Irish food was once a worldwide joke, with potatoes as the punch line. But by forsaking the lowly spud for fresh local ingredients—forget the bangers and mash, try sugar-cured baby bok choy instead—inventive chefs at restaurants all around the Emerald Isle are creating stunning meals that astonish the senses
Hugh Stewart

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."

Ballinspittle, Ballynagore, Ballynacarrigy, Bally . . . blimey! Even with a Ph.D. in Gaelic linguistics you'd need help navigating your way through Irish locales. Ballingarry, however, is a name you'll remember, for this Lilliputian village is home to one of Europe's most magical guesthouses: the Mustard Seed at Echo Lodge. Located just north of the hamlet of Adare, the inn's neat crème brûlée-colored 1884 structure once housed a small convent. Its owner, Daniel Mullane, attributes his enormous success solely to the good vibes he inherited from the nuns. What modesty.

The Mustard Seed is surrounded by an exuberant kitchen garden and filled with flower arrangements and comely collectibles that range from rare antiques to quirky flea market finds. The kitchen announces its excellence with the bread basket—a silver bowl, actually—piled with brown soda bread that could double as cake, rapturous scones, and tiny pleated "just one more" rolls, made for dunking into the smooth parsnip and Bramsley apple soup tinged with lemon verbena. Warm phyllo-wrapped goat cheese might sound like a cliché, but not once you savor the rich, tangy cheese from west Clare (those goats eat only wild herbs), complemented by an elegant little salad of plums and caramelized walnuts. Beignets of monkfish, sole, and turbot with an almost transparent pepper coulis make a study in texture. The bright spinach bundles in a frothy champagne sauce burst in your mouth, releasing the plump marine flavor of barely cooked oysters.

The meats, whether a rich steak or miniature chops of prized local lamb, come from a trusted village butcher. But the squab is as wild as the river salmon, which arrives garnished with a handful of mussels and splashed with a light cream sauce. The apple-and-black currant crumble tastes even sweeter with a glass of port by the drawing-room fire.

Afterward, cocooned in an oak four-poster under a striped canopy, I dreamily surveyed my room: tasteful prints, a dramatic bunch of dahlias, antiques left and right, plus a still life of three tiny apples on a stark white plate. In the morning, when I parted the chinoiserie drapes, the sun finally winked from behind the clouds to light up the manicured lawn's pond and a riot of flowers framed by Gainsboroughesque trees. Only breakfast—fresh Limerick ham and an encyclopedia of Irish farmhouse cheeses—was better than the view.

The tourist spillover from the nearby Ring of Kerry, mother of all Irish scenic routes, and the presence of two world-class hotels have transformed the once sleepy town of Kenmare, drawing crowds to what's become a top-notch gastronomic destination. Brits with baronial ambitions fall for the somber Victoriana and the Francophile cooking at the Park Hotel. Activity-hungry Americans, however, prefer Sheen Falls Lodge, an 18th-century hideaway of the earl of Kenmare retooled into an ultra-polished resort with a pool, a gym, salmon fishing, and horse stables on its sprawling grounds. Sheen Falls' other trump card is its ambitious young chef, Chris Farrell.

One of Kerry's infamous storms was roaring when I arrived at La Cascade, the hotel's restaurant overlooking a waterfall on the Sheen River. This excess of H2O brought to mind wellies and wax coats, and the predictable hotel dining room trappings didn't exactly ooze warmth. The peach-colored walls were hung with stately oil paintings; a lady tinkled away on a white baby grand. I panicked. Would it be another yawn of a hotel meal?

I started with an oversize raviolo bulging with lobster and gilded with caviar. The sweet-tart cream on the pasta—with its exotic suggestions of citrus and star anise—immediately calmed my bland-food worries. Startlingly delicious, it pushed the dish to a higher level. Farrell's ingredients are fiercely local and religiously seasonal, and he assembles them into intricate but breezy creations with the quiet aplomb characteristic of young Irish chefs. Rosy petals of house-smoked duck breast came draped over a fried eggplant round and ringed by precise batons of tart caramelized apple, a little spinach, and a swirl of basil oil. The dish was both earthy and sophisticated.

