There are many reasons why Noma is top of our list. The service on each occasion, led by Aussie James Spreadbury, was fantastic, managing to be both professional and fun. The dining room was (it has since moved to a new location) comfortable and aesthetically pleasing. The ambience and atmosphere were just what you want in a restaurant like this. All this is essential to contribute to the perfect dining experience. But, there are a few things that set Noma apart from the other great restaurants on our list.
Firstly, and obviously, is the food. We like food that can be innovative, original, seasonal, local and yet show clarity, we love to be able to identify the components that make up a dish. While a restaurant like El Cellar de Can Roca shows outstanding mastery in blending many different and unusual ingredients to compose a final dish that is delicious and harmonious, it sometimes is hard to identify the individual flavours. In Noma, you not only can taste each part of the dish, but you feel you like you can taste a season, the weather and the region that went into making it. Noma takes a snapshot of the season and serves it on a plate.
Secondly, it is the memories. We have had excellent meals in other restaurants, but shortly after you leave, maybe on the flight home, it is a struggle to remember the dishes. We can still remember nearly every dish we were served in Noma, despite it being nearly five years ago. Not only do we remember what it looked like, but we remember the taste and way we felt eating it. In Noma, there were many special, unforgettable dishes. The sort of dishes that we didn't even talk about whilst eating, but instead just luxuriated in it in silence. It isn't just high-end dining that has given us these memorable food experiences. We get peeved sometimes when people say they only like classical french, or they don't like formal dining, or they don't like Michelin starred restaurants, or they only want to eat a certain genre of food. Why make a choice? Isn't it great that you can have it all? Of course, we have had unforgettable experiences in the halls of the great chefs, but also in classical french bistros, in beach bars in Thailand eating the food of a local family, eating chilli crab in the hawker centres of Singapore, vongole on the pier in Ischia watching the fishing boats come in, a great pizza in New York, having tomatoes with olive oil in a stripped-down tapas bar in Barcelona, prawns simply cooked on a plancha in San Sebastian. The magic of dining for us is that we can have all these different experiences, whatever we are in the mood of, and we don't have to pigeon-hole ourselves into one genre.
Lastly, is something hard to quantify. It is a sort of energy in the restaurant that is very hard to articulate. Maybe it is the enthusiasm of the staff, a sense of passion from both the kitchen and front-of-house teams - a pride and love of what they are doing. A feeling you get that this isn't just a job for them, but they are excited to come into work each day and have a true love for what they are doing. Maybe it is also a special sort of hospitality that isn't just being welcoming, but more a feeling that they are inviting you into their house and they are going to do everything possible to make your experience as brilliant as possible and for the three or four hours that you are there your troubles will be forgotten. We have spoken here before how we nearly cancelled one trip to Noma as we had just received devastating news about the health of a family member hours before getting on the flight. But we went and for the four hours in Noma we were taken away from our troubles, and it this power that good food can have that makes us love it so much.
It is rare when everything comes together in a restaurant like this. It is why we travel to seek out the best dining experiences and often restaurants can be quite brilliant, but they are missing that something that makes it extra special and memorable. But twice in the last eight months, we had an experience like this and we only have to travel as far as Celbridge.
We first ate in Aimsir last August and had no real expectations, we hadn't eaten in Maaemo, the Oslo restaurant where Cornish chef Jordan Bailey was the head chef before moving to Ireland, but as soon as we walked in we got the sense that this could be something a bit special. And it was. It was brilliant; the food, the hospitality, the wine, the sommelier, the dining room. So, last week we returned in the hope that it would be as good as we remembered, but this time it was even better.
Again, when we walked into the restaurant we picked up a vibe off the staff that they are excited to be part of this project. When we were taken from our seat in the bar through to the restaurant, we were shown some of the offerings of the season in their dry ageing fridge; charcuterie that isn't quite ready for the menu and some aged venison that was in store for us later in the evening. This managed to heighten our expectations even higher.
The food, around 18 courses of it, is seasonal, local (some even from their own gardens), innovative, original and much of it was definitely memorable. As we said above we do have a penchant for restaurants that can present the landscape and the season on a plate, it is a style of food we can really identify with, and Aimsir definitely fulfils this wish.
