John McKenna heads back to his childhood in Aine Maguire's The Idle Wall, in Westport, County Mayo
Aine Maguire's menus are a palimpsest, both of her private life, and of her cooking life. Her food in her new restaurant, The Idle Wall, down on the waterfront in Westport, County Mayo, is unusually personal: there are dishes directly influenced by her family, dishes from the places of her youth, dishes that have been triggered by precise experiences at precise times.
Most chefs' cooking is biographical, but Ms Maguire's cooking is particularly autobiographical. Posh fish pie. Beef burger made to Martin Maguire's recipe. Todays potatoes come from Joe Kelly's organic farm, the variety is Setanta (and what potatoes! You would walk to the Quay in Westport just to eat them with Cuinneog butter.) One pudding is simply 'tea and cake' as if you were twelve years only, and visiting your auntie.
The good news is that this is hugely welcoming cooking, free of ego, yet girded by the most precise technique and the most rigorous execution. It is food that feeds you, in the old style - the bowls of spuds and carrots and chard that arrives with the main courses would almost do you for dinner, without the oysters and the sirloin and the brined pork chop.
There are people of a certain age who will eat this food and who will almost dissolve in tears, as their childhood is served to them on a plate, as the deep fried smoked salmon and cream cheese balls (a tribute dish to the Quay Cottage, from 1987) takes them back 30 years, as the taste of Achill smoked mackerel brings them back to the childhood holiday in Keel, or the flavours of rhubarb and custard trifle summon up that Sunday lunch, or that birthday party when you were eight years old. Ms Maguire's cooking is filled with an unusual respect for the foods of Ireland's past, but it is also suffused with a rich, and welcome, nostalgia.
The room ferries along the feeling of nostalgia: it's gorgeous, with warm fires, and west coast nautical tropes and local artwork and tea cups and saucers framed as richly decorative objects. You walk in the door of one of the prettiest cottages and, depending on your mood, time can telescope from any period between 2015 and 1955.
The table settings are demure, the style is modest, the staff have a wisdom and wit to them that reminds you of the qualities that made the Irish famous for their hospitality: the Idle Wall team of ladies are benchmark brilliant in their languid enthusiasm, their sangfroid.
What did we eat? Native prayer clams with pickled wild garlic and wild garlic flowers, richly saline and succulent. The smoked salmon and cream cheese balls, a great cordon bleu treat. A turf smoked shallot tart with Bluebell Falls goats cheese and organic leaves, all of them simple and lovely. Then that great burger in a brioche bun, kitchen-sink succulent, and the pork chop from McCormacks butchers up the town, brined and roasted, served with apple sauce.
The vegetarian cooking is simply ace: Setanta potato boxty with griddled portobello mushrooms and blue cheese was as satisfying and umami rich as steak, thanks to the unique style of boxty, which remained me of both a soca pancake and an Afghani chapatti. There was the big bowl of vegetables with the incredible potatoes, and then rhubarb and custard; a salted caramel, hazelnut and chocolate ganache tart which is the finest I have eaten since the days when the late Robbie Miller of Shanks used to fire out the defining Irish chocolate tart; and Cuinneog buttermilk pudding with bitter apple pickle and a shortbread biscuit the size of a communion wafer.
Aine Maguire wrote a new narrative for Dublin dining when she headed up the Winding Stair. She is now doing the same, but this time the narrative is the cooking of the west coast, filtered through her own memories and sensibilities. This cooking is powerful.