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Hidden stars: Lucinda O’Sullivan’s 20 restaurants across Ireland that should have a Michelin star, but don’t

It’s the time of year that the Michelin man comes knocking on restaurant doors. However, he does not always go to the right places, says our food critic, who presents her list of 20 eateries around the country whose offerings may not yet have been recognised, but are already stellar

Lucinda O’Sullivan 

At this time of year, the burning issue on the minds of chefs everywhere is Michelin. They get a sort of reticent, glazed look in their eyes as the clock ticks down towards the big moment when the latest ‘stars’ are announced. Michelin madness, I call it — a bit white around the gills and a little less cocky than usual. Will they get a star, retain a star, get a second star, or even lose a star, when the Michelin Guide 2023 is launched? You just never know with Michelin, which has been rather erratic with some of its decisions in the past.

Another curious symptom of Michelin madness, I find, is that when the blessed chosen do get that long coveted star, they’re suddenly like ‘born again followers’, afraid forever more to utter a word that might put them in Michelin’s bad books.

The first Michelin Guide was compiled in 1900 by André and Édouard Michelin, who wanted to create a demand for cars and, in turn, for the tyres they manufactured. Given away for free and covering popular routes in France, it contained maps and instructions on how to repair and change said tyres, as well as a list of petrol stations, mechanics, hotels and restaurants. Within a decade, the Michelin Guide became available throughout Europe and North Africa.

Post World War I, the Michelin brothers started charging for their guide and rating restaurants, all of which were in France, with a single star denoting ‘fine dining establishments’. This went down well and in 1931 they expanded the system with one star denoting ‘high quality cooking, worth a stop’; two stars denoting ‘excellent cooking, worth a detour’; and three stars denoting ‘exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey’.

This applies purely to the food — restaurant inspectors do not look at the interior, decor, table setting, or service quality when awarding stars. These factors are indicated under a separate ‘Fork & Spoon’ five-level grading indicating comfort and quality.

This modus operandi is still in place today.

They say that when the gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers, and for many a Michelin-starred chef this has been the case. Once you join the club, you have to live by their stringent rules and standards. Every day of the year, there’s a whisper of worry in their minds that they might lose their star, and as the latest year’s announcements draw close, that whisper ramps up to a scream.

For some, the pressure of Michelin stardom has been overwhelming. To be demoted from three stars to two stars is more serious than one might think to a restaurant in a remote place or an unfashionable city locale. It loses its ‘worth a special journey’ status, which can be seriously damaging to their bottom line. Some chefs, including Marco Pierre White and Nico Ladenis, have freed themselves of that yoke by handing back their stars.

Traditional Michelin-style food has been less about flavour and more about appearing picture perfect on a plate. Since the advent of Scandi food, chic market restaurants, food trucks etc, it has been trying to keep up with the ‘hip’ trends, awarding stars quite ridiculously in some cases.

As for the Bibs and basic Plates, Michelin has been posting pictures from restaurants all over Ireland in the past couple of years. However, as Michelin asked me if it could repurpose my Instagram pictures for its own use, I have to wonder if it’s just posting nice pictures, rather than having its own feet under the tables.

The late critic AA Gill wrote an eviscerating article on Michelin some years ago saying: “Michelin has produced a legion of miserable gourmands, people who care more about the valet parking than conviviality…” Not a lot has changed.

Down the years, Michelin’s scant coverage of Ireland and its lack of knowledge of our restaurant scene has meant some of our best restaurants, places that would undoubtedly have had stars were they in France, have been denied the recognition that they so rightly deserve.

Below, in alphabetical order, are 20 restaurants that, for whatever reason, don’t have Michelin stars outside their doors, but which are so sublimely superb, that they are undoubtedly ‘worth a detour’.

You won’t find a Michelin star here, only a basic listing, but go to Nisheeth Tak’s Rasam on almost any night over the past 20 years and the room is lit up with stars of industry, media, sport and theatre, from Chris de Burgh to Pat Kenny to Miriam O’Callaghan — even Nigella Lawson gave it the thumbs up. You wouldn’t get better Indian food or service in Mumbai’s famous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, where Nisheeth once worked, and where people such as Jacqueline Kennedy and King Charles III have stayed.
Opened in 2008, it’s a stupendous Indian restaurant which should have had a star years ago. It’s constantly packed and a must-visit if you love the food of the subcontinent. Set in a large penthouse in Dundrum Town Centre, in Dublin, Ananda is the flagship of Asheesh Dewan’s Jaipur Group, set up with the involvement originally of London-based Atul Kochhar, who was one of the first two Indian chefs to receive a Michelin star.
The absence of a star for Dax, which has just a basic guide listing, has long been a mystery to those in the food world. With Graham Neville at the stove, Olivier Meissonave’s sublime French hotspot has won Best Restaurant and Neville has taken Best Chef awards for many years, including Best Chef in Dublin at the Irish Restaurants Awards 2022 a couple of weeks ago. Neville’s lobster and Dublin Bay prawn stuffed courgette flower is to die for, and Dax has one of the best wine lists in the city. It would be two-star in France.

