A few years ago I was in Galway city for the first time, giving a talk with a typesetter friend about the freelance side of the publishing industry to the masters students at the university there. We got to Galway later than we’d expected and didn’t have time to go searching for lunch before our talk, so we just popped across the road from our hotel to Ard Bia — even though we had dinner reservations there too. “See you again in a few hours!” we laughed as we paid our bill. And since we were on to such a good thing and had enjoyed lunch and dinner so much, we went back for breakfast the next morning too. By then Aoibheann, the owner, recognised us and was calling us ‘darling’, as she’s famous for doing.
The introduction beautifully sums up their philosophy: “At Ard Bia we love our food and know that cooking for others is about more than just feeding, that eating out is about more than just the singular act of eating … A restaurant, a café, a bar, a shop, any public house all have at their core a community. And at the heart of all community is … food for the soul.” It’s the kind of restaurant you wish every town was lucky enough to have.
For the past 10 years the restaurant has been located in the old Nimmo’s building at the Spanish Arch, its back right up against the river. In previous lives the building was used as a customs house, a mechanic’s, a sausage factory, a printing studio, a boathouse, an art gallery and an antiques shop, but when you walk through the restaurant’s bright red door, it feels as if Ard Bia has been there forever. All that history, added to Ard Bia’s own brand of charm, with their enamel teapots, mismatched chairs and “coffee pots stuffed with Connemara flowers”, make it a special place, “part of the city’s fabric”.
The restaurant’s charm is captured in the new Ard Bia Cookbook, with Eimerjean McCormack’s delicate watercolour illustrations throughout, plenty of polka dot enamelware and every portrait of a person showing them holding something — a watering can, a plate, a lamp — in front of their face, as on the front cover.
The book follows a day in Ard Bia (much like the three meals I ate there in 24 hours), from breakfast, brunch and lunch through to afternoon treats, dinner, desserts and cheese, finishing with some pantry staples. Recipes I can’t wait to try are dillisk scones with cheddar cheese; Patrick’s burgers (with chorizo, anchovies and coriander); mussels with harissa, chorizo and orange; torn lamb shoulder with sumac, pomegranate and Jerusalem artichoke purée; grilled mackerel with seafood tagine and labneh; almond and chocolate cake, which apparently has developed something of a cult following in the west; and the very intriguing-sounding rose salt. The book is sure to be a hit with the restaurant’s regulars as well as anyone with a love of good cooking. This is food with so much flavour it leaps off the page, let alone the plate.
I still go out to Galway once a year to give my freelancing talk and I still have a meal in Ard Bia every time. Now that they’ve written a cookbook, I can have a taste of one of my favourite Galway places at home.
The Ard Bia Cookbook by Aoibheann MacNamara and Aoife Carrigy is published by Atrium, who kindly sent me a review copy.