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The Financial Times: Fresh and Wild
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  • By
    Nicholas Lander
  • Published
    The Financial Times
    October 2011

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.

The Financial Times: The delectable dozen: 12 best restaurants
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  • By
    Nicholas Lander
  • Published
    The Financial Times
    December 2011

The strength of the creator’s personality seems to distinguish the most appealing places. It has been a year of eating excitingly. But among memorable introductions there has been the odd, sad farewell. Over the course of a fortnight, I managed to experience my first meal at Noma, Copenhagen, to taste René Redzepi’s extraordinary approach to nature’s bounty, followed by my final dinner at elBulli in Spain. Memories of this meal haunted me six months later when I cooked dinner for Ferran Adrià, its culinary genius, in our kitchen at home.

As I have been looking back over all the restaurants I reviewed this year, one aspect of the fascinating world of food came into focus. It did so, as the best things often do, from listening to my wife, the FT’s wine correspondent. She has long argued that a wine bottle, like nothing else you will find on a supermarket shelf, transports you directly to the region or village where it was made; and, in certain cases, to the individual who made it.

In restaurants, too, the strength of the creator’s personality now seems to distinguish those places I find most appealing from the others. This will be a major consideration for restaurateurs as they choose which kind of restaurant to open and where. As Danny Meyer in New York explained: “The challenge for me is to create somewhere that combines the excitement of going out … with the comfort factor of being welcomed and looked after as though you were in my own home.” In London, Heston Blumenthal set the bar extremely high at the beginning of the year when he finally opened Dinner in the Mandarin Oriental, Knightsbridge. Over the years several chefs have breathed new life into neglected British recipes, but here Blumenthal has achieved this within the setting of a bright hotel dining room devoid of stuffiness.

Lunch across the horseshoe-shaped counter at Zeb (Zuppe e Bollito) in Florence provided the opportunity to watch mother and son, Giuseppina and Alberto Navari, pace the interior, take orders, cook and open wine. The plates of ricotta-filled ravioli with a duck meat and orange sauce were equally exciting. Zeb is obviously far less expensive than Dinner, but shares the same eye for quality and the same disdain for pretension. Memories of this Florentine meal return whenever I dive into Ducksoup on Dean Street in London. Here too, the bar, the few tables and the kitchen are in close proximity as, invariably, are its owners, Clare Lattin, Julian Biggs and Rory McCoy. The old record player and the even older collection of vinyl are, however, distinctly Soho, not Florence.

Jackson Boxer has also demonstrated with the Brunswick House Café , Vauxhall, how a combination of style and wit, architecture and antiques, as well as fairly priced good food, can compensate for a very small amount of working capital. In southern and north-east Spain I met more committed characters. At La Carboná , once a sherry bodega, husband and wife Javier and Ana Garcia proudly serve what their talented son, Javier, is cooking. At Villa Más on the Costa Brava the exuberant chef Carlos Orta also showed his talents as compiler of an extraordinary list of burgundies and as a DJ (he played until 3am, we were staying very close by…).

What is so exciting about the new wave of Swedish cooking is not just exemplified by what Magnus Nilsson prepares from all that exists in the countryside and lakes around Fäviken , northern Sweden, or by what Mikael Jonsson is cooking at Hedone in Chiswick, west London. It is rather the commitment that seems to exist among Swedish chefs collectively to present their new style of cooking to the rest of the world.

This was most recently demonstrated when Bjorn Frantzé and Daniel Lindeberg left their renowned Stockholm restaurant for 24 hours to cook alongside Jonsson whom, until the morning of the lunch, they had never met.

In New York, the city’s dynamism was revealed at three very different occasions. The first was a two-family Sunday brunch at Red Rooster up in Harlem, where chef Marcus Samuelsson has created a restaurant that evokes history and a definite sense of place combined with excellent American food. The second was a two-family dinner at Prune , where the pleasure of Gabrielle Hamilton’s approach to cooking continued over the next few days as I read her enthralling autobiography, Blood, Bones & Butter. Finally, there was a memorable dinner at Daniel to celebrate a particular landmark in our family.