Despite being cheek by jowl with your neighbouring diner — or maybe because of it — Liz Matthews’ and Simon Barrett’s shoebox-sized Etto on Merrion Row in Dublin has been a foodie favourite with adoring followers, and at least one critic’s choice for a regular hangout, since first opening its doors some eight years ago. The smart, sassy menu nods to the triumvirate of Italy, Spain and France and never fails to excite, yet Michelin has yet to find its way here, or to their similarly chic sibling, Uno Mas on Aungier Street. The red wine prunes and vanilla mascarpone are legendary.

Known for his scathing reviews, AA Gill raved about Kay and Rebecca Harte’s legendary Farmgate in Cork’s English Market, where fishmonger Pat O’Connell made the late Queen Elizabeth laugh on her visit there. Likewise, Maróg O’Brien and daughter Sally’s Farmgate in Midleton is a hive of glorious local food and fun (and coincidentally is set in a former tyre outlet) since 1983 and constantly packed. Not even a mention for either restaurant — someone needs to take the rubber-tyre man by the hand.

Blown away by Danny Africano’s cool, contemporary restaurant when I visited it on its first night in 2019, I was sure it would get Michelin star tout de suite. Set in the rural village of Bullaun, east Galway, not far off the M6, with its Damien Hirst-style glass cabinet — filled with hanging birds, lambs’ legs and other victuals, beside a big wood-fired kitchen — it is still waiting for said star, while people travel from all over to visit it. However, something makes me think this year may be their year!

Locks has a basic mention in the guide, which feels like it could have been written by a robot. “Locals love this welcoming fire-lit restaurant… downstairs it’s buzzy, while upstairs is more intimate. Natural flavours are to the fore on the concise seasonal menu and dishes are given subtle modern touches.” Spare me! Locks, with its tongue-and-groove walls, overlooking the swans on the Grand Canal, has been one of Dublin’s chicest restaurants since it was first opened in the 1980s by the late Richard Douglas and his Danish wife, Claire. It had a Michelin star in 2013 under a different ownership but lost it when chef Rory Carville departed. Under the baton of Connor O’Dowd and Paul McNamara, with Andy Roche as head chef, star status should be restored here.

Founded in the 1960s and overlooking Kinsale Harbour, Man Friday has always been a destination for fabulous seafood. The Corkonians’ favourite restaurant is under the stewardship of the talented Daniel Horgan, who has worked with Ottolenghi and at Petersham Nurseries. The Michelin man needs to take a hike up Heartbreak Hill.

I said I’d eat my hat if The Bishop’s Buttery at horsey honcho John Magnier’s recently adorned Cashel Palace Hotel doesn’t get a star in 2023 for its impeccable food under executive chef Stephen Hayes. But amazingly, in the past five years, Michelin has not found its way to The Cashel Palace’s fabulous gastropub Mikey Ryan’s, even though the Rock of Cashel has been visited by both Queen Elizabeth and the now King Charles III and his Queen Consort. No doubt it’ll have to be a braised beret for my supper shortly.

The lack of a star, Bib Gourmand or basic listing with Michelin hasn’t stopped Gareth ‘Gaz’ Smith from being commander-in-chief of one of the most successful and best restaurant operations in Dublin. Smith who, as I said when I wrote about him way before he opened Michael’s, is a man who delivers flavour in bucket loads. Having just opened his third restaurant, Big Mike’s in Blackrock Shopping Centre, with the superb Peter Byrne as head chef and Nick Munier out front, the man is unstoppable.

No star, just a basic listing in the guide for Ireland’s most popular chef, Neven Maguire, is a cardinal sin. But then Blacklion in north Cavan would be a bit of a journey for the rubber-tyre men — and they haven’t honoured anyone in the north-west either. They like a handy grouping of restaurants in an area so they can dip in and out quickly. Never fear, Neven’s fantastic restaurant and townhouse, reminiscent of the Dordogne, is constantly abuzz with people travelling there from here and abroad.

