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Monday
Nov092015

Ireland »

"People don't go to Ireland for the food, Petal."

That's what my friend Angela said to me when I'd mentioned, while planning last summer's family trip, that I wasn't excited about the eating options I was finding online: very little variety, + the more differentiated and interesting restaurants were pricy (and their foods looked to be a little fancy-for-the-sake-of-fancy, due to flourishes like balsamic glaze and edible flowers – in other words, shit I'm not fooled by). One notable exception came from food writer David Leibovitz, who had written a story about his stay at the Ballymaloe Restaurant & Hotel – alas it was out of our budget range.

With our Irish adventure now long in the rear view mirror, I have this to say about Ireland: it's a lovely country with warm people and insanely beautiful landscapes and seascapes – and perfectly fine food. Angela was right: don't go to Ireland with food as your primary mission. But also, importantly, don't be deterred by this information. Visit Ireland! Not every place one travels to has to be just about food. That said, truncated as the food choices in Ireland may be in the budget range, I nevertheless continued in my habit of mapping out and over-discussing meals in advance.

Here then, is a brief semi-cohesive account of our eating and travels in Ireland last summer.

An Irish traffic jam, Connemara

We had one day in Dublin, two in Cork, two in Dingle, and three in Galway. Our travel involved a circular route through the southern half of the country in a rented car, with me driving on the left side of (often narrow) roads in chilly and windy, often rainy weather (map of basic route here). I imagined seafood would figure prominently since we were never to be far from the ocean, so I hadn't planned on any Italian food or pizza. But given the repetitive nature of pub menus (and because, of course, I am pizzacentric in my food wants), it didn't take long for us to seek out pizza. It happened on our third night there.

Being used to the great variety and high quality of pizza in New York and, given that I've had good pizza in plenty of places including Italy – and, recalling what Angela had said about Don't Visit Ireland For The Food – my pizza expectations were pretty low. Before I get to details on Irish pizza however, here's the quick skinny on where we went, plus some non-pizza food observations.

Dublin is a fine, very walkable city. It rained on-and-off throughout our one full day there, but we didn't mind – it was the first day of vacation! When we got tired of walking we headed to the Guinness Storehouse, which is awesome. And yes, Guinness does taste better in Ireland.

Hanging at the bar while we waited for a table at Market Lane, in Cork.

We loved our hotel in Cork, the Lancaster Lodge – great location on the River Lee, across a small bridge from Cafe Depeche (a good coffee shop completely themed on the 80s new wave group Depeche Mode) and n acclaimed vegetarian restaurant called Cafe Paradiso (we didn't eat there). Our first dinner was at Market Lane, a good restaurant with super reasonable prices. I had pork confit. It came in the form of a free form crisp patty and had much more going for it than your usual pile of juicy pork meat ("Confit pork shoulder with succotash of flageolet beans and sweetcorn, fennel and grapefruit salad and an apple butter sauce" - €17.95). Our second dinner in Cork was when pizza-crave had struck, and we ate at a place called Uncle Pete's. More on this further down.


The view from our hotel room in Dingle.

Dingle is a touristy town in a breathtaking setting: colorful buildings, old pubs, and a small harbor whose quaintness seemed no match for what was a very choppy sea – I don't recall seeing any boats sailing during our visit. We dined in pubs each of our two nights there. The better of the two was the Marina Inn, where I overdid it by beginning with their hearty and excellent bowl of seafood chowder and then following up with fish and chips (the best I had in Ireland, by the way – and that's saying a lot!). We stuck around after each of our pub meals to enjoy the free, live music.

The amazing steak sandwich at McCambridge's, in Cork

Galway is known for its pubs and music but we'd just come from Dingle and had pubbed it up two nights straight, so here we ate in regular restaurants. By accident, I had booked our stay just outside of Galway, at a B&B in Salthill, a waterside ex-resort area. Galway itself is charming (in that cute-European-city-with-pedestrian-zone-souvenir-shops-and-street-performers sort of way). Salthill connects with Galway by an easy bus ride, and feels like a separate town. It has a commercial area of its own that includes a couple of casinos, several restaurants, and a promenade along the water's edge where families walk, fishermen fish, and young couples hold hands. In Salthill, we ate at Da Roberta's, where we had good pizza. The owner and the staff were Italian and friendly. My favorite meal in the Galway area, however, was a lunch I had at McCambridge's: a fantastic steak sandwich that had fried mushrooms and onions and a "Cashel" blue cheese mayo – wow.