The most exceptional memories, however, still resonate from an overnight stay on Inis Méain off the north east coast of Ireland where Ruairi and Marie Thérèse de Blacam have opened a restaurant with five elegant bedrooms. As we waited in the bus for the 8.15am ferry, watching a fisherman unload scallops in the driving rain, a fellow traveller nervously asked Ruairi whether there are any days when the ferry doesn’t operate. “A few,” he replied. “But on those days you never want to leave the house!”

Sunday Independent: Darina Allen’s Favourite Irish Restaurant
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  • By
    Darina Allen in conversation with Sarah Caden
  • Published
    Sunday Independent
    April 2017
A taste for life... Darina Allen

Darina Allen is Ireland's original TV chef and founder of the Ballymaloe Cookery School. She is co-founder of Ballymaloe Litfest

What did your mother make you? If I had to pick one things, it would be her brown soda bread, which she cooked daily almost up the end of her life.

What is the meal you will always remember? Once, we were brought up the Usumacinta River in Mexico in a dugout canoe and then we walked miles through the jungle. Finally, this lady cooked a meal, on a open fire, of minced beef and cumin and chilli and rice. I never drink cocoa-cola, but they had it there, ice-cold, and was the best thing I ever tasted.

What's the first dish you ever cooked? When I was little in Co Laois, my aunt Florence would cycle from Johnstown to visit us, and I remember making raspberry buns with her.

What is your comfort food? If I come home late, I find a really fresh egg from the hens and pick a few sage leaves from outside the kitchen door and fry them in olive oil on the Aga. Perfect.

What is your hangover cure? It's been a long time since Ive had a hangover; life is too short. A number of years ago, I discovered natural wine. I'm sure if you drank enough of it, it would give a hangover, but not in moderation.

What do you drink? I love a glass of wine, or several. Red or white. I also like sparkling wine and Aperol spritz. I adore sherry in all its styles. I could drink sherry right through dinner.

If you could only eat three things for the rest of your life, what would they be? Potatoes; butter; pata negra.

What's your sweet treat? Hazelnut praline cake.

What is the most appetising smell in the world? A really good roast chicken. A good free-range, organic one smells completely different to an intensively farmed one.

You can go anywhere and have anything to eat with any one person. Where, what and who?

To the Inis Meain Suites for periwinkle and sea urchin and mackerel, and I would choose to go with my husband.

What's your favourite restaurant in Ireland? And Abroad?

I'll say Inis Meain.

Finca Buenvino in Andalucia for Jeannie Chesterton's food. Or Ahilya Fort in Maheshwar, India.

What do you refuse to eat? Any kind of flipping rubbish; it doesn't matter how hungry I am. I've eaten insects and all sort of slimy things, but I object to eating processed junk.

What is your guilty pleasure? I have a Magnum about three times a year.

What's your signature dish? A simple Ballycotton plaice, roasted in the oven with a fresh herb butter.

Are there any foods you have had to cut out or cut down on that you miss? I eat everything in moderation; but all proper food.

What wont you eat? I've never had a ready meal in my life

What's your perfect family meal? Our Irish Stew - One pot, but full of good things. God, It's good food.

Australian Gourmet Traveller Magazine: The Hot 100
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  • By
    Fionnuala McHugh
  • Published
    Australian Gourmet Traveller Magazine
    May 2013

An authentic Celtic experience

Ireland’s tourism industry has designated 2013 the year of The Gathering for anyone with the faintest tinge of greenery in their chromosomes. But if you’d prefer to escape the general hooley, then head for the Aran Islands, off Galway’s coast, and the divine Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites. Despite opening on the least accessible of the three islands, owners Ruairí and Marie-Thérèse de Blacam have quietly built up a cult following for their delicious locally sourced food and five suites with near-monastic simplicity. Here, in the wild landscape of ocean, sky and rock, you’ll see (and hear – the locals speak Gaelic) glimmers of a truly Celtic past.

