Is a frog in my throat, a speck of dust in my eye as the familiar old road brings us closer to Dingle. Am I, dare I say it, a tad emotional?
My history with Dingle dates back to childhood when I lived in the Gaeltacht for eight months of my life, west of the city on a small farm in An Riasc, but over the past decade I have raised a new generation of family history, returning with my own family each October for the Dingle Food Festival and the Blás na hÉireann Irish Food Awards.
Autumn is a beautiful time in the fishing town of West Kerry, even better during the festival, when the air crackles with collective joy and the streets are ‘dubh le daoine’, visitors and locals alike. It is often elbow to elbow that the peloton moves in droves, browsing in street stalls, filling pubs, restaurants, shops and other random, often unusual places, which are part of the taste journey of the festival during the weekend. end. It’s one of my most favorite Irish food festivals, the one that usually wraps up another year of galloping around the country, before settling in for winter.
But thanks to you-know-what, it’s been three years since we’ve been on this trip and our anticipation is particularly high. With bags barely unpacked, No 1 Son and I descend for a brief pre-dinner tour of local inns, culminating in an absolutely electric Dick Mack’s, lifting festival revelers, and it takes tremendous willpower to set off and join SpouseGirl and La Daughter in Solas for our evening meal.
In fact, Solas hits a similar wave: windows fog up, bodies pile up in the jewelry space, as an exuberant festival-goer cranks up the volume, condensing three whole years of wasted parties into a single night.
Claustrophobes might stay away, but we’re ready for the party, we hug and order a smash of plates like the food is about to go out of style.
The fine olives come from La Mancha, the agricultural heart of Spain; these, plump, green (Gordal grape variety?) and slightly brackish, perfect for whetting the appetite. Next, a classic version of pan con tomate, here superbly executed with top-notch local ingredients: the wonderful toasted sourdough comes from the excellent Bacús Dingle bakery and the traditional tomatoes are cooked in confit style with nothing more than salt, garlic and good olive oil, their tangy sweetness does all the heavy lifting.
I first tasted Spanish croquetas decades ago in Barcelona and have been hooked ever since: two versions served here stand tall with one of my previously sampled Iberian iterations. Both are housed in a deep-fried, crispy casing that cracks open to deliver a molten lava flavor bomb. The chorizo and manchego nicely understate the meat, allowing the cheese’s nutty caramel to take center stage, a crisp, creamy aioli carrying zesty weight thanks to the smoky Drummond House garlic; the wiser butter bean and hazelnut croquettes are equally enjoyable, served with a pleasantly sweet quince aioli.
At this point, in true tapas style, the plates arrive in a flurry. The Annascaul pork belly is utterly divine, the seared and crispy exterior serves as a sandwich of tender, sweet meat and smooth creamy fat; baby lettuce adds an uplifting green crunch while peanuts and sesame lift with hints of hazelnut.
The stuffed calamari are tender and delicious little bites of minced pork confit and onion, in a squid ink and PX sherry sauce; tiny pickled tom berries (dwarf tomatoes) appear as bright little counterpoints.
The only problem with what would be an otherwise perfect dish is that it is absolutely swimming in thick black sauce, a dark soup with little visual appeal, obscuring all other elements, a shame when you consider how much “tasting” we do with our eyes. (It’s been scientifically established that the visual appearance of a dish can be responsible for up to 20% of our overall appreciation of its flavor.)
This same sauce is perfectly healthy, a powerful creation, but a fraction of it would have worked as well.
If it was the ugly sister, then the octopus carpaccio is the belle of the ball, both in appearance and taste. Tender, savory and tangy octopus is sprinkled with an immaculate musky shellfish aioli and the combined saltiness, sweetness and umami of soy and yuzu resonate below like a depth charge.
There is also a very comforting Moroccan chickpea stew and, yes, there are patatas bravas and, yes, we order them because you can never order patatas bravas. These O’Connor spuds are fried to a crispy, crunchy, golden caramel, inside, mealy and almost sweet, then generously slathered in aioli, but now we stuff them into stuffed bellies like sleazy owners hosting foreign students, making room where there is none. That we also somehow squeeze into a sublime sea buckthorn sorbet is like renting the heat press to a family of four, but it really tastes so good. La Daughter was the only one to exercise restraint but always with a weather eye on the dessert menu and easily manages a crunchy chocolate sponge cake.
A nod also to a small, classy wine list, strongly oriented towards the Mediterranean, mostly Spanish or Italian, and a fruity Spanish woody chardonnay (Aljibes, also from La Mancha, in Albacete) with hints of vanilla performs admirably .
It’s not the first time we’ve eaten at Solas, but chef Nicky Foley and his partner Ann Connell, who runs the house, have really raised the standards.
Iberian influences are authentic and rendered with aplomb, new Asian notes deftly and empathetically deployed, exploring flavor potential more deeply.
But what crowns the edible offering is the firm commitment to sourcing the best local and seasonal produce, creating a refined, authentically Irish take on tapas – around those parts it surely qualifies as tapíní ?
Tongue: €234 (including two bottles of wine and soft drinks)