Ireland's best bar food?

AS IF GALWAY wasn’t awash with enough students, the Dublin train has brought a fresh consignment, tanked up on cans and ready…

AS IF GALWAY wasn’t awash with enough students, the Dublin train has brought a fresh consignment, tanked up on cans and ready to go. It’s just after 5pm on a Friday evening and I’m on my way to a bar for food, but I’m suddenly wondering if it might be besieged by the charms of Spring Break, Irish style.

It’s a relief to walk away from Eyre Square and find the docks peaceful, a flat calm sea with yachts and a huge spring sky arching over it all. There’s that bonus bit of clear Atlantic daylight you get in the west – a promise of long summer evenings ahead.

I’m bringing one of my Galway cousins to Eight Bar and Restaurant on the city’s docks. It doesn’t look like the kind of place where you’ll find what I believe is the best bar food in the country, but that’s what it turns out to be.

The dock warehouse that once stood here has been replaced with a strip of apartments with little going on at the ground floor. A chalkboard and a Heineken sign are the only markings for Bar Eight, as it’s known locally.

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It’s as plain as its name. There’s a painted concrete floor and a mishmash of brown furniture, no linens and unpolished silver candle sticks with layers of wax dripped on them from long candles, lovelier than butty, low-maintenance tealights.

We get a table by the window and I want to paint double yellows on the street outside as a hunk of jeep is obscuring the sea view.

But then I see the menu and forget about what’s outside the window. The word “seasonal” is popping up everywhere on Irish menus, shorthand for quality, though its interpretation is loose and wide. The seasonal schtick takes real commitment, imagination and frequent menu changes. Typically it’s the expensive restaurants which do it properly and as honestly as possible. Here there are lots of dish tweaks, according to our friendly waitress, plenty of fish and seafood dishes that shift according to what’s in the nets. The one staple is a steak main.

In fact the razor-clam starter we order seems to be a work in progress because at first it’s on, then it’s off and finally it’s to be replaced with mussels. The menu doesn’t list starters and mains but “lite” bites for under a tenner, bigger bites between €15 and €20, and after-eights. It’s a clever way to cater for lots of people who don’t want to go down through a menu like it’s a questionnaire, ticking a starter, main and dessert.

The first lite bite, a large white plate, is set down on the plain table in front of me and the smell is stupendous. Great food that smells this fresh is much more likely to elicit a “wow” from me than some fussy food painting on a slate. It’s a Connemara smoked mackerel salad with Granny Smith apples sliced thin, Swiss chard with rhubarb-red stalks, diagonally-sliced celery and a lemon aioli to bring it all together in one glorious mouthful. Soft brown bread that tastes fresh out of the oven is draped on the side. I wolf it down, resisting the second slice of bread because another, bigger dish is coming next. I watch the bread go back to the kitchen wistfully.

The cousin’s mussels are also sensational. They come in a deeply fishy broth, a brown, intensely flavoured and lightly-creamed stock like a bisque. The fat, yellow mussels fall out of their shells on to a moreish doughy bread, drenched in the nutty flavour of what I think must be the Donegal rape-seed oil they use here. It’s an enormous bowl of mussels, enough for a light meal, and she loves them.

Then two even larger bowls of food come (they weren’t kidding). My slice of fried Pollock dolloped with saffron mayo sits atop a mussel, clam and chorizo stew. The fish is tasty and the stew is sublime, meaty and fishy in the best tradition of paella, without the rice. It’s the kind of robust culinary embrace a Spanish mother might give her only son after a long sea voyage. I like too that there is cooked Swiss chard here, a hero vegetable in both looks, flavour and nutrients that turns up too little on Irish dinner plates.

The cousin’s main is a creamy roasted pepper risotto with a wagon-wheel-sized fried mushroom and wilted spinach in the middle, topped with a gorgeous thin round of Bluebell Falls goats’ cheese. The chalky, salty cheese is divine and the risotto provides forks of creamy silky comfort food. At the end of a long week this meal is a real treat. A bottle of Domaine Des Anges Ventoux Blanc 2009 from Gay McGuinness’s French vineyard (€25) goes down nicely with this vibrantly-tasty food.

A shared dessert of lemon mousse truffles comes with sunny yellow nasturtium flowers on the plate. They look like two generous scoops of ice cream, but they’re actually the largest handmade chocolates I’ve ever seen and the white chocolate outside is too hard for a spoon. We pick them up and gnaw on them. Inside the thick chocolate coating is a soft lemony mousse. At €3 for the plate, it’s a sweet finish.

The brains behind the menu is New Zealand chef Jess Murphy, who left Bar Eight in recent weeks. Billy Garvey, student chef of the year last year, is now in charge with another young chef, Ed Leach, and they were cooking the night we visited. The sourcing is top notch and owner Tom Sheridan says he expects little to change as a result of Jess Murphy’s departure in the way they approach food. I hope that will be the case. This place is an oasis of good and beautiful things. You can come to Galway and do eight bars or you can come to Bar Eight and eat the food of the future. I know which one I’d choose.

Dinner for two with wine came to €81.

twittter.com/catherineeats

Eight Bar and Restaurant

No 8, The Docks Galway, tel: 091-565111

Music: Background jazzy stuff

Service: Friendly and enthusiastic international staff

Facilities: Marked Dockers and Dockettes, they're as about swish as the name makes them sound

Wheelchair access: Yes

Food provenance:You have to go to the website rather than find it on the daily menu, but it's impressive, including Donegal rape-seed oil, Lough Boora Farm veg, cheesemakers galore (including that knockout Bluebell Falls), and the Burren and Connemara Smokehouses

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