Over 5,000 years of history is waiting to be explored in Ireland’s Ancient East.
Romantically referred to as the Emerald Isle, this country entices all of the wanderlusting senses; it is a spirited land with rolling valleys and lush green countrysides.
Easily accessible by rental car, coach bus and train from the big city of Dublin, the area encompasses 17 counties and is divided into 3 regions: Land of 5,000 Dawns, The Historic Heartlands, and The Celtic Coast.
In the pursuit of exploration and adventure in these regions, a trip is not complete without nourishing the body as well as the soul; fortunately, Ireland’s Ancient East offers gastronomic delights in spades. And no, it’s not just potatoes and stew. The country has seen a resurgence of talent in the last decade; whip smart and keen chefs who have staged the world over are returning to their homeland to initiate their own culinary endeavors and share flavors they’re excited by. These individuals are collaborating with local suppliers and farmers to introduce bold tastes or elevated twists on beloved dishes.
Tiffany Leigh is a Toronto-based food, travel and science writer.
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1. Greene's Restaurant
Accolades don't phase Bryan McCarthy. Although Greene's Restaurant was recently crowned Best Restaurant in Munster 2016 by Food and Wine magazine, the award-winning chef knows as well as any passionate cook that you're only as good as your last dish. But it's easy to execute with flair especially when inspiration stems from organic and locally sourced ingredients. "As much as possible, we get wild product, or forage for it," he says. Nothing is wasted; cultivated ingredients are preserved and fermented. And certainly, access isn't difficult considering the restaurant's geographical dwellings that offer the best of both worlds—farm fresh markets in a bustling city hub as well as salmon and trout caught directly from the River Lee.
Speaking of water, the restaurant itself offers an oasis in the heart of Cork; a waterfall streaming over a cliff-side wall offers diners a unique view while enjoying their meals. Inside, the space is minimalist to highlight the soaring ceilings of the building's previous life as a warehouse that dates back to the 18th century.
With over 20 years in the business, Greene's must-have dish is the Wild Irish Venison. The pan-seared meat comes out fleshy, pink and unctuously soft. It's paired with celeriac, potato, onion, chocolate and elderberry. The undertones of cocoa and fruit intensify the mildly gamy meat. Completing the dish is a medley of organic roasted vegetables and winter purslane.
Photo by Tiffany Leigh
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2. The Tannery Restaurant
Dungarvan is a quaint harbor town located at the mouth of the Colligan River in County Waterford. It is Ideally situated between the scenic Comeragh mountains and Dungarvan bay. Despite its diminutive population of about 8,000 residents, the town is electric and connected by its many markets and county fairs that feature organic food stalls, fresh fish, local honey, breads, cheeses, organic meat and much more.
Of note, there is one person who is highlighting all these ingredients in his cuisine at his restaurant, The Tannery Restaurant. Chef Paul Flynn, who has amassed over 30 years of cooking experience, was drawn to peaceful picturesque Dungarvan after working as head chef of a 3-Michelin starred restaurant (the now shuttered Chez Nico) in the 1990s, and then at a brasserie in Dublin. Twenty years ago, he made his departure from city life and opened The Tannery—a 70-seater restaurant and wine bar, with an aim of "doing relevant food in the Irish countryside."
His culinary empire, which has garnered numerous accolades over the years, currently consists of the restaurant, a cookery school and a guesthouse.
Finn seeks to educate others about Irish cuisine through both his operations. He has noticed that Irish food is ''better than it used to be" simply because chefs who stage abroad are returning to revitalize Irish cuisine in their hometowns. While this was happening, chef says that the economy fared better and people expressed more of an interest in dining out and trying innovative fare. This explains his most popular dish that he "is not allowed to take off the menu." And that's his Crab Crème Brûlée, which combines fresh seafood from Ireland and is prepared utilizing some French techniques. Locally caught crab gets cooked and the meat is extracted from the shells. It is then added to a cream custard that's infused with garlic and ginger. A slow cook in the oven ensures that the texture of the egg is silky and voluptuous. It's incredibly creamy, delicately sweet and perfect slathered on olive oil crisps topped with pickled cucumbers for a tangy contrast.
