FOOD AND WINE restaurant critic Aoife Carrigy headed to County Kildare to experience one of Ireland's most exciting restaurants, and recent two Michelin star recipient, Aimsir.
First things first: this is not an ordinary review. Restaurant reviews follow a few rules, the primary being that the critic’s visit is both unexpected and independent (i.e. we pay our own bill).
Sometimes, however, extraordinary things happen. This week is one of those times, and Aimsir restaurant is one of those things, having bagged two Michelin stars less than five months after opening at the handsome Cliff at Lyons estate.
Extraordinary happenings warrant a little rule-bending. So here goes a first for me: a restaurant review based on a media dinner, where I was a guest for last week’s opening night of Aimsir's autumn-winter season. It’s unorthodox, but then so is this game-changer of a restaurant.
READ MORE: The Review: The Greenhouse
To go straight into the Michelin Guide at two stars is a first for Ireland and an unusual achievement in an international context. I was thrilled but not surprised: the food that Cornish-born chef Jordan Bailey is putting out easily meets two-star standards in terms of technical prowess, mastery of flavours and culinary creativity, all of which he honed as head chef in Oslo’s three-starred Maaemo restaurant. What makes Aimsir particularly special in an Irish context is the story that Jordan’s food tells and the intimacy, integrity and authenticity with which it is told.
In the case of Danish front-of-house manager Majken Bech (Jordan’s disarmingly charming wife, also ex-Maeemo) and her Welsh sommelier side-kick, Cathryn Steunenberg, that story is sung as much as told, in beautiful lilting accents and with an infectious joy that frequently verges on plain giddy. Their voices are joined by many others in an ensemble performance that sees floor and kitchen staff dancing around each other as the meal unfolds.
The line between Jordan’s kitchen and Majken’s dining room has been blurred to great effect. A central counter acts as both service station and kitchen pass at which chefs huddle, tweezers in hand, to delicately layer up elements of each work of art on a plate. The chefs themselves deliver each dish and take turns to introduce them: by the time you’ve experienced the full 18 courses, you’ve met the whole team. What this does is reinforce the special exchange that too often gets lost in the faff of fine dining: the generous and beautiful act of one human cooking for another and the shared pleasure that comes from that.
Aperitifs and cocktails
That sense of shared pleasures is evident from when you arrive in the airy reception bar with its wood-burning stove and picture windows overlooking well-tended gardens in which much of the restaurant’s ingredients are grown. Whatever aperitif you kick off your evening with, it’s sure to have a story, whether it’s a glass of watermint kombucha (one of an arsenal of Majken’s homemade juices and non-alcoholic ferments inspired by her love of foraging), one of Rose O’Toole’s glorious cocktails (Caught in the Rain, perhaps, featuring pineapple weed-infused Glendalough gin with Killahora Rare Apple Ice Wine, gooseberry water, roseship shrub and marmalade bitters) or the poised, saline Bereche & Fils Reserve N/V that Majken and Cathryn travelled to Champagne to source, bringing a loaf of the restaurant’s insanely good soda bread by way of a bribe.
Those stories are everywhere. The passageway between bar and 24-seater dining room is packed with them, as you pass glass-fronted cabinets of wild wood pigeon dry-aging with hay and lavender and salt-crusted seaweed and a library of ferments and pickles of everything from gooseberries to lilac sugar to sea beets. The menu at Aimsir (meaning weather) evolves with the seasons and celebrates the natural ingredients that can be grown, harvested, fished, foraged or produced on this island. Jordan and Majken spent 12 months travelling the land to discover its natural larder. It’s fitting that as diners we walk through the restaurant’s larder before reaching the cocoon-like, night-blue dining room.
The first bite
I defy anyone not to be instantly charmed by the first of a flurry of snacks that arrive soon after sitting at one of six round tables. That first bite is the restaurant’s handshake, and they’ve pitched it brilliantly by elevating our humble spud into a sensational celebration of three top-class Boyne Valley producers. A single bite-sized Violetta potato from Ballymakenny is served, having been roasted whole, hollowed out and deep-fried and then filled with a warm purée of four-month-fermented Drummond House black garlic, garlic scapes (the sweet green shoots of the bulb) and Boyne Valley Bán goat cheese. Imagine if Willy Wonka went to Newgrange via Tayto Park and decided to better the best cheese and onion crisps. Earthy and irresistible, this leveller of a dish is a generous bow to our potato-loving palates.