Salmon is practically elevated to sainthood in County Kerry, and Farrell treats it accordingly. He cures the fish in sugar to silky perfection; or pan-fries it gently, then finishes it under a grill. He offsets the moist, opulent flesh with a refreshing "compote" of artichoke hearts and baby bok choy. The smoky red-wine glaze on the salmon can almost stand up to a 1962 Château d'Yquem from the hotel's famous cellar. Yet the spirited young sommelier, Alain Bras, would be just as happy to let you discover an up-and-coming Lebanese red.

By morning the storm had subsided to a drizzly whisper. I meandered through Kenmare, a bouquet of pastel-colored 18th-century row houses, every second one seemingly occupied by a restaurant. Unfazed by the plethora of lunch choices, the locals gravitated toward Purple Heather, a cross between a pub and an auntie's parlor cluttered with vintage mirrors, posters, and prints. The modestly awesome food here is no surprise to anyone who knows the proprietor, Grainne O'Connell. The cooking gene must run in the family—O'Connell's sister, Maura Foley, owns the beloved Packies down the street; along with Myrtle Allen of Ballymaloe Cookery School, Foley is regarded as a godmother of New Irish Cooking.

At Purple Heather, you'll find a comforting fish soup, smooth, robust, and teeming with prawns, mussels, and crab; a toasted cheddar sandwich with lashings of apple chutney; a platter of cold seafood, flawlessly cooked. It's pub grub gone to heaven. O'Connell's dense, fragrant Guinness fruit loaf made me yearn for the real thing, which I found at O'Donovan, a tiny traditional pub next door. Sharing a thick, bready stout with toothless old-timers in a dark lair, I forgot all about boutique cheeses and organic greens. At least until dinnertime.

Everyone in Ireland agrees that Cork, the largest county and the one farthest to the south, sets the most sumptuous table on the Emerald Isle. From its farms, rivers, and ovens come butter and milk of almost biblical goodness, cheeses to silence French snobs, beautiful fish, scones and jams sweet enough to make the English commute. Much of this regional bounty is on display at the Covered Market—a.k.a. the Old English Market—in Cork city; but don't expect some folkloric bazaar lost in a time warp. Here, under a grand vaulted ceiling, such vernacular foodstuffs as crubeens (pig's feet) and phantasmagoric innards sit cheek by jowl with fromage from the Auvergne, chic Tuscan oils, and Middle Eastern spices.

Jacobs on the Mall restaurant, only a few steps from the market, delivers a similarly modern blend of homegrown and worldly. The soaring room, converted from an old Turkish bathhouse, would turn heads even in London. But in London you don't often see businessmen with ties loosened, shirtsleeves rolled up, jackets draped over jazzy red chairs, attacking lunch as though it were their last meal.

Mercy Fenton's food invites such abandon. One of the country's most lauded young chefs, she packs natural flavor into dishes that are Tuscan in their minimalism and Burgundian in their lushness. To start, she might serve satiny rabbit rillettes with dried apricots and an airy slice of toasted brioche. It's a Gallic dish with a Gaelic soul. Or you might choose a salad of peppery arugula, warm seared duck livers, back-bacon lardons, and a cool, sweet accent of grapes—a straightforward yet elegant combination that sings.

Fenton's main courses could spark philosophical debates about the mysterious extra dimension that turns a dish seemingly devoid of artifice into a magnetic meal that lingers in memory, maybe for years. And we're only talking roast salmon and green beans in garlicky parsley sauce; plaice and mashed potatoes; a chicken-leg confit with buttered baby beets. "Look after your ingredients, and they'll look after you" is Fenton's motto. But, unlike Alice Waters, she doesn't demand that you worship her organic carrot. It's enough for you simply to roll up your sleeves and tuck in.

My mouth still sweet from Fenton's blueberry-and-lemon trifle, I headed east to Youghal, a provincial walled town at the mouth of the Blackwater River. Youghal is known for its buzzing waterfront promenade, a historical connection with Sir Walter Raleigh, and the 13th-century St. Mary's Collegiate Church, which stands a stone's throw from the Jacobean pile once inhabited by the famous courtier and pirate. The town's greatest attraction, however, might be Aherne's Seafood Restaurant, where three generations of the Fitzgibbon family have wooed seafood devotees for more than 30 years. Aherne's started life as a bar; its busy front pub still offers up mean pints, oysters and mussels, and a wickedly rich potato and salmon gratin. The stately main restaurant is more formal, decorated with an ur-Irish color scheme (salmon pink and Granny Smith green), forgettable art, and lots of different lamps.