Scanorama, SAS Inflight Magazine: Pure Genius
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  • By
    Rikard Lind
  • Published
    Scanorama, SAS Inflight Magazine
    October 2010

Ruairί and Marie-Thérѐse de Blacam have distilled the essence of their beloved island off the Irish west coast in Inis Meáin Restaurant and Suites.

The bus from Dublin to Galway, which will be relieved by an old double-decker for the journey on to Rossaveal and the ferry over to Inis Meáin, roars through a landscape that stubbornly refused to countenance much more than hypnotic, verdant pastures filled with horses, cows and sheep. In one of the typically charming villages with low, terraced stone houses in vibrant colors along the main street, a gable covered in a giant mural shouts for the attention of passersby. The painting shows a pint glass, tall as a man, filled to the brim with stout. Underneath, the slogan is spelled out in three-dimensional red letters:”Guinness is good for you.” It’s a classic slogan, along the lines of “my goodness, my Guinness” and “Lovely day for a Guinness”, which were also created by the advertising agency S.H.Benson for the giant brewer in the decades before World War II. Naturally that sort of genius should never be questioned. Weighty issues surely benefit from being discussed at length over lashings of the filling dark brew. Not least in this part of the world. On Inis Meáin, a group of old men in flat caps down a pint of Guinness in the evening twilight. They sit on a bench just to the right of the entrance to the only pub on the island. English spoken with a strong Irish accent can be difficult for an outsider to understand, but so is the life they speak of. When they talk about how livestock used to be transported to Galway for slaughter, you imagine al this happening centuries ago, but they mean decades. The livestock were taken by boat, but because there was nowhere to moor, the men rowed the livestock out to the waiting ships. In heavy weather it was easier if the animals swam out, tied with a rope to the rowboat. Once the y reached the ship, the livestock were hauled aboard using a winch and ropes. This was a tough enough procedure at the best of times, let alone in howling winds and roaring seas. The men had to know what they were doing and how to cope with rough conditions. “That was an important day for them” says when I tell him about our conversation. The men were paid for their work, cash in hand, which some then immediately reinvested in the pub.

Ruairί de Blacam was born and bred on the island. He left in his early teens for boarding school on the mainland, but returned 10 years ago with his heart set on running a restaurant and small guesthouse. Having dropped out of university, he’d travelled and become a chef. His education began at the Island Cottage Restaurant and Cookery School on Hare Island, west Cork, off the southwest coast of Ireland, and continued in Italy (Perugia, Milan, Alghero on Sardinia), France and Germany (he sings the praises of an old school brassiere in Dϋsseldorf that had a bakery on the ground floor, meat and fish one floor up and was run by a man who had a weakness for everything Irish). Johnny Cooke, one of Ireland’s best-known chefs and the owner of the once star-packed Cooke’s Café in Dublin, became something of a mentor. Ruairί worked there on and off for eight years, and the two are still close friends. “I guess I was a bit of a drifter,” Ruairί says with a smile. “Which I sorted out,” says Marie- Thérѐse, his wife of three years, with an even bigger grin.

Inis Meáin (or Inishmaan) is Irish for “Middle Island.” It is the middle of the three Aran Islands on the west coast of Ireland. The islands are the mainland’s first line of defense, shielding Galway Bay from the grumpy Atlantic when it kicks up a storm. “In winter, you can get waves six or seven metres high crashing over the cliffs and coming in over the island,” Ruairί says. “I run my finger over the windowpane at home and it tastes of salt. It’s amazing. You think that the island is sinking. The de Blacams live inland, like most people on the island. Inis Meáin rises gently from sheer cliffs at one end (the end facing the open sea), only to level out halfway toward long, broad beaches and clear saltwater on the other side of the island facing the mainland. Most of the gleaming white houses form something of a row on the far side of the ridge from the open sea, getting as much shelter from the weather as they can. It is a fascinating landscape, wild, rugged, shaped by natural forces and resistant to much human influence. Nevertheless human ingenuity and toil have given the island its most characteristic feature: the hundreds of kilometres of stone walls that divide the island into a fine mesh of small fields, most of which are no bigger than half an acre. The shards of rock that make up these complicated formations have been chiselled out of the ground for centuries. Inis Meáin is after all a lime stone cliff that rose from the sea some 270 million years ago. The head-high stone labyrinth divvies up the scarce grazing while sheltering the crops and the livestock from the wind.