Seafood chowder at the Tigh TP pub, in Ballydavid (Dingle Penninsula)

Every pub menu we encountered had homemade seafood chowder, each chock full of big chunks of fresh seafood, including fish (salmon, cod, or other), mussels, and squid. Every one that I had was superior to every mixed fish chowder I've ever had in the US. For my wife and daughter, who are not as enthusiastic as me when it comes to fruits of the sea (or meat), it was more challenging. One thing worth noting is that every pub that had seafood chowder also offered a soup-of-the-day and in every instance that we asked, it was vegetable chowder. All of them were good, according to my wife – and she knows this stuff.

Of course, I didn't only eat fish and chips, seafood chowder, and the occasional pizza. Breakfast included eggs and a variety of breakfast meats (often more than one type of the same plate; Irish bacon was my fave – it's cut wider than American bacon, has very little fat, and tastes quite similar to American bacon). For lunch and dinner, I had a burger once, salad whenever possible, a "pot of crab" (sadly) only once (it's cold crab meat filled into a small tall bowl, topped with solidified butter, and served with toast and a small salad – wow!!!!), mussels & fries, and the aforementioned steak sandwich and pork confit.

But enough on those foods, right? What about the pizza?!

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Once we settled into our table at Uncle Pete's in Cork and I had had a few sips of Galway Hooker ale, I made a difficult pizza decision: to have a seafood pizza instead of a margherita – my usual first-time pizza quality gauge. Because why the heck not? I was in Ireland goshdarnit!

Uncle Pete's "The Fisherman" is a kitchen-sink-like pie with prawns, spinach, crushed garlic, anchovies, mushrooms, mozzarella, tomato sauce, and grated parmesan. I've been influenced by the Italian way of thinking in that, with certain exceptions (such as the clam pizza at Pepe's in New Haven), mixing fish and cheese is not recommended. And yet here I was in Ireland, somehow drawn to this pizza, and I wanted it most of all out of the many choices on Uncle Pete's rather interesting menu. Likely, it was because I knew it would be fresh and good quality shrimp. I savored every bite of this pizza so much that I couldn't stop asking my non-seafood-eating wife and daughter to please please please try it. They wouldn't. 

There was one problem with pizza at Uncle Pete's. The crust has a pale bottom and a soft texture with no character of crust-worthiness. It seemed more like the output from a 1970s home pizza kit (the kind that came in a box) than that of a restaurant involved in the actual mixing and proofing of dough.

I asked the waiter if it would be possible to see the pizza oven. "No, the kitchen is upstairs," he told me, "and it's very tight, and they're quite busy." I'm pretty sure they were afraid of prying eyes (and my camera).

My first theory regarding the soft bottoms was that they were undercooked. But I soon realized it wasn't a good theory. Because, judging from the tops of the pizzas we had (and the others that I espied on other tables), none could have withstood a single moment longer in the oven. The mozzarella had been cooked to maximum brownness.

I 100% forgive Uncle Pete's of its disappointing crust. What was top was excellent, and I would go back in a without hesitation and order the same thing again. By the way, an individual pizza with all of the toppings of "The Fisherman" –  would cost at least $20 in the US. At Uncle Pete's, it was €11 (~US $12). 

Fast forward to a few days later when I had my next Irish pizza experience at Da Roberta's, in Salthill. I asked the owner if he had a theory about the undercooked bottom with the brown mozzarella I had encountered. In typical Italian-ex-pat fashion, he boasted that his restaurant's mozzarella was imported from Italy, that Irish mozzarella is inferior, and that he's seen this problem with the soft crust/browned cheese in many places. Might Irish mozzarella have a higher fat content and therefore cook (and burn) too quickly, I asked. He would not hypothesize. Italian is just better – that was his stance.

The situation reminds me of the similar conundrum I encountered in Argentina a few years ago, where the pizza mozz was very different from American pizza mozz: it melted out into a very filling thick lava, which I don't commonly see here in the US.


The waterfront in Salthill, near Galway

So where does this leave us? I think the lesson here is: if what's on top of the pizza is good then why not forgive a weak bottom? If the scenery is incredible and nearly every person you meet is well-spirited, then don't suffer the fact that, food-wise, it's not Italy or France or San Francisco. Besides, those seafood chowders were top notch.

I've posted some of my favorite photos from Ireland to my photography website, here. They are captioned, so from them you can see some of the places we visited besides the main towns mentioned in this story.

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