But these details faded as soon as dinner arrived. During this meal, all my past seafood epiphanies came swimming to mind: I recalled the goose barnacles of Galicia, Singapore chili crab, Tasmanian Coffin Bay scallops, the ceviches of Lima. Aherne's catch belonged in that pantheon. This I knew as soon as I dipped my fork into a mammoth platter groaning with salmon and haddock, swordfish and plaice, with oysters, langoustines, mussels, and crab—all of astonishing quality, cooked with respect, and served simply with butter on the side. Knowing that I'd pay three times more in the Mediterranean for stuff half as good was a delicious thought. And that was before I encountered the lobster, a 2 1/2-pound whopper with the most succulent flesh I've ever tasted. What more could one ask for?(Except perhaps a modestly priced New Zealand or Alsatian wine, plus endless helpings of the smooth carrot purée "with good butter and cream to it," as the waitress said proudly.)

After this feast, the ebullient Fitzgibbons won't send you wandering into the night. A few years ago, the family added a 12-room hotel that's plush enough to be listed in Ireland's prestigious Blue Book. They'll even ply you with more fish for breakfast.

Shh . . . If Kilgraney isn't on the Irish gourmet country-house circuit, it's because certain young Dublin sophisticates are keeping this County Carlow retreat all to themselves. Kilgraney's setting is so perfectly Irish—five acres of velvety green hugging a Georgian farmhouse, with its carefully tended patches of romantic decay—that the essence of Amanresorts drifting through the house takes you by surprise. (Get used to it. Owners Bryan Leech and Martin Marley lived in Southeast Asia; they cook with cilantro and lemongrass and decorate with Burmese wall hangings, Sri Lankan saris, and Philippine wood carvings.)

Each of the inn's six rooms and suites is spiced with discreet world-beat accents and presents a lesson in minimalist grace. The arrangements are so fastidious that you feel like a guest at an interior designer's private house. (Not a place to toss your socks on the floor.) This feeling stays with you during candlelit dinners taken around a gleaming rectangle of local black limestone supported by antique legs. You might have to restrain yourself from helping your hosts with the dishes or constantly lavishing praise on their vividly flavored cream of tomato and fennel soup, their collection of wooden polychrome putti, or the striking shade of their dining room walls (it matches the Grenache-Syrah blend in your glass).

You'll want to invite your gracious hosts for an evening in your own country house—once you've finally repainted the porch. But you would need to rent a sous-chef from Jean-Georges Vongerichten to compete with Bryan and Martin's designer arrangement of lettuces next to pink slices of their famous hot-smoked salmon (from River Slaney, where Bryan's mum lives); the intriguingly spiced eggplant terrine wrapped in a lacy Asian omelette; the chili-stuffed pork loin in a gingered sun-dried mango sauce. It's the vegetables that ground you in Ireland: waxy potatoes, gleaming marble-sized beets, sugary snap peas, all gathered right before dinner.

Over chocolate star-anise mousse cake, Bryan tells of his Speckled Marran hens, which lay eggs with yolks so improbably orange he doesn't dare use them in desserts ("The guests will suspect artificial coloring!"), and laments the passing of his favorite rooster, lost in the prime of his life to a fox. You might want to send him a condolence note, except it could never be quite stylish enough.

The Facts

McDonagh's Seafood House 22 Quay St., Galway; 353-91/565-001; lunch for two $12.
St. Clerans Craughwell; 353-91/846-555, fax 353-91/846-600; doubles from $261; dinner for two $90.
Moran's Oyster Cottage The Weir, Kilcolgan; 353-91/796-113; dinner for two $36.

Mustard Seed at Echo Lodge Ballingarry; 800/322-2403 or 353-69/68508, fax 353-69/68511; doubles from $150; dinner for two $73.

Sheen Falls Lodge Kenmare; 353-64/41600, fax 353-64/41386; doubles from $293; dinner for two $96.
Purple Heather Henry St., Kenmare; 353-64/41016; lunch for two $22.

Jacobs on the Mall 30A South Mall, Cork; 353-21/251-530; lunch for two $40.
Aherne's Seafood Restaurant 163 N. Main St., Youghal; 353-24/92424, fax 353-24/93633; doubles from $136; dinner for two $68.

Kilgraney House Bagenalstown; 353-503/75283, fax 353-503/75595; doubles from $80; dinner for two $64.