“One of my most vivid childhood memories is playing hide and seek among the stone walls.” Ruairί says. “We didn’t just pay in one place, but all over the island, so it could take a while before we were done. I also remember when I ran over the cliffs to grandma to fetch the milk, when we got water from a shared well, and Saturdays when the boat loaded with supplies would anchor off the island and the men rowed out to get them. “A lot of what i remember from when I was little is tied to a strong feeling of freedom. I still feel that. Some people feel shut in and isolated here, but I feel free.

Over three generations, the number of school children on the island has fallen from 90m to 35 to 9. Those who Ruairί de Blacam grew up with have moved away and the population has fallen from 350 to about half that. It was a trend that Ruairί’s father, Tarlach, felt he had to do something about. Tarlach de Blacam, studied Celtic languages at Trinity College Dublin when his professor sent him to Inis Meáin, which was, and still is, a bastion of Irish culture. He was just fascinated by the independence, spirit, philosophy and beauty of the island as the culture and language, and when he later met his wife, who came from Inis Meáin, it felt completely natural for him to move here. “There was a negative spiral,” Tarlach recalls. “Nothing was produced on the island, everything ca, from somewhere else. All the youngsters left for England or America, the schools were teaching English instead of the Celtic languages, so they were dying out. It was obvious that things had to change. It wasn’t sustainable.” Tarlach got involved in community development and in 1976 founded the Inis Meáin Kitting Company. “We thought about what we could do here on the island that would add something and meaningful and good,” he says. “It was mostly the men who were leaving the island. The woman had a long tradition of knitting at home. So we set up a little knitting factory and learned as we went along.” The Inis Meáin Kitting Company started out in a small barn-like building without power or water. A power cable only reached the island in the 1990’s, so people had to use their own generators and fetch water from shared pumps on the island. The company realized early on that the way to get attention was to focus on quality and design. Organic growth will get you only so far, but with better quality products you can charge more. Today, the company has 16 full staff, is by far the biggest employer on the island, and makes fantastic knitted garments that are sold by luxury department stores including Barneys and Bergdorf Goldman in New York, and other frontline boutiques in Europe and Japan. Inspirations for the patterns and styles often come from the clothes worn by the fishermen and farmers on the island.

Marie-Thérѐse and Ruairί de Blacam are following the same philosophy with Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites. “We want to become an iconic place on an international scale,” explains Marie-Thérѐse, as she drives me from the knitwear factory to the restaurant in the company car. “Oops, traffic jam,” she says, as we’re forced to back up a few metres on the narrow road to let by an oncoming Massey Ferguson 350 tractor laden with planks. Further on, we pass a man beating sheaths of harvested rye against a rock in an ancient method of separating the wheat from the chaff. The grain will either be re-sown or ground to flour and used mostly for bread-making. The chaff will be used for thatching roofs. A bit later we, we encounter a man herding two cows from his moped.

Marie-Thérѐse comes from Cork. She met Ruairί when they were studying entrepreneurship in the same class at university in Dublin. “I came here for the first time with my class on the last weekend in October, “she says. “There was heavy weather and heavy seas; people were sick on the boat over to the island. It felt like we had left everything behind us as we came away.” By the last weekend in October, the bathing season is well and truly past. But their love story started with a dip in the icy sea. Ruairί bet Marie-Thérѐse that she would never dive into the Atlantic. He lost, but gladly paid up on the wager of a dinner in Dublin.

That was in 1997. It would be almost 10 years before Marie-Thérѐse became Mrs de Blacam and moved here permanently. Both Ruairί and Marie-Thérѐse describe themselves as restless perfectionists with a fierce need for independence and the chance to do their own thing. (By Ruairί’s own admission he’s “totally unemployable”) For Ruairί, Inis Meáin Restaurant and Suites is the realization of a childhood dream. “It was always my dream to return sooner or later and do something like this. This is a very special place that leaves an impression on you. On top of that, I grew up in an open, social home where food and hospitality and spending time with others was important, and where I often helped mum in the kitchen.”

