GALWAY CITY, Ireland - The west coast is known for its rugged beauty and hospitality but not necessarily for its cuisine. Many pubs and small establishments offer the basics - shepherd's pie, fish and chips, and a pint. The restaurant Ard Bia and Nimmo's veers away from these standards to embrace a larger culinary landscape that includes North African, Middle Eastern, and New Zealand influences in the context of local Irish products.
Owner Aoibheann Mac Namara, 34, is not the chef but the creative force behind the restaurant, often working with chefs from far-flung lands, especially from New Zealand. Before her career as a restaurateur, Mac Namara studied art at the University of Dublin, spent a summer in an art gallery on Martha's Vineyard, worked in restaurants in the UK, opened a gallery in Berlin, and then, according to her partner and restaurant manager Patrick O'Reilly, she opened her first restaurant with a desire "to make soup and nice cakes for people." Mac Namara now offers a full menu in a small medieval customs house beside the Spanish Arch, overlooking the Claddagh Basin.
Her first restaurant, Ard Bia (literally, high food) was located on nearby Quay Street. In April 2007, she moved into a building that housed Nimmo's, a well-known restaurant named for a nearby pier. Mac Namara decided to combine both names in the new incarnation.
Entering the stone structure through its red wood door is like stepping into an old Irish farm house. On the first floor, an interlocking series of rooms have bare wood floors, mismatched tables and chairs, and decorative kilim-covered pillows. The artwork on the cream-colored walls changes periodically. Small windows with decorative metal three-leaf clover designs look out over the sparkling river basin. Shelves and bookcases are lined with wine bottles and glassware, ceramic plates and cups, boxes of tea, and baskets of cutlery. Chef aprons line pegs along one wall, and a window to the kitchen offers glimpses of the chefs at work. On the menu, the ineffable quality Mac Namara aims for, she says, is "energy.
"Energy in a food is hard to describe. When you have that - it's important."
Ard Bia Cafe's morning menu features breakfast items such as poached eggs with black (also known as blood) pudding, and bacon and grilled tomato, as well as a veggie frittata, buttermilk pancakes, granola, and pastries. At noon the kitchen offers sandwiches, salads, and soups, including the popular smoked chicken and brie salad with apricot chutney, and a pale yellow smoked pollock, mussel, and saffron chowder. A large table displays a changing array of tempting fresh-baked sweets: frosted chocolate layer cake, thin lemon custard and raspberry tart, cream cheese-frosted carrot cake, and round, raisin-studded soda breads.
Come evening, the ground floor changes its name to Nimmo's, a candlelit spot featuring eclectic and rustic dishes. A recent menu included west coast scallops with sumac and citrus salsa, and a mezze plate with grilled halloumi (cheese), olives, baba ganoush, and hummus. Chicken and spicy sausage tagine with lemon scented couscous was one entree, along with the more traditional roast leg of lamb with potatoes and greens.
The enterprising restaurateur took the second floor, an open space with wood floors, a barrel vaulted ceiling, and skylights, and turned it into Ard Bia, a more refined dining experience with broader Mediterranean influences still grounded in local products. There you might find a breast of wild pheasant with balsamic beets accompanied by a caramelized shallot mash and vegetable ragout.
"West Ireland is changing," says Mac Namara. "Our country has evolved very rapidly over the past 10 years in terms of wine and food appreciation. There's not a strong food culture in Galway yet. A lot of movement needs to be done, but it's a great town with great people."
Ard Bia and Nimmo's, Spanish Arch, Galway City. 011-353-0-91-539-897, www.ardbia.com.