Here's how I imagined it: I'd buy a gnarled walking stick and go wandering through shamrock-green villages, on the prowl for shining examples of colcannon, boxty, stampy, and champ. I'd commune with wild sheep on the moors . . . catch silvery salmon with my bare hands. Hour after hour I'd squander in dim, weathered pubs with Friends of the Pint, spinning leprechaun yarns over steaming plates of bacon and spuds. This would be my Irish food odyssey.
Was I serious?Not for a second.
By now, everyone must have heard of the great Irish food revolution. "It's so daunting, we're galloping to catch up with the world's super-sophisticated image of us!" says Jillian Bolger, editor-in-chief of the Dublin-based Food & Wine Magazine. In her twenties, with hip dreadlocks and a tiny stud in her nose, she isn't a vision that suggests corned beef and cabbage. "That Irish cuisine is now history," she says. Over Cosmopolitans at a swank Dublin bar called the Front Lounge, Jillian shows me the latest issue of her magazine. It has a shocking-pink cover and is devoted to sex and food. Boxty, a beloved potato bread, doesn't figure on the list of edible aphrodisiacs. But oysters do. This is a much better place to begin my journey.
On a delicious 10-day tasting tour of the Emerald Isle—heading west from Dublin to Galway, dipping south into Counties Kerry and Cork, and looping back to the capital through County Carlow—I had only a few minor run-ins with black pudding (blood sausage) and champ (mashed potatoes with scallions). What I found instead came close to a Platonic ideal of food. Here were ingredients almost too good to be true (the seafood, the dairy, the organic vegetables) and cooks clever enough to borrow a bit from the world (basil, star anise—why not?Just don't call it fusion) and confident enough to let food taste like itself.
Look for as long as you want. In Galway city you'll find scarcely a trace of the former depression and bleakness. The grays have been painted over with buoyantly Mediterranean colors; on weekends, the downtown promenade keeps pace with the best Spanish paseos. Still, if you happen to be here at lunchtime, it would be a shame not to turn back the clock with a stop at McDonagh's, a nautically themed seafood house/fish-and-chippery at one end of bohemian Quay Street.
Despite its proximity to Sheridans, a boutique cheese emporium, McDonagh's remains a museum of the stodgy, old-fashioned cooking that once gave Irish cuisine its bad reputation. And with each bite you thank the Lord that it isn't completely extinct. The mussels might be blanketed by béchamel sauce, but it doesn't detract from the wild mollusks' oceanic flavor. The seafood stew is immensely comforting, and it's easy to spend a whole day prying the addictive shrimp out of their hard, prickly shells. The fish-and-chips, of course, are your reason for being here: nuggets of immaculate, snowy cod, haddock, or plaice encased in greaseless, brittle batter. The chips are good and limp, as they should be.
Nothing could be further in spirit from limp chips than St. Clerans hotel in nearby Craughwell—it's the kind of place where cured salmon is accessorized with sushi rice and wasabi-soy mayonnaise, and bedtime bonbons come in miniature black shopping bags. St. Clerans seems like an Irish manor dreamed up in Tinseltown, and that's exactly what it is. Along with his fourth wife and multiple mistresses, John Huston—the horse-loving, cigar-puffing director—entertained the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and Montgomery Clift here. In 1997, Merv Griffin bought the Georgian limestone mansion and did it up with posh Hollywood swagger. At dinner I ate my smoked chicken with Calvados jus on a polished mahogany table surrounded by stage-set-red curtains, while a well-behaved fire cast its glimmer on rows of crystal goblets and fine silverware.
Every room at St. Clerans is different, but all are luxe-plus. The Eyre is a fantasia of bold masculine stripes. Mine, the Burke, was a cross between a French Empire boudoir and an English gentleman's study; it had a fireplace, an alcove for gazing wistfully out the window, and a cloudlike featherbed that made everything else seem insignificant. Except for a huge Irish breakfast.
You'll want to hide out at St. Clerans at least two days—a week is better. For the restless, the staff will arrange an excursion to the lonely Aran Islands, or map out a drive through the extraterrestrial landscape of the Connemara coast. Most important, they'll book a table at Moran's Oyster Cottage in Kilcolgan, about 20 minutes away.
What?Reserve at a village pub?At Moran's, you must. Settings don't come any lovelier: a timeless thatched cottage, dark but festive inside, facing castle ruins across a swan-dotted river. In a region renowned for its oysters, Moran's are legendary. The irrepressible proprietor, Willie Moran, is not only an oyster farmer and champion shucker (30 oysters in 1 minute, 31 seconds) but also heir to a family restaurant business dating back more than 200 years.
The gigas oysters were everything I'd expected—plump, ethereal, and incredibly briny. But I enjoyed even more the seafood chowder, as expressive as a good bouillabaisse, and the huge pile of crab claws with pearly, vanilla-sweet flesh. Guinness was my drink, the lilting Galway brogue my dinner music. Want directions to the WC?Prepare yourself for a meditation on Life and Death peppered with a thousand and one asides before anyone manages a simple "It'd be first on the right."