For Marie-Thérѐse it was a much bigger step. After university she worked in fashion marketing, lived for a while in Paris, bought a house in Cork, had a flexible job, drove a convertible, followed art and architecture, went scuba diving on the weekends and had, on the whole, “a very nice little life” in a somewhat more urban environment. She and Ruairί were a couple despite them living apart and pursuing their own interests. Ruairί had moved back to the island and was working in sales for the knitting company while honing his plan. He had already bought the land. At the same time, Marie-Thérѐse was thinking of starting her own company, making quality prepared meals. “We compared both ideas and decided that Ruairί’s was unique, so he won,” Marie-Thérѐse laughs.

They wed December 2006 and moved in together in January 2007 and open the restaurant that July. “It was definitely difficult to begin with,” Marie-Thérѐse says. “Everyone here is related or connected somehow. It takes time not to feel like am an outsider and to work out how everything fits together, people’s relationships with each other, what they laugh about at the pub. There is no woman within five years of me, younger of older. I went from being very independent to feeling alone and even helpless in certain situations. Apart from Ruairί’s family I had no friends. People knew me as Ruairί’s wife but I had no identity of my own. When we opened the restaurant, I had a clear role. Ruairί had drawn a family tree so that i could see all the connections, but it wasn’t until they came to the restaurant and became faces that i began to understand the ties and could meet them as myself. A year later I was loving it here. On opening night, a food critic from The Irish Times turned up. She wrote a small but glowing review that immediately led to 60 bookings – before the first suite was even ready. Ruairί and Marie-Thérѐse prepared lunch and dinner, and worked on the guest rooms somewhere in between. In September, the first suite was finished: six couples got the stay over before the end of the season. That October, Georgina Campbell’s Ireland: The Guide recognized Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites as Best Newcomer. It was a flying start and a success. The Plaudits are certainly well deserved.

Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites is a spectacular addition to this setting: a designer hotel with a cosmopolitan brilliance, a limited number of spacious suites and ambitious kitchen in and old farming and fishing community, population160, that has long been relatively isolated and is still the lest visited of the three Aran Islands. It would have been easy to fail with such an undertaking, go astray, lose sight of the context and see the island as just a picturesque backdrop. History tells of several such stories. But Inis Meáin knows its place. Even as you approach the building for the first time from the harbour, it is obvious how well it melts into its surroundings. The narrow building of dark limestone sneaks discreetly along the ground, reminiscent of those low stone walls – which was the intention. It is surprisingly modern architecture, but as soon as you rub your eyes you see the beauty of it.

When you walk in, it becomes even more obvious that this place is clearly about two things in particular: feeling and taste. This can be seen partly from the design aesthetic. The four spacious suites, with sheltered outdoor areas, are tranquil, beautiful spaces with clean-lined furniture in dark, warm timber (from a carpenter in Wexford) that counterpoints the raw concrete walls. The thin slit of windows running the length of the building provides a fantastic view of the Atlantic and the summer sunsets from where you reline comfortably in your bed. The restaurant is like an intimate bistro for 30 or so guests. The stone floor, the J-shaped sofa in olive leather; the enlarged Bill Doyle prints of life on the island and – again- the sea views are all eye-catching features.

The kitchen opens up to the restaurant and the sea views. It is also tiny. This leads us to the second, and most important, aspect of taste. The building, which was designed by Ruairί’s uncle, Shane de Blacam, one of Ireland’s foremost architects, and the design (Marie-Thérѐse has done a lot with the interior) are outstanding, but it’s what’s under the surface that makes all the difference. More than anything else, Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites is about Ruairί and Marie-Thérѐse having a feeling for who they are and how they want to live, a feeling for the soul of the place, and for their guests and their expectations and needs. Put simply, it is all about the humanity.

That is why the kitchen is tiny and open (Ruairί calls it “just about a grill bar”). That is why it has a sea view. That is why the whole operation is on such a small scale (Ruairί in the kitchen, Marie-Thérѐse serving, one assistant each). It is about making personal contact, and enjoying whatever it is you are doing at the same time.

