I think that there is a lot of exciting food being cooked and served in Irish restaurants at the moment. I find it particularly encouraging that this is not something that is confined to city restaurants but that good food can be found in many places around the country.
My first introduction to Athlone in County Westmeath was as a child travelling by car from Dublin to Galway on a family holiday. This was before the town bypass was built and I remember being stuck for over an hour in traffic, trying to make our way over the bridge that crossed the River Shannon. Later on, as a 17 year-old sitting the Leaving Certificate, Athlone held a certain significance as it was the location from where the Department of Education posted results to students who had sat the exams. Little did I think that I would eventually end up living in the town before getting married and moving to neighbouring Roscommon.
Living relatively near to Athlone, I have dined in Thyme a number of times and have always enjoyed eating there. The restaurant is located in the heart of the town on Strand Street, just a few yards from the banks of the River Shannon. It was opened in 2007 by Chef John Coffey and his wife Tara with the aim of highlighting the wonderful produce available in the midlands. The restaurant is popular with locals and it is not hard to see why as the food is top-notch.
Two menus are offered; an À La Carte and also a Value Menu which offers 2 courses for €24.95 or 3 courses for €29.95. In truth both are practically the same with a couple of extra choice for starters and mains on the À La Carte. The menus contain a nice selection of interesting dishes, many of which are coeliac adaptable. As is the norm, breads were the first to arrive and included a Brown Soda Bread with Walnuts, a Herb Bread and a couple of slices of a rather good White Bread. All were well-made and enjoyable to eat.
Simon, my dining companion for the evening, decided to go for the Value Menu and was delighted with his Crispy Slow-Cooked Horan’s Pork Cheek, Pickled Apple Purée, Lough Boora Kohlrabi Remoulade & Hazelnut starter. Beautifully presented, the pork cheek had been used to make a croquette that was wonderfully crispy on the outside. The meat inside was soft and moist. The accompanying apple purée and the kohlrabi remoulade complimented it perfectly. The addition of toasted hazelnuts added another layer of flavour and texture whilst some matchsticks of fresh apple cut through the overall richness of the dish.
My starter, ordered from the À La Carte menu, was equally delicious. Although initially tempted by the Panfried Mackerel, Quince, Yoghurt, Celery, Toasted Sunflower seeds €8.95, I instead decided on the Pan-Roasted Breast of Wild Irish Wood Pigeon, Red Cabbage, Parsnip and Pickled Plum €9.90. From the moment it arrived, I knew that I had made a good choice. John Coffey has a real eye for presentation and this was a real painting on a plate. The wood pigeon was beautifully cooked, well-rested and consequently beautifully tender to eat. I loved the slight crunch and gentle astringency of the red cabbage garnish whilst the pickled plum purée was an inspired pairing. I loved every mouthful.
Simon’s main course of Slow-Cooked Gillivan’s Shin of Beef, Horseradish Creamed Potatoes, Cavolo Nero, Carrot and Parsnip, Crispy Shallot was a hearty dish and, like his starter, showcased a cheaper cut of meat to best effect. Slowly cooked until soft and tender, it yielded easily against the gentlest of pressure applied by the fork. Cavolo Nero or ‘Italian Kale’ is a type of loose leaf cabbage with a rich iron flavour. Gently sautéed in some butter, it was a lovely accompaniment to the shin of beef. I also loved the horseradish potatoes and the textural contrast of the crispy shallots. A deep, rich beef gravy completed the dish and brought everything together.
My Irish Rose Veal Loin, Smoked Gubbeen Cheese Sauce, Spatzle with Pigs on the Green Pancetta, Cauliflower, Grilled Tomato, Veal Vinaigrette was complex and full of rich autumnal flavours. I was thrilled to see that spatzle – a type of German pasta or tiny dumpling had been included. Here the spatzle took on the flavour of the pancetta it had been cooked with and together they worked to intensify the sweet flavour of the veal. For me, the cauliflower, although delicious, was unnecessary. I thought that this was an unusual, innovative dish, albeit quite sizeable and I enjoyed it tremendously.
A surprise pre-dessert of Mango Parfait, Mango Purée, Pineapple & Coconut managed to be light and rich at the same time. Full of beautifully balanced flavours, we felt as if we had been transported to a tropical paradise! Parfaits can be difficult to get right but this one possessed a fabulous velvety texture and we couldn’t get enough of it.
To finish we decided to share a Vanilla Panna Cotta, Poached Pears, Stem Ginger Ice-Cream, Crispy Ginger Biscuits. If this was the last thing that I ever ate, I would die a happy woman. It was superb. Every element had been executed perfectly so that each retained its character yet worked so well with the others. I loved the toasted marshmallow which decorated the plate and the combination of poached pears with the stem ginger ice-cream was heavenly. What a way to finish a meal!
There was so much to like about the food in Thyme. John Coffey’s cooking is assured and as member of Euro Toques – The European community of chefs and cooks, his commitment to using quality produce in season sourced from local suppliers is evident on every plate of food served. Service throughout the meal was friendly and attentive. As we ventured out into the cold and windy night, we left knowing that we would definitely return again soon.
A glass of house red and a large bottle of sparkling water brought the bill for our meal to just under €75 which included a tip.
T: 090 647 8850
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.