Meet the pioneer: Jp McMahon at Aniar
The late-summer sun is sinking over Galway’s Westend and spirits are high among those swelling the bars on the banks of the River Corrib. I’m equally excited to be en route to Aniar, a restaurant that’s helped redefine the city’s food scene since it launched a decade ago — the Michelin star it’s held since 2013 making it one of Galway’s most sought-after reservations. Here, inside a sleek dining room lined with jars of pickled elderflower, wild garlic and alexanders, I get to grips with a tasting menu that showcases ingredients from Ireland’s west coast.
“You have a great mix here between sea and land,” says co-owner and head chef Jp McMahon the next morning. “There’s Connemara on one side and east Galway on the other, where you have great dairy.” Accompanied by his collie-setter cross, Sam, Jp has joined me for coffee across the road at Tartare — the second of three Galway restaurants he co-owns — where he walks me through some of last night’s star dishes. “Everyone knows how good our lamb or cod is here. Our focus is how we take the flavour of the landscape — the seaweeds, sea herbs and foraged wild foods — and use that as a seasoning. Fermenting and pickling also give us a really interesting larder to play with all year.”
It’s an impressive affair, with the region’s produce elevated using a range of New Nordic and Japanese techniques across 18 courses, each executed with finesse. Familiar staples are given an Aniar spin, arriving at diners’ tables adorned with anything from sea aster and pickled redcurrants to Irish truffle. There’s an umami-rich seaweed broth; lamb fat-brushed potato bread, accompanied by a few verses from Irish poet Brendan Kennelly (Seamus Heaney partners a homemade sloe gin later on); and seared Connemara duck with ceps. A particularly memorable oyster ice cream, which Jp admits can “mess with your mind”, comes served in its shell with a sprinkle of milled sea lettuce, with neighbouring diners casting glances to gauge my reaction as this salty, creamy custard temporarily catches me off-guard.
Later, I’m treated to a beautiful honey pannacotta infused with marzipanny notes of meadowsweet, a plant once commonly used for pain relief. “There’s a disconnect in terms of ingredients that we would’ve commonly used centuries ago when there were no shops,” says Jp. “I talk to generations of foragers who tell me that, when supermarkets opened here in the 1960s, foraging was stigmatised as it meant you were poor. Now there’s been a welcome reversal — I feel it’s important to engage with your environment and know which bits you can and can’t eat.”
It’s certainly working, with Jp a central player in Galway’s growing food movement. His annual Food on the Edge symposium brings the world’s leading chefs to the city for a series of talks and events each autumn — and it’s an event that’s seen Galway become part of a global conversation. “People often come here thinking it’s all potatoes, lamb stew or Guinness,” Jp says, “but I hope that when they’re in Aniar, whether Irish or American, that they go away with a different perception of Irish food.”