It is more a lifestyle than a career choice.

“Even if we were booked out everyday, we would never get rich on this,” Marie-Thérѐse says. “But that’s not the point anyway. We want to be able to live a comfortable, good life here and have personal contact with our guests.”

“It’s such a simple life out here that we don’t need a lot of money,” Ruairί says. “We could market the hell out of this place and have 20 rooms. But those volumes wouldn’t work here. That would be like not caring about the island, which should have a 100 tourists, max, per day. And like we said, that’s not what we want either. We would rather charge slightly higher price so we can keep it small and personal, but with top quality rooms and dining.

“This is the sort of place we like ourselves: small, good, personal. We travel to places like this for the people. It is important that the owner is there, that there is someone behind it all. It used to be the owner always stood behind the beer tap in the bar and you could talk about local things with the locals. Now it often feels like you could be anywhere around the world.”

Despite Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites’ modest size, there have always been a number of significant encounters. The recent visit of Darina Allen, chef, TV personality and founder of Ballymaloe Cookery School, was an honor. Professor Finbarr Bradley- who said, “If you stop now, she will never marry you” when Ruairί decided to drop out of his and Marie-Thérѐse’s entrepreneurship course – came here last year and was proved wrong. The doctors who stay every year, and who once saved Marie-Thérѐse’s fathers life. The locals who have adopted the place as their own.

“That would never have happened if we didn’t have our roots here,” Ruairί says. “First you would never get building permission, and if you didn’t understand the attitudes here it would break you.” Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites wants to be a catalyst, to help people understand the island, its history and culture, and what it is today. “The best thing that could happen would be if some other young person on the island copied us,” Ruairί says. “If this could be an example of what is possible, I would say ‘yes!’ – and – not see them as a competitor.”

Being surrounded by water, you can feel cut off from the world. Like when you are hit by the worst winter in living memory, just before the opening, and the windows you have ordered from the mainland take four months longer to deliver than expected. That is why you have the expression “better looking at it than for it” - you are better off taking home too much of something than spending loads of time travelling around to buy more. And you make sure you are a jack-of-all-trades, because you can’t just call a tradesman for help right when you want it. But there is also a liberating simplicity to and immediacy about living here. Like when you suddenly see a red boat out at sea, cry out “There’s the scallop guy!”, pick up the phone, call him and order the freshest possible scallops for dinner.

Oh, the tastes! We have hardly started. Despite Ruairί’s modesty, the food is brilliant. The best and biggest lobster (with butter, a little garlic and capers) I have ever eaten, crab, hake, round roast, scallops, lamb periwinkles (tiny sea nails that Ruairί picks up on the sea meadows) served as an amuse-bouche… It is all about using the best raw materials in a sensible way. Much of it locally produced. Right now, Ruairί has two pigs in a stone-walled field. Next door he is growing fennel, beets, different varieties of potato, onion, carrots, lettuce, spinach, turnips, and more. “I have learned a tremendous amount about gardening from my uncle,” he says. “Our main aim is for 95% of everything we serve to come from the island and the sea.”

Ruairί and Marie-Thérѐse have plans that they suspect will last their lifetimes. “This is what we want to do,” Ruairί says, placing coasters on the table in front of us to illustrate where they want to build their house, where the reception will be, where he will finally get a decent prep area for his kitchen, a little bar here, the fifth and last suite there, a front garden to make the entrance more welcoming, fruit trees, a walled garden, a tunnel, chicken, beehives…

Tomorrow is Marie-Thérѐse’s birthday so they have taken the day off to visit some friends who have a B&B in Clifden, Connemara. But for now it’s Saturday night, and the only pub on Inis Meáin is jam-packed, hot with humanity. A Group of local girls who ate at the restaurant earlier are continuing to celebrate a birthday. A bunch of lads on a stag night are starting to get merrily cross-eyed. “One more round!” A harp and an accordion play in the corner.

All things considered, it’s a lovely day for a Guinness.

