Our escapade in Madrid unfolded over eight magical nights during the Easter break. While the city charmed us with its, well, charm, when it comes to culinary prowess, we'd give Barcelona the edge. We revelled in some truly delightful meals and encountered others that left only a faint impression.
On our grand finale, we waltzed into DiverXo. However, fate had a different plan for me that day. My stomach decided it was time for a solo, and unfortunately, I had to bow out shortly after our grand entrance. Yet, Michelle insists DiverXo is a culinary masterpiece, deserving of the praise it garners (It is likely to win that World’s Best Restaurant award in the next couple of years). Here's to hoping for a future return where my stomach plays along.
Our summer sojourn led us back to San Sebastian, a place that feels like a second home. The number of times we've graced its streets has become a bit of a blur, yet every time we return it seems to get better. For a comprehensive list of our recommendations, feel free to check out our updated San Sebastian guide, but here are a few highlights from this visit.
In the middle of our San Sebastian holiday, we, yet again, enlisted the services of the exceptional Miss Babysitter, so we could go for a meal in Amelia. In the basement of Villa Favorita, Paulo Airaudo's restaurant has been making a lot of positive noise since its inception in 2017. The setting is intimate, with a single cosy room, a handful of bar seats, and just three tables. The cuisine is nothing short of exceptional—imaginative, expertly presented dishes featuring some of the world's finest ingredients. While the food left us enchanted, there were aspects that didn't quite hit the right note.
We're not fans of upselling, particularly when it comes to undisclosed supplements on a set tasting menu. Prior to receiving our first course, a chef proposed replacing the pigeon in one dish with wagyu beef, revealing the undisclosed supplement only when asked. We opted to try both versions, with the pigeon emerging as the preferred choice, making the €75 supplement for the wagyu seem less justified. Additionally, at the meal's onset, we were prompted to choose a glass of champagne, from a selection of around 8 options, without any mention of the price.
Another minor gripe was the markup on the wines. While, by Irish restaurant standards, they remained reasonably priced, in comparison to other establishments in San Sebastian, including Arzak and Akalarre, the markups seemed steep. Amelia—undoubtedly a culinary gem, though a tweak in the customer experience department wouldn't go amiss.
Speaking of Akalarre, we also darkened its door, this time with our two little minions in tow (we asked the restaurant beforehand if it was okay to bring kids). The excitement radiated from the girls as they dressed up for the occasion. The four of us enjoyed a splendid time, seated at a table overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, with culinary delights crafted for both adults and kids alike. The girls even had their own whimsical 'bathroom kit' as a first course—edible soap, sponge, and mouthwash—all devoured with sheer delight, it was pure magic to them.
Back at home, we started the year last February with a culinary jolly to Terre in Castlemartyr. Terre, with its many commendable aspects, is certainly on the right track. The service was nothing short of world-class, while the dining room exudes an elegant and comfortable ambiance, likewise the inviting bar. The culinary offerings at Terre were a mixed bag, however; some dishes were a sheer delight, while others faltered due to issues of balance and texture.
Terre were also on the upsell, this time we were talked into some shavings of Perigord black truffle. Regrettably, this addition failed to elevate a rather poor venison dish.
Sadly, Terre was our only domestic restaurant visit outside of Dublin this year, but we did have some splendid meals in our nation’s capital.
We said it before and we will say it again: Liath is a fantastic, world-class, restaurant. And, year after year, it keeps getting better. We lucked out with three visits in 2023. Chef Damien Grey's cooking is expertly devised, deliveried with brilliant service in an intimate and convivial dining room. Liath is simply brilliant.
We managed to get to our local favourite, Woodruff, a few times again this year. We feel very fortunate to have a restaurant with such good food and an amazing wine list just a short walk from our front door.
The success, and publicity, of restaurants like Asador Etxebarri outside Bilbao, to a lesser extent Ekstedt in Stockholm, and many others in cities like London and New York, cooking over fire has become a trend. It's always good to be sceptical of trends as many restaurants will follow them to cash in on their popularity, but lack the understanding to execute them. Some, like Lignum in Galway, tried to bring cooking over fire to a culinary peak but fell short on execution on our visit there in 2020 - it would not surprise us if it had improved since. When done correctly, however, cooking over fire can mean simplification; it means stripping back to its primitive essentials, removing fuss and complication, focusing the attention on dishes with one or two elements. Our last meal of 2023 was in Mister S on Dublin’s Camden Street. Mister S has a short menu with paired-back, simple dishes, cooked over fire and executed with skill. The small restaurant has a delicious smoky scent, and the meat mains are just that: top-quality meat, cooked simply, served with a sauce and a veg side. It shows how cooking one or two great ingredients over fire can deliver a simple deliciousness.
Another trend spreading around the culinary world is the reinvention of the wine bar—places putting a huge amount of their focus on a well-sourced, and interesting, wine list. Again, there are some bad versions of this trend around, but the trend has caused many restaurants, not just wine bars, to up their game with their wine offering. Many wine lists now are as exciting as the food menu. In June, we went to Note on Fenian Street. The restaurant has a ‘bistronomy’, Paris-meets-New-York vibe to it. The food, which is deceptively simple and almost retro at times, is moreish and goes perfectly with a wine list that focuses on natural, minimal-intervention, wines. We loved Note!!
Another summer family outing was Grano in Stoneybatter. The starters and desserts are delightful, but it’s the mains with the homemade pasta that will have us going back here. The pasta made daily in full view of the dining room, is served simply with great Italian produce. It’s fantastic.
Our last summer outing with the offspring was to Mamó in Howth; a restaurant that had been on our to-go list since it opened. The highlights of their seasonal menu were the fish dishes, freshly sourced right outside their front door. It was worth the Dart trip to Howth.
At the start of December, Orwell Road in Rathgar started doing a Sunday lunch again, so it was the perfect opportunity for the four of us to get a post-cinema meal in. We were expecting Orwell Road to be good, but it exceeded that expectation and then some. The food was cooked with great care and skill. The venison with game pie was an absolute knock out. We will be back.
D’Olier Street, at the end of August, was one of our nights out without the kids. There was a lot to like in chef James Moore’s tasting menu, including a pork dish with gremolata, but it was probably the desserts that shone the most; the brioche doughnut brought us much delight.
That’s about it for 2023. 2024 has already given us great meals in Allta and Uno Mas. More about that in next year’s review – I bet you can’t wait. And Liath, Variety Jones and the ever-improving Volpe Nera are fast approaching. Here is to 2024, with more eating, more wine, and hopefully more great meals out.