For some 25 years, Eamonn O’Reilly’s One Pico has been one of Dublin’s top restaurants. (O’Reilly also owns the two-star Greenhouse, which is currently closed since the departure of Mickael Viljanen to Chapter One.) However, One Pico, with chef Ciarán McGill producing sensational food, was continually overlooked. Last year, having yet again been passed over, McGill expressed his disappointment on social media and departed “the restaurant industry” for Gather & Gather catering. Undoubtedly their gain. Zhan Sergejev, ex sous at L’Ecrivain, now fills McGill’s shoes at the still stupendous One Pico.

The Michelin Guide says “an elegant restaurant with a lively ambience, set under the railway arches and run by two experienced chefs.” I say, who writes this bland uninformative stuff? Osteria Lucio is owned and run by Michelin-starred chef Ross Lewis of the best-known restaurant in the country, the two-star Chapter One. Thankfully, the punters know this is a fabulous restaurant packed with the who’s who of Dublin chowing down on a good slice of the real Italy, including suckling pig shoulder al forno. There’s spumante galore or terrific Italian wines as well as limited, high-end vintages such as Elio Altare Barolo Arborina 2010 at €220.

Sunil Ghai should have gotten a star way back when he was executive chef at Ananda in Dundrum — and Best Chef in Ireland. Having forged ahead with his own terrific restaurants, Camden St’s Pickle, Street in Clonskeagh, and Tiffin by Sunil in Greystones, only in 2022 has Pickle been added to the Michelin Guide with a guide listing saying, “It might not look much from the outside but inside the place really comes alive. Spices are lined up on the kitchen counter and dishes are fresh and vibrant; the lamb curry with bone marrow is divine.” I find this to be a completely inadequate description of the food experience provided by Sunil Ghai.

Ex-Chapter One chef Cathal Leonard and partner Sarah Ryan have been pottering away diligently at their North Dublin culinary satellite, Potager, lighting up the fishing village of Skerries since 2019. The basic Michelin listing vaguely denotes “good quality produce from the north of Dublin”. A vast understatement. Leonard delivers on exquisite, meticulously prepared food. It’s near Dublin Airport, which should be convenient for the Michelin man, who should try the amazing value menu at €69, which includes guinea fowl, turnip, cabbage and girolle, followed by lobster, broccoli, courgette and basil.

You won’t find a Michelin star here, only a basic listing, but go to Nisheeth Tak’s Rasam on almost any night over the past 20 years and the room is lit up with stars of industry, media, sport and theatre, from Chris de Burgh to Pat Kenny to Miriam O’Callaghan — even Nigella Lawson gave it the thumbs up. You wouldn’t get better Indian food or service in Mumbai’s famous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, where Nisheeth once worked, and where people such as Jacqueline Kennedy and King Charles III have stayed.

Celebrating 30 years in business this year, John and Angela O’Sullivan’s legendary Roly’s Bistro is probably Dublin’s best known and most popular restaurant. In the heart of Ballsbridge, it’s written in the hearts of many families with anniversaries, birthdays, graduations, and more, having been celebrated here. With long-standing chef de cuisine and director Paul Cartwright, ex the Savoy London and three-star La Tante Claire, at the helm, it’s like one the great brasseries of Paris. You’re guaranteed a buzz, never mind the great Kerry lamb pie and Dublin Bay prawns.

Last time I was at the Dingle Food Festival, there were five famous chefs squeezing into a packed space for Nicky Foley’s incredible ‘tapas’. Those who know, do know! Foley — formerly of Richard Corrigan’s Bentley’s in London — makes top-notch food, be it small or not-so-small plates. Think Cahillane’s Kerry lamb rack, seaweed and mint tapenade with miso-spiced aubergine. If this was in the hills above Cannes, it would have a star and an attitude.

Getting a table on the terrace of this stylish, plush, hidden gem in Dublin’s Georgian Quarter can be quite a feat in itself. Headed up by TV host John Healy as general manager, the contemporary Irish food has international influences, from soup de poisson aux fruits de mer to dry-aged beef rump cap tagliata with chimichurri sauce. Again, Michelin’s loss.

Having been head chef for Nico Ladenis at the three-star Chez Nico in London in the 1980s, Paul Flynn eventually returned to his home town of Dungarvan in Co Waterford and, with his wife Máire, opened his fab Tannery in 1997. Despite being a constant star on the food scene and our TV screens, Flynn’s Tannery has but a generic basic listing in the Michelin Guide. But try getting a table on a Saturday night!

Billionaires have landed their helicopters in Ardmore, Co Waterford, simply to dine at Christine Power and Geraldine Flavin’s Whitehorses, where enormous Dublin Bay prawns luxuriate in pools of garlic butter and stupendous sole on the bone falls right onto your plate. I know Michelin doesn’t have a helicopter, but it might risk venturing off the N25.
Tel: (024) 94040



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