And it’s good for you.

The Guardian: A beautifully conceived design hotel
  • By
    Catherine Mack
  • Published
    The Guardian
    February 2011

Rugged Good Looks

The tiny island of Inis Meáin hides a beautifully conceived design hotel, camouflaged among the dry stone walls. From Galway, across the waves of Galway Bay, lies the tiny island of Inis Meáin, one of the three Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. I was met there by islander Ruairí de Blacam, who took me to his hotel called, simply, Inis Meáin.

On the short drive (Inis Meáin is only three by five kilometres) I was able to inspect the ridged surface of the island. The ridges are all stone: thousands of dry stone walls enclosing tiny empty fields, most cultured by people long gone, and a few still maintained by the island’s diminishing population of around 200. Other expansive slabs of limestone, too resistant to the traditional farming methods when soil was created from sand and seaweed, still boast fissures filled with rare, wild flowers.

These are the elements that inspired the look of the hotel of Ruairí and his wife, Marie-Thérèse, which is an incredibly simple and rustic design hotel. The building was hard to spot among the village cluster of the pub, the shop and a few cottages, as it is perfectly camouflaged by a limestone facade – a long, low-lying glass and stone building that is more like an Andy Goldsworthy creation than a hotel. The interiors mirror what’s outside, with soft grey furnishings and large expanses of space in each of the four rooms designated for rumination and relaxation, and large windows along every wall that draw your gaze outside.

When night fell, I headed into the restaurant where Ruairí, who is also the chef, stood centre stage in the open kitchen, chatting and chopping while guests sat in a line watching the sunset in one direction, or their host skilfully preparing a lobster salad, monkfish and dry aged sirloin in the other. The coup de théâtre was when he took a pollock caught earlier by a guest, filleted it, presented it sashimi style, sprinkled with ginger and sesame and passed it round for all to share. He took his well deserved applause for a superb night of epicurean entertainment in the island’s only pub, where the whiskey flowed as fast as the fiddles played.

Ruairí’s island childhood was spent fishing, rock climbing, or swimming, he said, and he wants his guests to experience the same. Bikes, fishing rods and swimming towels have been placed in the vestibule outside each room for encouragement.During the day I left my enormous white bed, white robes and alpaca throws and set out towards the silky greys of the rock and luminescent blue of the sky and sea. The south west of Inis Meáin is virtually uninhabited, a mass of jagged limestone leading down to imposing cliffs, with waves pounding up over the edge.

Inis Meáin has been the subject of many great writers’ works and most were available in the room. The Aran Islands, for example, is a journal of summers spent here by world renowned Irish playwright JM Synge, between 1898 and 1902, and I took a copy up to the pre-Christian ring fort of Dun Chonchúir, a stone construction of mammoth proportions with views across five counties, and sat wrapped in layers, reading in peace. I hiked and biked, and even braved a dip in the sea one day, and as I explored, I felt as if every stone wall had a story to tell. No one shared these stories more poetically than Synge: an emigrated family; a land dispute or a struggle to survive.

When I was walking alone, I felt an air of sadness lingering on the island, though sharing it with a loved one might dissolve that a little. Alone or not, Inis Meáin is also a place to celebrate this new generation of islanders who are sustaining their home by contemporising it without compromising its heritage. Because Inis Meáin is no longer between a rock and a hard place. Just like the island’s flowers, it is pushing through the stone, with strength and simple beauty.

The Telegraph: Irish Hotels for Food Lovers - Four of the Best
  • By
    Francesca Cyz
  • Published
    The Telegraph
    September 2011

It’s about an hour and a quarter from Galway airport to the ferry port that takes you over to Inis Meáin, the smallest and least-visited of the three Aran Islands, smothered in wildflowers and populated by fewer than 200. It is also home to the wholly unique Inis Meáin restaurant & suites, owned and run by Ruairí (island-born) and (mainland born) Marie-Thérèse de Blacam, who source almost all of its ingredients from the island and its surrounding waters. They opened the restaurant, which seats 25 and was designed by Ruairí’s uncle, in 2007. Originally it offered only one suite, but now it has five – the last was completed this spring. Each has floor-to-ceiling windows, panoramic views over the island, Galway Bay and Connemara, and its own private seating areas. They also come with bicycles and fishing rods, and are stocked with their own ‘mini delis’, with a freshly baked loaf of brown bread delivered each morning. There is plenty to do on the island, from walking and diving to exploring the oval fort of Dun Chonchuir.

