Aimsir, The Cliff at Lyons
Celbridge, Co Kildare
Chef: Jordan Bailey
‘You’re such a cynic,” my husband told me as we drove towards Celbridge, specifically the beautiful Cliff at Lyons, on a lovely early summer evening. And I have to admit that in some matters, I am more than a little unsentimental.
This is a good thing - an essential thing - in a journalist I reckon, especially these days when there are fewer of us than ever and we are working with much-reduced budgets.
Those shrinking budgets are the reason why so much of what we read these days is PR puff. And Lord knows there’s a lot of PR puff around the whole area of food.
Don’t get me wrong: no one will shout louder than me about the good stuff in Irish food. But read some publications - mostly online, but some in print too - and you’d believe that every single morsel of food cooked on this island is delicious, which is patent nonsense.
My cynical spidey senses had gone into overdrive when it came to Aimsir, which I began to hear whispers about last spring.
As the months went by, the whispers turned into increasingly breathless rumours about everything from how much it was going to cost to eat there, to how many courses they were going to serve, to who was going to be running the kitchen.
“Some huge Danish fella” was what someone told me regarding the latter, but while there is indeed a Dane in a key position here, Majken Bech-Bailey is neither huge nor a fella. Her role is front of house, with her husband Jordan Bailey doing the cooking.
In the sea of breathless coverage that appeared after the restaurant’s name and details were confirmed was an interview where Bailey described his wife as having “the perfect balance of being very professional, but also very friendly at the same time”.
Lord, is he right. This place could so easily have been a pretentious nightmare. Okay, I’ll admit it, I thought it was going to be a pretentious nightmare. But you know what? It’s lovely.
Yes, there are bearded chefs and big tweezers and edible flowers and all that jazz. But there’s also a gorgeous bar overlooking the gardens where you can enjoy a pre-dinner drink, there’s a great serving team led by Bech-Bailey, and dishes ranged from the really good to the sublime with only a couple of duff notes.
Bailey is serving a regularly changing tasting menu priced at €105. On the night we visited, that comprised 18 courses. We’d be here all day if I tried to tell you about all of them, so I’ll just tell you about some, then leave you to discover the rest when you go yourself.
From my home county of Louth came Drummond House asparagus that had been grilled over turf, glazed with a hazelnut miso paste, and served with a nettle and chamomile flower sauce. I don’t even particularly like asparagus and I loved it; himself, who adores it, was practically hyperventilating about how good it was.
A Flaggy Shore oyster from Clare came with apple balsamic from Highbank in Kilkenny and roasted koji butter. A tiny violetta potato from Ballymakenny Farm had its flesh scooped out, mixed with Boyne Valley Ban cheese, then put back into the skin and served with black garlic and scapes, again from Drummond House.
We broke the world record for the amount of butter smeared onto bread with the soda bread roll, which had been made with heritage flour from Ballymore Organic and cooked in beef fat, black treacle and Guinness. Combined with that salty butter from Crawford’s in Tipperary, it was heaven.
A long, thin rectangle of Young Buck blue cheese - it’s served that way so you can taste the contrasting levels of ripeness as you nibble your way along it - came with puff pastry biscuits and wood sorrel.
What was described on the menu as ‘a taste of the forest’ turned out to be a delicate gorse flower ice cream that was served with primrose oil, fermented heather and – a first for me – sugar-coated larch buds.
While all this and more was being delivered to the table by the chefs, sommelier Cathryn Steunenberg, who comes from Wales, was matching it all with an inventive and surprising selection of drinks.
They included a deliciously peppery red from Tenerife, 7 Fuentes from Suertes del Marques, a red ale from the Kildare Brewing Company just down the road and the gorgeous ice wine made by Killahora Orchards in Cork.
What didn’t I like? Having been force-fed tripe by my granny in the 1980s, I couldn’t warm to the crispy tripe basket that encased some 83-day aged Dexter beef and smoked Lough Neagh eel. And the chicken skin butter sauce that came with the Dublin Bay skate wing was a bit too rich for me. But I’m splitting hairs, really, because dinner at Aimsir far exceeded my expectations.
“Damn you, you were right,” I texted to a friend who had eaten Bailey’s food before - most recently he worked at the three-Michelin-starred Maaemo in Oslo – and who had predicted that Aimsir would be fantastic. I suspect I’ll rarely be happier to have been proved wrong.
Dinner for two with matching drinks pairings came to €380.
Watching the pennies
Seasonal tasting menu:€105
Non-alcoholic beverage pairing:€40
Dinner for two:€290
Breaking the bank
Seasonal tasting menu:€105
Dinner for two:€380
Tomás Clancy Rates The Wine List
To describe this wine list in one word: impeccable. At just under 100 offerings, the list manages to entirely capture the zeitgeist of cutting-edge wines and winemaking. Skin contact wines, Grower Champagne, volcanic treats from Tenerife, Slovenian and Czech wineries abound. Counterpointing this novelty are more established icons of the leftfield like Le Clos de Quarterons, Vieilles Vignes, St Nicolas-des-Bourgueil, Loire, France, 2015 at €65, and superstar Rafael Palacios, As Sortes, DO Valdeorras, Spain, 2017 at €120.
Top-notch classics are here too, from Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet to Raveneau Chablis, at €160 and €200 respectively. The list also includes 14 wines by the glass, a dozen Irish whiskey choices by the glass and three Danish spirits.
Uber-fashionably, there are also nine complex homemade juices, including Oxidised Pear infused with Chamomile Tea, each at €6.50.
This list is a superstar already, and our white wine pick is the mouth-watering Les Deux Cols, Cuvée Zephyr, Roussanne, Côtes du Rhône 2017 at €50, while the red would be the bright fruited, cutting and spicy Suertes del Marques, 7 Fuentes, DO Valle de la Orotava, Tenerife, 2016 at €50 or €13 a glass.