For me, food is very much about fostering a sense of community and taking the time to sit down and eat with friends and family. As such, I seldom choose to dine alone and rarely do so, much preferring the air of conviviality which comes from eating good food in relaxed circumstances with those closest to you. Also, I find that if I am reviewing a restaurant, the task is made much easier when others are dining with me, if only because I have the opportunity to sample a greater number of dishes from the menu and can deliver a more comprehensive and balanced appraisal of the food that is on offer. Sometimes I will even visit a restaurant more than once in order to confirm initial impressions formed.
Despite all of this, I was passing through Westport recently and on a whim decided to ring An Port Mór, a restaurant that I have long wanted to try, to see whether they might have a table free for me. Luckily they were able to squeeze me in and so it was that I found myself dining alone, contrary to my normal inclinations.
Westport is a busy town and a popular destination for those visiting the West of Ireland. It’s not difficult to see why as it is beautifully maintained and always appears so full of life. There is something about Westport that seems to satisfy a romantic sense that we collectively have of what an Irish town should look and feel like and I think that it is this that draws visitors from home and abroad in their droves. It is also unsurprising that Westport is gaining quite a reputation on the dining-out front and that it is developing a vibrant restaurant scene.
An Port Mór is located down a little laneway leading off Bridge Street and was easy to find. I arrived in time for the early bird menu which offered loads of choice as did the à la carte menu. However, on the evening I visited there was also a very tempting ‘specials’ board and it was from this that I ended up selecting both my starter and main course.
I firmly believe that you can tell a lot about a restaurant by the bread it serves and in An Port Mór it did not disappoint. I loved the subtlety of the white bread which was lightly speckled with sultanas and gently flavoured with curry spices. By way of contrast the brown treacle bread was full of deep rich flavours but was equally delicious. Worthy of specific mention was the very moreish Green Olive Tapenade which along with lovely fruity olives also included sun-dried tomatoes and salty anchovies. It was amazing how something so seemingly inconsequential – a mere accompaniment to the bread – could be packed with such well-balanced flavours. I loved it.
For my starter I decided to go all out and chose the Lobster Salad, Avocado & Pomegranate. I should admit that I’m usually ambivalent towards pomegranate. I love the flavour of the fruit but find the egg-shell-like crunch of the seeds a little disconcerting. The stunningly beautiful plate of food that arrived convinced me that I had made the right choice. This was a dish where the lobster was the star but there were many taste ‘surprises’ on the plate that accentuated and complemented its sweet flavour and succulent texture. Along with a quenelle of avocado purée were little cubes of earthy sweet beetroot, a piquant celeriac remoulade and a perfectly cooked quail’s egg. Despite the number of elements this was not a disjointed or complicated dish; everything was brought together coherently with an apple and vanilla sauce and a well-judged salad dressing that possessed the right amount of acidity to balance the other flavours. And yes… the pomegranate seeds… well they just worked, creating textural contrast and little bursts of flavour which added to the opulence of the dish.
My main course of Grilled Halibut came simply presented on some wilted pak choi with a lightly spiced aubergine purée, some asparagus spears and an elegant celeriac dauphinoise. If the lobster dish that had preceded it had possessed a certain glamour this, by way of contrast, was a pared-back dish that celebrated the wonderful halibut in all its glory without any unnecessary distractions. It is rare to find fish so wonderfully and thoughtfully cooked. The halibut came served with separate bowls of baby new potatoes and a selection of steamed vegetables but given the generous portion of fish that I had been presented with, I struggled to finish them. This truly was a memorable dish.
For dessert I faced a real dilemma and found it hard to select just one. Being a lover of all things lemon I wanted to try the Baked Lemon Tart but I was also tempted by the Buttermilk Panna Cotta which my waiter claimed would amaze me. In the end I decided that there was no point in stressing myself trying to choose just one so ordered both dishes.
The Baked Lemon Tart was absolutely lovely and certainly ranks amongst the best that I have eaten but the Buttermilk Panna Cotta was absolutely stunning. It initially arrived looking like many a panna cotta before it, presented upturned onto the serving plate and bathed in a generous drizzle of honey. Just after it was presented to me, my waiter quickly returned to the table brandishing a large pepper mill, politely insisting that the panna cotta was best enjoyed with some freshly ground black pepper. I was a little unsure whether this flavour pairing would work but I was intrigued to try it. Words cannot describe this dish, for it was truly sublime. The spicy heat of the freshly ground pepper made the fragrant honey taste all the sweeter. Balanced against the barely sweetened panna cotta and the lactic tanginess of the buttermilk which had been used to make it, this was a dish that was simple but so perfect and a complete revelation. A small plate of Petits Fours consisting of Nougat and TurkishDelight finished off my meal perfectly.
As I was dining alone, I decided to go for a glass of a lovely young Sangiovese to drink with my meal. The light and fruity flavours of the wine with its underlying hint of spice on the palate did not overwhelm my seafood choices and added to my enjoyment of the food.
For what you get, the food in An Port Mór is reasonably priced with most starters on the à la carte menu around the €10 mark, mains priced between €22-€28 and desserts at around €7. What I particularly liked about the food was its lack of pretension. This is honest food, sensitively prepared and cooked. Everything is beautifully presented and also happens to taste wonderful. It takes confidence, a belief in what you are doing and, somewhat ironically, a lot of skill to present food simply.
All too often, in an attempt to show off their abilities or their ‘vision’ chefs present food that is at best, over-complicated and at worst, contrived. One gets the sense that in An Port Mór under Head Chef Frankie Mallon, this would never happen. Frankie is one a new breed of chefs who are breaking down the formality of fine dining without sacrificing the quality of the dining experience itself and this is to be applauded.
Some might say that there is a pre-dominance of seafood on offer but this reflects the restaurant’s location near the coast and Frankie Mallon’s natural talent for cooking seafood. Be assured, there is plenty of choice on the menu with more than enough dishes to satisfy meat-lovers and vegetarians alike! I thoroughly enjoyed my meal in An Port Mór and even though I ate alone, I never once felt self-conscious or conspicuous in my self-imposed dining isolation. The restaurant has an intimate, almost cosy atmosphere which was enhanced by the friendly staff who explained the menu enthusiastically and were keen to ensure I enjoyed my meal.
An Port Mór
1 Brewery Place
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.