail from Donegal but she has developed a restaurant that inherently understands and appreciates what Galway is all about. The menu borrows ideas from other cuisines but the food still manages to feel very Irish. It is not hard to see why it so popular with both locals and visitors to the city alike.
Niamh believes Ireland produces some of the best food in the world, and travels around the country; seeking out the best food producers, and places to eat.
An accomplished cook and baker, Niamh is also a previous MasterChef Ireland finalist. During the competition she had the opportunity to cook in some of Ireland’s top restaurants and experience life on the other side of the kitchen pass.
Working with TheTaste allows Niamh to write about her experiences and to share her passion for food and cooking with a wide audience.
Visit Niamh’s blog The Game Bird Food Chronicles.