On our first visit last August, we had the most amazing Heritage Wheat Soda Bread, so we were a bit disappointed to hear the bread had changed because the cream they used to make it was out of season, but it was replaced with a sort of sourdough bread made with Jerusalem artichoke that was just as good, The Dexter beef tartare served in its own tripe was still on the menu though, and was just as good this time. Irish bluefin tuna belly, which was dry-aged in bees' wax served in a vertebra from the tuna with mushroom soy and honey was remarkable and extremely moreish. Dry-aged halibut, which we were also introduced to on the way in, was beautifully cooked on the bone with confit garlic butter, served with possibly the best, most addictive, sauce we have ever had with fish. Another amazing dish was organic onion steamed in roasted bone marrow and filled with sheeps' yogurt and ramson capers.. To finish the savoury courses were two courses served with the venison we had met earlier in the evening. First smoked heart served on puffed tendon with burnt chive emulsion, followed by a dish of Sika deer cooked over hot embers with marrow and vinegar.
The best dish of the night was a dessert and it is not often we say that about a meal. A serving of pumpkin with salted rapeseed ice-cream and pumpkin seed brittle was remarkable; just the right level of sweetness, textured and perfectly balanced. It was an unforgettable dish. Michelle has been talking about the Koji tart since our visit last August and was delighted to see that it is still on the menu - it is extremely decadent and a nice ending to the meal. Recently we compiled an Irish tasting menu of the last decade and Aimsir featured heavily - we would expect this showing again in ten years time when we make our tasting menu for this decade.
Restaurant manager and Maitre'D Majken Bech Bailey commands her dining room with poise, grace, charm, friendliness and wit. She strikes the perfect balance between professionalism and hospitality like very few Maitre'Ds we have ever seen and this transcends the whole front of house team who deliver an evening of faultless service. Michelle, because she is still feeding four-month-old Amy, didn't want the full wine pairings so asked could she have fewer wines. This was not only accommodated with ease, but Michelle got some different wines than those on the wine pairing, so we could try more off their list.
That brings us nicely to the wine. We have all had experiences listening to a sommelier rattle off some over-rehearsed speech about a wine with no enthusiasm while you sit there bored wondering when it will end. Well, this isn't the case in Aimsir. Sommelier Cathryn Steunenberg presents each wine with infectious enthusiasm and it is obvious that each one is personally selected by her and means something to her. After each wine, you look forward to the next and hearing the story about its origins. The wines themselves were all excellently matched to the food. Starting with a very interesting wine, Agostado from Bodega Cota 45, that tasted like a blend of a Palo Cortado sherry and one of the wineries other wines, UBE. It was extremely unique and went perfectly with the first couple of courses. Another unusual wine was a Soave from Noûs Cooperativa that didn't taste like any other Soave we had before. One of the stars of the night was Maximus, an IGP made from a grape we had never heard of, Fer Servadou, which had great acidity, with red fruit and hints of pepper. Another gem was a Brouilly from Pierre Cotton in Beaujolais, which was very easy to drink and had a distinctive earthy taste and almost bacony nose. Cathryn doesn't just pair the food with wine, the bread was matched brilliantly with a red ale from the Kildare Brewing Company and dessert was paired with an apple ice wine from Killahora Orchards in Cork which was splendid.
Aimsir is truly a world-class dining destination and we are very lucky to have it just outside Dublin. In Aimsir they consider the whole experience; the food, the wine, the service, the dinnerware, the setting and they try to perfect each of these to give an unforgettable dining experience. Maybe, what is most exciting about Aimsir is that they are only open less than a year, so it is reasonable to expect that there is still better to come, especially since they haven't fully reaped the rewards of their kitchen garden yet. We were in Aimsir for nearly 4 hours, but it felt like we there for just a few minutes.
We would never support the World's Best 50 List at all, it is nonsense to suggest that there is a 'best' restaurant in the world, but until recently the idea that Ireland would have a restaurant good enough to be in the best 50 in the world seemed absurd to us. But now, with Liath in Blackrock making great strides and continuing to improve in the last couple of years and now Aimsir, Ireland has two restaurants that can really rival the best on a world stage.