Food is one of the most important aspects of travel – if not THE most important. Food teaches us a lot about a new place, it shares history, culture and traditions all in one meaningful bite. It’s the fastest way we can learn about any destination; a simple visit to the grocery store will reveal more about a city and what it values than even the best run walking tour. It’s also the one commonality in the travel experience; we all have to eat regardless of our backgrounds or style of travel. Personally, it’s a part of travel that I enjoy and I particularly enjoy sharing what I discover wherever I go. My most recent trip to Ireland was not my first introduction to Irish cuisine; I had already been indoctrinated into its many delights on previous trips to the Emerald Isle. What I did learn though on this last trip was to appreciate new aspects of food I discovered in both the Republic of Ireland as well as Northern Ireland, from the traditional to cutting edge. I naturally ate a lot during my week exploring these regions, but these five Ireland food experiences in particular are the ones I appreciated the most.
Full Irish Breakfast
My favorite meal is breakfast and there are few things I enjoy more than morning time meals either in the UK or in Ireland. The traditional full Irish Breakfast is naturally a little different from its British cousin though, and during my trip to Ireland I became well acquainted with it almost every day. This large and hearty style of breakfast has very rustic roots, originally meant to fortify laborers for a long day of work. Although most of us aren’t farmers today, we still enjoy the large and complete meal that only a traditional Irish Breakfast can provide. While I did notice some variations on it and definitely heard some varying opinions, at its heart the breakfast should include: eggs, beans, meats like bacon or sausages, white and black puddings, potatoes, vegetables (usually tomatoes), mushrooms and Irish soda or brown bread. These are the core ingredients but other items may be added or omitted based on your family or where you live. Regardless, it’s delicious and definitely filling, usually leading me to skip lunch entirely.
Not McDonalds or 7-11s or even KFCs take the title of the most common establishment I see in every corner of the world. No, that crown belongs to the Irish pub, which can be found in almost every city around the world. The diaspora of the Irish pub is a cultural phenomenon unlike any other, but there’s nothing quite like patronizing them in their homeland. Dark wood lined bars, regulars permanently perched on stools and plenty of Guinness on tap are all some of the hallmarks that have made Irish pubs so very popular. But I’m also a big fan of eating in these classic establishments, even if I’m sometimes surprised by what I find. In Sligo, that meant enjoying dinner at the time-honored pub, Hargadon Brothers. While the menu featured several innovative dishes, I decided to take full advantage of their expansive burger menu and enjoyed a hearty dinner that was the perfect end to my day.
My lunch at the critically acclaimed Harry’s Shack in Portstewart isn’t a style of Irish cuisine, just a wonderful lunch that I want to highlight. Before I left home, I asked some of my food-savvy friends for suggestions and immediately one of my most trusted colleagues came up with this small restaurant with a beachside location unlike any other. Taking an old shack and transforming it into one of the hottest restaurants in Northern Ireland, Harry’s enjoys an amazing location, great views and of course delicious food. The interior is light and airy and looks like it leapt out of the pages of Coastal Living Magazine. The menu is just as refreshing and routinely changes based on what local foods the chef can find that day or week. From start to finish, this is one of the best lunches I’ve enjoyed in a long time and is a stop along the Causeway Coastal Route that I can’t recommend highly enough.
Irish food in 2016 isn’t just about soda bread and Guinness. Like so many other places around the world innovative chefs are creating new trends in Ireland and Northern Ireland, taking locally sourced and traditional ingredients but delivering dishes that are unique. I experienced the modern side of this culinary trend several times, including these personal favorites.
Lemon Tree Restaurant – Letterkenny: One of my regrets is that I didn’t have more time to spend in the city of Letterkenny, a beautiful place where I only spent the night. I did have the opportunity to enjoy a great meal there however at the family-run Lemon Tree Restaurant. Located in the heart of Letterkenny’s downtown, this cozy restaurant features a menu that like so many others changes with the seasons, but what is consistent is the quality of the food. Surprising diners with a variety of amuse-bouche starters, main courses include locally reared chicken, lamb, pork and plenty of fish options. The entire experience was fun and delicious and a great way for me to spend my very limited time in the city.
James Street Bar + Grill – Belfast: The capital city Belfast is naturally leading the way in Northern Ireland when it comes to modern and innovative cuisine and my only regret was that I didn’t have more time in the city to patronize more of the amazing restaurants doing some really creative stuff. The two restaurants I did patronize though serve as examples of the delicious meals offered around town, and no where is this more true than at the Bar + Grill. Consistently ranked as one of the best restaurants in town, the chefs from here have gone on to great things around the city and region, proving the stellar cooking chops of the restaurant. I went slightly traditional during my dinner, enjoying a schnitzel and selection of homemade Irish breads, a hearty and delicious way to start off my culinary journey through Belfast.
Home Restaurant – Belfast: Originally conceived as a pop-up restaurant, Home Restaurant proved to be so popular that it’s now a permanent fixture on the Belfast dining scene. Enjoying a great location in Belfast’s Wellington Place, Home feels just like you’re dining at someone’s house, which after all is the entire point. They also highlight healthier food choices, a nice change from my typical travel diet and a nice way to finish out my journey through the city.
Sticky Toffee Pudding
I have an incredible sweet tooth and if given the option I would gladly skip a main course in order to enjoy an outstanding dessert. Luckily, I didn’t have to do that while traveling through Ireland but what I did manage to accomplish was to enjoy my favorite dessert in the world every single night – sticky toffee pudding. First, let’s be clear, this isn’t an Irish food, it has British origins but its prominence on menus around Ireland leads me to believe that it has been (thankfully) adopted as a regional favorite. I’m not exactly sure why I love this dessert as much as I do, but if it’s on a menu then I always order it. That became a health issue in both Ireland and Northern Ireland since I found it on every menu I saw. It’s a deceptively simple treat though and is made using a very moist sponge cake baked with finely chopped dates that is then covered in a toffee sauce and usually served with vanilla custard or ice cream. It’s also the tastiest dessert in the world. My favorite version was served at the James Street Bar + Grill in Belfast. There, chefs turn this classic on its head by serving it in sundae form, slightly deconstructing it but making it even more delicious in the process.
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