We visited Brownes in Tuam for their Friday market lunch, an informal mid-day menu that gives some hints of the kitchen's magic.
It sounds simple: ham hock and truffled Hegarty’s cheddar cheese toastie on sourdough bread. It sounds exactly like the sort of thing you can buy today in every good coffee shop and lunchtime destination. Chances are you might have a flat white with it, or a glass of kombucha.
So how, then, do you explain the fact that the ham hock and cheddar toastie in Browne’s Restaurant, in the centre of Tuam, is the toastie from Heaven, the toastie from On High, the toastie of The Gods.
Simple: the secret is technique. Stevie Lane, the chef-proprietor of Brownes, may cook what sounds like simple food – ham and cheddar toastie; goat’s cheese salad; leek and potato soup; pork belly with apple; Sliabh Aughty honey parfait. It sounds simple, but Mr Lane’s food is rooted in rock-solid culinary technique, learnt from some of the great contemporary chefs.
He describes his leek and potato soup, for instance, as “a L’Ecrivain soup" and it has that starry ethereality and super-smooth texture that you only get from passing and sieving and balancing your ingredients perfectly. It’s manna, and a cup of it will set you back a whopping €2.
His crab salad with pickled kohlrabi shows how a great cook can smuggle queer gear into the conservative Midlands – pickled kohlrabi in Tuam: who knew? – and the leaves from Fuinseog Farm and his own brown bread combine to make for a stunning dish.
But it’s that toastie that shows Mr Lane’s modest mastery, the ability to spin silk purses out of – almost literally – a sow’s ear. The ham is sweet and tender, the cheese is agrestic, the note of truffle is profound, the plash of bechamel is perfectly judged, and the Jeremiche sourdough forms the perfect springboard for a galaxy of tastes that torment your taste buds with utter pleasure.
All the while, Amanda Fahy, Mr Lane’s partner, works the room with utter assurance, precision and understatement.
Modesty. Understatement. These aren’t the standard adjectives for contemporary Irish restaurants. But Mr Lane and Ms Fahy know exactly what they want to do, and how to do it. Having learnt from the masters, they have become masters themselves.
And there is more good news for Brownes: the N18 motorway extension, which concludes at the town, means that anyone living in the area south of Tuam can get here in no time at all, and be sitting in this modest – again! – room enjoying duck croquettes with chicory, and rosé veal tartare, and beef cheek with charred scallions, and sea trout with mussel velouté, and white chocolate mousse with honeycomb.
Further good news, is that Blas at Brownes - Tuam Food Festival takes place in Brownes on Sunday May 12. The event takes place in the alley beside the restaurant, where the Farmers' Market happens every Friday. See details on Facebook for the impressive group of artisans who will be here for a lovely event.