Nostalgia is a powerful thing. They say that as you get older you tend to revisit the past more often and that you are able to remember things that happened years ago with sparkling clarity. I have certainly found this to be true and whilst I struggle to recall things that I did a couple of days ago, my recollection of events from the past is as clear as day. For me, many of these memories are seen through the prism of the foods and the meals that I have eaten.
Whilst some memories centre around typical family celebrations others involve events specific to my own life. I fell in love with someone for the first time over a Beef Carpaccio dish and had my heart broken over Moules Marinière. I can barely remember the individual concerned or why I was so smitten in the first place but I remember what we ate and how I felt. Food has the ability to do this, a point which was reinforced by my recent meal at The Idle Wall.
After achieving great success as Head Chef at the Winding Stair and then as Executive Chef at the British Embassy in Dublin, Chef/Proprietor Áine Maguire – a native of nearby Newport – was keen to return to her home county and set up her own restaurant. This dream was finally realised last year when she opened The Idle Wall in Westport. With its focus on locally produced, seasonal food, the restaurant proved instantly popular both with locals and also with visitors to the town. It was recently announced as Best Newcomer (Connaught) at the 2016 Restaurant Association of Ireland (RAI) Awards.
Named after a local landmark where, in the past, dockers would sit and wait for casual work at the busy harbour, The Idle Wall is located beside the entrance gates to Westport House looking out onto the town’s picturesque waterfront. From the moment you first step into the restaurant you get a real sense that nostalgia and food memories have played a huge part in Áine’s food. The menu is peppered with her interpretation of dishes from her childhood and is immediately appealing.
Although it had been a beautiful day, the evening on which we visited had turned distinctly chilly so we were glad to be seated beside an open fire in the simply decorated and unpretentious dining room. Paintings by local artists hang on the walls and these, along with patterned china placed in a random fashion on shelves, add to the overall homely feel of the room which we found charming.
Shortly after we had made our menu choices, Áine appeared carrying a large basket of bread from which she served us thick slices of a Brown and a White Soda Bread. She explained that the latter had been made using buttermilk that she had smoked over turf. I was intrigued and curious to see what the bread tasted like. The audible moans of pleasure started with my first bite and by the time I had finished the slice, I was whimpering like an idiot. I LOVED it. Anyone who burns turf will know that it has its own distinctive and almost sweet aroma which permeates everything. My grandmother used to have a turf-burning range oven and I can remember how, after visits to her house, the smoky perfume lingered on in our hair and clothing. Eating Áine’s delicious soda bread was like being forcefully thrust back to those times and I found the experience strangely moving. The breads were served with two butters, a plain and a turf-smoked version.
My guest for the evening decided on the Deep Fried Crispy Duck Egg, Pickled Red Onion, Chorizo & Reek View Farm Salad (€8.50) to start. The egg had been expertly cooked with a moreishly crispy exterior and a wonderfully runny yolk that oozed seductively onto the lettuce leaves mingling with the very tasty and nicely balanced salad dressing. Thin slices of fried chorizo added some spicy heat which was welcome against the rich creaminess of the duck egg. Memory started playing its tricks once again and I was reminded of the egg and lettuce salads I had in my youth.
My starter of Smoked Mackerel, Horseradish Cream & Salad (€8.50) also came presented with the same salad but it managed to feel like a very different dish where the soft and beautifully smoked mackerel was the star of the show. The fish, which had been smoked on Achill Island, was one of the best that I have eaten and quite different to the leathery versions that sadly are too often available in our supermarkets. A large spoonful of a well-judged horseradish cream completed the dish.
Both main courses had a real comfort-food feel to them. My guest’s Andarl Farm Rare Breed Pork Chop with Cabbage & Ham Hock (€22) consisted of a lightly brined but sizeable pork chop which was pan-fried and then served on some insanely good and very buttery cabbage. The perfectly cooked pork which was supplied by Andarl Farm in Brickens, County Mayo was tender, yet meaty and full of flavour. It was served with a light cider and fennel gravy and some good old-fashioned applesauce.
My Roast Caramore Lackan Cod Mornay (€24.50) was a simple dish in its conception but one which showcased the quality of the ingredients that had been used. The sauce, which was made with Irish cheddar cheese, English mustard and cream, was rich and full of assertive flavours that married well with the meaty cod. I licked the plate clean.
Both mains were served with a selection of roast potatoes and seasonal vegetables but we also decided to order a side of Homemade Chips and Béarnaise Aioli (€3). The chips, with their crisp exteriors and lovely fluffy centres were heavenly and we greedily gobbled them down. We regretted not ordering more.
To accompany our meal we decided on a bottle of a 2013 Italian Costadoro Rosso (€28) which, with its light but supple dark fruits and well-rounded finish, was easy to drink and a good compromise given our quite different main course choices.
Even though our appetites were well sated, we found the dessert menu impossible to resist so we decided to order one apiece and share them equally between us. First up was Cuinneog Buttermilk Panna Cotta, Green Apple in Sauternes, Honeycomb & Bee Pollen (€6.20). The panna cotta was served in a small bowl with a spoonful of the apple compote on top. The compote had been made using Sauternes – an almost honey sweet dessert wine – which was perfectly paired with the grassy bee pollen and the crispy honeycomb. This delicate dessert was nicely balanced as the panna cotta itself had not been overly sweetened.
Our other dessert choice – Pavlova Blobs with Rhubarb Compote & Cream (€6.20) consisted of a single meringue that was crunchy on the outside with a gloriously chewy interior. It was topped with some stewed rhubarb and was a no-nonsense dessert. We loved it and the memories it summoned up of family Sunday dinners.
Service throughout our meal was friendly and attentive and in keeping with the general ambience in the restaurant. I loved the food that I ate during my meal and I found the whole experience resonated on a number of levels, stirring emotions and memories from deep within me. The restaurant scene in Ireland seems to be going through a renaissance at the moment and with chefs like Áine Maguire it is not hard to see why.
Put simply… The food in The Idle Wall is food that you will want to eat.
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.