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Sunday, July 16, 2006

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, part I: Ireland

I've been meaning to write up a trip recap ever since we got back, but I've been having trouble deciding just how much detail to put in, and how to divide up the entries (after my attempt to compress it into one entry failed). I think I finally have something I'm comfortable sharing with the world. Unfortunately, these will be food porn-less entries, since I didn't take my (obsolete) digital camera with me. So enjoy some nice scenery pics!

Usually, when we travel, my husband and I just eat at whatever restaurants we happen across, unless we have a local's point of view, in which case we tend to eat wherever they recommend. (As it turned out, this came in very handy in Italy.) So I didn't have any particular food plans for this trip, other than to try as many different things and regional specialties as I could find. Our restaurant instincts aren't always great, and sometimes it's more important to find somewhere, anywhere to eat rather than tear each other's throat out.

For this entry, I thought I'd concentrate on Ireland. Sadly, we didn't have very many memorable food experiences there, though the food wasn't as bad as people like to joke. Indeed, I think we went entire meals without even seeing a potato! And I never did find a restaurant willing to sell me colcannon...

Galway was a beautiful location with a very tourist-oriented food scene. It was here that I had my first taste of the "full Irish breakfast," which consisted of eggs, bacon, breakfast sausages, black pudding, white pudding, toast, tomato and coffee. With a breakfast like that, who needs lunch or dinner?

Galway also exposed me to the wonders of Irish soda bread. I'm sure I've eaten it before, but the two slabs of it that accompanied my otherwise pedestrian seafood chowder that night convinced me that I've never tasted it before. Does anyone have a good recipe for this stuff?

In Dublin, there were two particular food experiences that stand out. The first was at the Elephant & Castle pub in Temple Bar: we had been to the Manhattan branch of this establishment back in April, so thought it fitting to visit the Dublin outlet as well. The place was hopping with a mix of tourists and locals, but there seemed to be one constant: almost every table had a basket of chicken wings. We decided to go with the flow and order some. They were among the best chicken wings I've ever had in my life: plump and juicy, with a crispy, spicy exterior. And the finger bowls were a great touch! It's too bad we were seated so close to a group of American tourists whose politics were, shall we say, diametrically opposed to my own.

The other good Dublin experience was at Gruel, on Dame St. This unpretentious little eatery is exactly the kind of place I would want to own if I ever entered the restaurant business: open kitchen, tightly packed tables, chalkboard menus. My meal of "seared" tuna on salad wasn't fantastic (the tuna was barely pink on the inside with not enough of a crust on the outside), but my husband's Thai-style fish cakes with chili-lime sauce were quite good. And the restaurant's particular vibe made up for the uneven food. When we entered, one staff member had to inquire with another staff member as to whether they were still seating diners, so I assume they were not necessarily at the top of their game.

Generally speaking, Ireland is a very expensive place to eat out and, while there may be a nascent "foodie" culture there, it's not very obvious to the casual observer. The Ireland leg of the trip was always intended to be quick (not to say cursory); we were there because my husband was presenting at a conference. If I ever go back, I'll be sure to set aside at least one evening for a top-end meal there, just to see what the Irish can do when money is no object.

Next up: Italy, which was a much more interesting food destination.


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