Some of the 18 courses haven’t changed from my first visit back in May, and eating them again reminded me of re-watching a favourite film and getting to enjoy all the best bits again but with the added pleasure of anticipation. There’s the 81-day aged Killenure Dexter tartare served in a tripe tartlet for maximum umami; delicate little Flaggy Shore oysters warmed in roasted koji butter with a thrilling lift of Highbank Orchard apple balsamic; elegant cigars of milk skin filled with Ballyhoura mountain golden chanterelle and hedgehog mushrooms with roasted fresh yeast. There’s that incredible bread, made with Ballymore Organic heritage wheat, sweetened with Highbank Orchard's apple treacle, cooked in Dexter beef fat and served as a course of its own with raw, heavily salted butter from Crawford’s micro-dairy and a glass of local red ale on the side.
An adventure for the palate
Not all are crowdpleasers. Skellig coast kelp cooked in cold-pressed blackcurrant juice and garnished with sour little lemon verbena leaves is challenging in texture and for its complex and unfamiliar flavour combinations. But I love that it offers our palates a new experience, less comforting than cheesy spuds but no less Irish.
At the heart of this meal, there was a battalion of new dishes readied to dispatch their charm offensive. Perhaps the prettiest were Connemara clams, flash-cooked over hot birch wood and flesh layered with kohlrabi root, leaf and fermented juice in an intricate presentation that emphasised its nuanced flavours.
Form complemented flavour in another stand-out dish: mini globes of gently pickled Lyons estate carrots, their round shapes accentuating their sweetness. They swam in a delicate broth of smoked bacon and roasted seaweed together with Kalak malted barley and quail egg yolk slow-cooked in bone marrow. Inspired, as was the autumnal pairing of charred sweetcorn with Gubbeen lardo, pickled wild mushrooms and crispy lichen.
Creamy fillet of Donegal megrim (a plentiful and under-rated relative of turbot) was steamed in fig leaf from the estate’s garden and served with sour green strawberries, nutty brown butter and salted green elderberries. Those lavender-aged pigeons turned up again, first the heart in a delicious tartlet of Mooncoin beetroot and then the rich, dark crown pan-seared with lavender and served with the glossiest quenelle of charred dehydrated beetroot, wild oxalis flowers (akin to wood sorrel) and a rich jus with fermented cherries and five-year, barrel-aged cherry balsamic.
After a cheese course of Young Buck blue with wood sorrel and puff pastry biscuits glazed with tawny cider (which stuck to our teeth with a persistence that was one of the few flaws of the meal) and a last dance with Irish organic strawberries in warm meadowsweet cream with chamomile flower jelly, we were on the home run. We washed down our petit four – Ballyhubbock raw sheep milk fudge with first skim Achill sea salt; toasted koji tart with molasses and Teeling small batch whiskey cream; and Douglas fir filled sweet buns with marigold seed syrup and petals – with pots of earthy mint tea.
Throughout the meal, these superlative flavours and textures were complemented by beverage pairings that took the experience to another level. Again, some of Majken’s non-alcoholic juice pairings were more challenging to the palate than others – one particular concoction of pumpkin juice steeped with dandelion root and sage needed to be reigned back in for balance, for example – but I love that she has the openness and confidence to experiment and present these as works-in-progress. Being asked for honest feedback makes the diner feel like part of that creative process rather than a passive consumer.
Likewise, Cathryn’s wine pairings include some left-field choices that may challenge traditionalists, but her knowledgeable enthusiasm is so infectious that I strongly suggest putting yourself in her talented hands and enjoying the intrepid ride. She didn’t win FOOD AND WINE Sommelier of the Year for nothing.
A meal here is like no other. We’re truly lucky to have this unique little jewel of a restaurant to call our own. And that’s perhaps the thing I love most about Aimsir. It feels like ours. I can’t wait to see where we go with it next.
The bottom line: the 18-course seasonal tasting menu costs €115 per person, with beverage pairing €95 (or non-alcoholic beverage pairing €50).
Aimsir, Cliff at Lyons, Lyons Road, Celbridge, Kildare, W23 HXH3
Aimsir.ie; tel: 01 630 3500
Author: Aoife Carrigy
Aoife’s first proper work experience (if you don’t count a formative stint as the milkman’s assistant) was a TY placement as a commis chef in The Wishbone in Glasthule, where she caught the restaurant bug. From her teens and through her 20s she worked front-of-house in restaurants around Dublin and beyond, before a freelance gig as restaurant columnist for the Dublin Event Guide and then Totally Dublin turned into a five-year full-time editorial stint in FOOD&WINE Magazine. She has been freelance since 2010 and keeps herself busy co-writing and editing cookbooks as well as writing on food, drinks and travel. Aoife is WSET-trained and is currently researching a Masters on ‘Cultural Representations of the Irish Pub’ at TU Dublin.