Photo by Tiffany Leigh
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About an hour and a half's drive from Dublin, Kilkenny is a medieval town filled with well-preserved churches, monasteries and castles—of note is the St. Canice's Cathedral and Black Abbey Dominican Priory, popular sites that date back to the 13th century. Today, Kilkenny is a cultural hub and a thriving market for crafts, arts, culture and, of course, food.
Enter Foodworks, whose current digs occupy what was formerly a bank; for the past 4.5 years, this restaurant has hosted visitors and locals with what is described as Irish-European cuisine. They could certainly add "award winning" to their description; accolades include "Best Casual Dining" in the Irish Restaurant Awards for Leinster 2014, 2015 and 2016, and "recommended" by Michelin Guide 2014, 2015 and 2016.
While the restaurant's surroundings exude a modest bistro tone, the emphasis has always been on cultivating local ingredients. In fact, much of the produce comes from the family farm located on the outskirts of town. Owners Maeve Moore and chef Peter Greany grow root vegetables and polytunnel herbs for salads and garnishes, and rear their own pigs.
Best of all, these are unfussy, unpretentious dishes; the char-grilled Hereford Steak is a prime example of this. Locally sourced sirloin steak is dry-aged in house for 21 days and cooked to medium-rare. It comes with roasted caramelized onions, mushroom rarebit, peppercorn sauce and crispy chips. Juicy morsels of steak are counterbalanced with umami- ladened mushroom rarebit; this is comfort food at its finest.
Photo by Tiffany Leigh
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4. Kyteler's Inn
The original owner was Dame Alice le Kyteler, a person mired in scandal. She married four times and acquired all of her husbands' fortunes due to their untimely deaths. Suspicions arose about the nature of their deaths and in 1324, she was accused of witchcraft. By the time they came to "burn her at the stake," she had vanished with the help of her friends. Unfortunately, her maid Petronella ended up being the scapegoat and was burned at the stake.
Despite the infamous reputation the Dame acquired, ironically, Kyteler's Inn was known as a place of "merrymaking and good cheer." And it is easy to understand why; the inn offers plenty of beer on tap, live music and unpretentious good pub grub.
If you're popping by this famed pub in Kilkenny, the best bet is to order the Irish Lamb Stew.
Head chef Margaret Kelly uses a mirepoix base of carrots, celery and onion; and to this, she adds dense, starchy white potatoes for heft. Everything is slow-cooked in a thickened broth. The dish arrives in a crockpot with tender slices of lamb that's sourced from the local farmer. The meat bobs on top of the hearty dish. The lamb is mildly gamy with a slight toothsome chew. To finish, a puff-pastry clover is placed on top and includes a side of homemade soda bread with local butter.
Photo by Tiffany Leigh
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5. Waterford Castle's Munster Room Restaurant
It's one thing to live like a royal but nothing completes the dream more adequately than with dining fit for kings and queens. Located on an island sanctuary is Waterford Castle, an elegant fortress surrounded by the River Suir near Waterford. For over 800 years—since the 12th century—Earls of Kildare and Ormond and Knights of Glin and Kerry called this place home. The Fitzgerald Dynasty took over in the 15th and 16th centuries and its descendants owned the property until the 20th century. By 1987, it was purchased by Eddie Kearns who transformed it into a luxury hotel for visitors. Its current owners, a local man from Kilkenny named Seamus Walsh and his family, continue to develop and preserve the space. Despite its medieval charm on the exterior, the current interior aesthetic mimics that of the show Downton Abbey. In the dining room, there are plenty of regal hallmarks including ceiling work, oak paneling and original paintings from that era. The food does not reflect that period but takes a more modernist approach—one that honors local produce, farmers and suppliers. In fact, Waterford Castle's Munster Room Restaurant was critically acclaimed in the Michelin Guide. When dining here, the key is to save room for dessert. Despite being stuffed to the gills, you and everyone else at your table will be clamoring for more of the Peanut Parfait. It's a textural wonderland that features a crisp chocolate shell, creamy peanut butter mousse that is piped into it, caramel crackle on top of that and tufts of vanilla sponge crowning the dessert; it is finished with bruleed bananas and more chocolate. It sounds decidedly rich but in fact, it's the perfect yin-yang of desserts; the density of the mousse is lightened up with bananas and airy sponge. Better order a few extras as you won't be apt to share.
Photo by Tiffany Leigh