The Financial Times
The journey from fishing boat to pan takes less than 10 minutes. Even though it is now closed until Easter 2012, I make no apology for writing now about the striking restaurant and suites which Ruairí and Marie-Thérèse de Blácam run on Inis Meáin, the smallest of the Aran islands, off the west coast of Ireland.
My relationship with Inis Meáin dates back 15 years, when I bought the first of two sweaters I now own that were made there. Two years ago, as I paid for my second at Grey Flannel in Chiltern Street, London, the owner Richard Froomberg piqued my interest still further by telling me about a plan to build a restaurant on the island and all the good things he had begun to hear about the local shellfish.
Great food and distinctive fashion seemed too good a combination to miss, although as I set off on the 45-minute ferry crossing from Rossaveal, on the coast west of Galway, I had no idea just how closely they were intertwined within the de Blácam family itself, thanks to the diverse skills of three of its members.
The instigator of all this is Tarlach de Blácam, a Dubliner, who travelled west 38 years ago to pursue his studies in the Irish language, fell in love with Inis Meáin – all four by two miles of it – and settled there. Having quickly spotted the potential of its knitwear, he set up the white-walled factory which today ships 20,000 highly sought-after garments a year around the world and employs 16 people – 10 per cent of the island’s population. Next comes Ruairí, Tarlach’s eldest son, who was sent to boarding school near Dublin, and whose only happy memories of that time were the meals his grandmother made for him. He duly began cooking professionally, first in Germany and Italy, then at Cooke’s Café in Dublin, taking advantage of his father’s forays to Europe for fashion shows to pursue his interest in restaurants.
In 2000, Ruairí and his wife Marie-Thérèse, a student of architecture and business, moved back to Inis Meáin to open their own restaurant. But the fact that birds would be their only regular passing trade meant they had to think (and invest) bigger – it had to be a restaurant with rooms attached.
Enter Uncle Shane, an architect based in Dublin and, in due course, a low, long and narrow building made of stone and glass that has extraordinary views stretching from across the bay to Galway in one direction and to the cliffs of Moher in the other, clouds permitting.
We eschewed the bicycle and fishing rod provided with every suite and headed off on a three-hour walk. Below our path lay the bay that contains what local divers refer to as the “supermarket shelf” – the crayfish are so abundant that they can just pluck them off the underwater shelf. The walk back took us through tiny, stone-walled fields to the island’s only pub.
But none of this had really prepared me for the sense of place that I felt throughout dinner, triggered initially by a bowl of steamed periwinkles gathered from the shore. Looking up at the far wall I spotted a blown-up black-and-white photograph from 80 years ago of a local fisherman in his windproof sweater, cleaning the periwinkles he had just caught, a pint of Guinness by his side.
The restaurant is a family affair; Ruairí cooks, his wife, cousin and four Poles look after the customers. The menu is equally local: a potato and fennel soup with smoked haddock; brown crab salad with aioli; and the plumpest, juiciest scallops I have ever eaten, with a ginger and sesame dressing. Here they came perfectly caramelised but the following morning, as I waited for the ferry back, I saw the next day’s delivery on the deck of a boat: from boat to pan involves a journey of less than 10 minutes.
My main course, a fillet of the freshest cod with spinach and a grain mustard sauce, suffered only because it was served in a bowl rather than a plate and had to contend for attention with a bowl of simply steamed, red-skinned potatoes that just been dug from one of the fields we had walked past.
The following morning over tea and a freshly baked fruit loaf Ruairí, 37, and Marie-Thérèse, 33, took stock. Their assets include a 10-month-old daughter, the only addition to the island’s population in 2010, and an exceptional restaurant which has cost them €750,000 – all their savings, I guessed, and a little bit more.
Nature, which provides their kitchen with such ready bounty, can also play havoc with their bookings and business plan. But if any young restaurant couple in Europe deserve to flourish it is the de Blácams, deeply rooted on its very western extremity.