I am glad Galway does not have Michelin starred restaurants. I have eaten in two Dublin restaurants when the family occasion, so I was told, warranted a Michelin starred meal. The first occasion was very good. The owner/chef visited all the tables and chatted pleasantly, hoping that we had enjoyed our meal. We all had. On the following two occasions, including another restaurant, which to my disbelief, retained its Michelin star this year, both meals were a disgrace. Incredibly over priced, snobby and condescending waiters, tiny portions, and pretentious food. Apart from the obligatory ‘is everything all right?’ no sincere effort was made to connect with the customer.
I have always thought: Thank goodness for Galway restaurants. If you want absolute deliciousness I don’t think you can beat Michael O’Grady of Kirwan’s Lane and Barna Pier; but practically every restaurant in Galway presents the customer with an enjoyable evening out. They consistently amaze and delight with well presented food reflecting our Atlantic location, lamb raised on the foothills in Connemara, and the spice and difference added by Eastern and European skills. Even in this small city the choice is exhilarating. I feel it perfectly reflects Galway’s character with its mixture of shops, restaurants, theatre, schools and galleries, and innovative industry.
Few restaurants mirrored this heady mix better than Nimmo’s did under the guiding hand of Harriet Leander. For 14 years she presided, like some kind of conjuror, over this unusual place. The building itself, seen from the Claddagh, is almost an extension of the Spanish Arch. It looks like an old prison on the Bosporus. You often arrived like castaways having crossed Spanish Parade in the teeth of a wild southwesterly. But it was all worth it. Its unusual food, quirky tables and chairs, green and blue Moroccan tiles, with its circus-like collection of posters, mirrors, cut-out signage, flowers and menus written on a blackboard, made each visit an adventure.
It was originally a garage converted into a restaurant by Alec Finn and Leonie in the 1970s. Its very contrariness attracted the unusual and the brave. Seamus and Kevin Sheridan began to explore their passion for food by starting the Blue Raincoat restaurant there. When they wanted to move on in 1992, Harriet moved in. She walked into an empty old building, dragging behind her a second-hand household cooker, and some old sinks and tables. She put up‘ Nimmo’s’ over the door, and off she went.
Harriet was born in Helsinki. She travelled extensively about Europe delighting in the local food from different regions. ‘ Food tells you,’ she says in her entertaining book Nimmo’s - Anecdotes and recipes*, ‘ about how people live and laugh.’ With Deirdre Delap, they cooked as ‘ if we were cooking for friends’. This happy combination, served by smiley people, was a winning recipe. Her menus were unusual. As well as the recognisable lamb shanks, venison casserole, onion soup, fillet of chicken, courgettes, sweet peppers and tomatoes, smoked salmon, eel and crab claws, there were other romantic temptations. Borscht, a powerhouse of a vegetable soup popular in Russia and Poland, piroshki, pastry filled with rice and salmon, spanakopita (A Greek dish of spinach, cheese, herbs on fine puff pastry slices ), saltimbocca ( a Roman dish of pork, Parma ham, herbs and sherry ), and melanzane alla parmigiana (plump aubergines coated in floor and herbs, gently fried, and served with a tomato and basil sauce. Harriet picked up this recipe when she lived in the little spa town on the toe of Italy. Every morning, she awoke with loud banging on the door: “Arietta! Arietta! We are going to the market. Come on!” And every evening the streets filled with delicious smells of cooking. Despite our weather, Harriet brought those evening aromas to Galway.
Nimmo’s celebrated mid summer, Halloween, winning the Sam McGuire, and Christmas with parties for customers and friends. I’m going to try her oven-baked plums with cinnamon cream this year. It’s a dessert she got from her grandmother in Finland. It looks reasonably easy:
1 pack frozen puff pastry.
12 dried plums, soaked in brandy for one hour. (You must drink the left-overs! )
1 tablespoon of brandy
1 egg yolk
Heat the plums and the brandy with a little brown sugar, then let them cool. Make four small squares of puff pastry, 12cm x 12cm. Place the plums in the middle, close the pastry by joining the four corners loosely. Brush with egg yolk. Place on a tray and bake for eight minutes.
Serve with whipped cream seasoned with the cinnamon. Harriet served these with her Christmas Eve lunch, but I think it would good on any winter’s evening.
Harriet wasn’t sure if the kind of food she enjoyed cooking was right for people living in the soggy and windy climate of the west of Ireland. She was heartened however, when confusion arose following another Nimmo’s opening in Clifden. Visitors were unsure as to which restaurant they had booked. Some Galway deliveries went to Clifden, while Clifden deliveries arrived at her door. When the matter reluctantly went to court, Harriet was delighted when the food writer John McKenna, the renowned chef Gerry Galvin and Darina Allen came to her rescue. They admired every thing she was doing. And so did her customers, staff and many friends.
Harriet has bowed out now, and her place has been taken by the equally inventive Aoibheann McNamara, and her friendly team in Ard Bia at Nimmo’s. The adventure continues..
* Nimmo’s - Anecdotes and Recipes, by Harriet Leander, generously illustrated by Joe Boske, Ted Turton and Tom Matthews, on sale all over Galway €20.A nice touch is to recommend a suitable wine with every recipe.