The idea of cooking with tea is nothing new, but the idea of making tea from entirely indigenous ingredients is part and parcel of the philosophy at Aniar. This is the basis of the new tasting menu introduced this week. As always, this is a menu dotted with native seaweeds, wild herbs, and berries, and reflects Aniar’s billing of itself as “a terroir-based restaurant”, a farm to table culinary experience. Terroir refers to the soil and climate imbuing food and wine with the flavours of a region and, as such, carries lots of potential for pretentiousness. This they somehow manage to avoid, this is traditional food made contemporary proving that profound truths can be spoken plainly.
Enda McEvoy was the original chef here when the restaurant was first awarded its Michelin star. Since he left Aniar in March 2013, Ultan Cooke has been carrying on the food philosophy. Cooke has since achieved that far more difficult feat of retaining the Michelin star, as it belongs to the restaurant and does not travel with the chef. Something impressive and to be applauded, as he is a native Galwegian returning from a high profile position in London to take over this kitchen.
Joerg Mueller, the man behind the Solaris brand, has prepared custom blended teas of entirely domestic ingredients as part of this tasting menu. Three new blends, which use regional plants and herbs to complement the menu, include a fennel-based tea in which some of the vegetables are cooked, a distinctive tea sorbet made from local berry and birch leaf, and an uplifting palate cleanser based on lemon balm and red clover.
There is a most welcome little glass of fizz thrust into your hand on arrival, then little snacks of smoked cabbage leaf, dotted with bright orange scallop roe mousse, are first to appear. The bread comes in surprisingly large quantities with homemade butter speckled with the excellent Achill Island sea salt.
To begin we are served some paper-thin Castlemine beef fillet, deep coloured beetroot slivers and fine goat’s cheese from the Aran Islands. The Solaris tea sorbet follows, sweet and delicately flavoured with hints of lemon balm. The main of monkfish is perched on a bed of spelt, cooked in a flavourful fish stock, while the bisque foam is served in a roasted onion layer, a perfect half circle of pure umami. There are wilted sea vegetables, the balance of the complex mix of flavours delicately fine-tuned, the dillisk seaweed is the very essence of the ocean.
Another highlight of the meal was the dessert. Billed as 'rhubarb, liquorice, rose, malt', the variety of textures danced on the palate. To limit the ingredients by terroir means a limited menu, but the food that is served here is subtle and brilliant. From the addictive blue cheese scone to the pretty petits fours, the menu was virtually faultless with outstanding service. If I had to make a criticism I would say that the nettle and fennel bread was under-proved. That's it. That's all I got.
As Galway's culinary 'tall poppy' this restaurant has always had its detractors. Aniar is not for everyone, thankfully there are many different tastes in the world and room at the table for us all. If you are the kind of person who does not feel like they have been out unless you have had to open your top button, you will not like the dainty portion sizes. Here you leave satiated but not stuffed. Maybe you are a plain eater who just likes pasta and chicken, beige food with no surprises. Be warned then, there are many surprises. It is not cheap, but then this is labour intensive food and it is reflected in the price.
For me personally, I like the room. It may not be everyone's cup of (Solaris) tea, but it is relaxed, functional, and pleasant. While most Michelin star restaurants are known for plush surrounds and white gloved waiting staff, Aniar does interiors in a more downbeat way, Galway style. Whatever expectation you may have of a starred restaurant, it must be remembered that you do not ask for this award, you have it thrust upon you. At Aniar all tastes and textures are beautifully realised and achieved. This is a mature cooking.
Aniar’s tasting menu is available at €70 per person, or with wines pairings at €100 per person. Tasting menu must be ordered by the entire table.
Aniar Restaurant, 53 Lower Dominick Street, Galway. Tel 091 535947. www.aniarrestaurant.ie