Sunday Independent: Darina Allen’s best meal
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  • By
    Darina Allen
  • Published
    Sunday Independent
    June 2013

Sunday Independent: What is the best meal you ever had? Darina Allen: A feast of sea urchins at the Inis Meáin Restaurant and Suites on the Aran Islands.

Cara, Aer Lingus Inflight Magazine: It’s hard to imagine a more heavenly spot
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  • By
    Emily Hourican
  • Published
    Cara, Aer Lingus Inflight Magazine
    June 2012

“Everything we do stems from our location. We are 15 miles off the west coast; remote, isolated and exposed to the elements. The beauty of the landscape and terrain is what informs us” So says Marie-Therese de Blacam, pictured above with husband Ruairí, and indeed the breathtaking appeal of Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites is precisely this: it sits effortlessly into its stunning natural environment. Each suite has 10m-long continuous windows, in order to connect with the outside, interiors are natural wood and lime-plastered walls, with soft furnishings made from cashmere and baby alpaca from the island’s own knitwear factory.

Marie-Therese and Ruairí encourage their guests to get out and explore the rugged terrain and wildlife of the island, providing light-weight bikes, binoculars and a freshly-cooked hot-pot lunch for expeditions The Restaurant meanwhile, which the couple runs with the help of Ruairí’s cousin, Saileog Lally (see our cover), is increasingly being recognised internationally (the Financial Times lauded it as one of the twelve best in the world last year), and pursues the same commitment to the natural bounty of Inis Meáin. “Local lobster, crabs, scallops and fish are to the fore of our menus,” Marie-Therese explains. “We grow almost all our own vegetables, and we keep pigs, chickens, and have used beef from island-reared cows.” Wonderful natural ingredients are presented simply and without fuss, eaten in a dining room with panoramic views of the island and ocean, where the sky is often flooded with pink as the sun sets slowly behind the Connemara mountains.

Once there, it is hard to imagine a more heavenly spot.

The Sunday Times: A Minor Architectural Masterpiece
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  • By
    Sean Newsom
  • Published
    The Sunday Times
    June 2012

Ruairí de Blacam’s restaurant with rooms is on Middle Island, and catches the full force of whatever’s coming, whether it’s brilliant sunshine or howling Atlantic gales. The building is a minor architectural masterpiece - sharp, yet entirely in sympathy with its low-rise, rough-hewn surroundings.

The Week: Hotel of the Week
  • Published
    The Week
    March 2011

Inis Meáin is the ideal base from which to explore the beautiful Aran Islands of Galway Bay, says Catherine Mack in The Guardian. Named after the island on which it lies, this “long, low-lying” glass and stone building is perfectly integrated into its stark, wild surroundings. The interior, too, mirrors the landscape, with soft grey furnishings and large windows in the four spacious guest rooms. Food is superb, conjured up by the owner, Ruairí de Blacam, as he chats with guests in his open-plan kitchen. Bikes and fishing rods are available to borrow, and the island’s only pub is nearby.

Travel+Leisure Magazine: Best Secret Islands on Earth, Inis Meáin Ireland
  • By
    Laura Read
  • Published
    Travel+Leisure Magazine
    October 2011

The pleasures of Inis Meáin are simple: a walk along the coast to the thunder of Atlantic swells; a tableau of fissured limestone that glimmers in the mist; the best potatoes you’ll ever taste. At the stone-walled Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites, owners Marie-Therese and Ruairí de Blacam have equipped the five suites with bicycles and fishing rods, oversize beds come with alpaca throws, and 30-foot-wide windows look out onto Galway Bay and Connemara. The real allure is the 30-seat glass-walled restaurant, known for its deceptively basic fish dishes and homegrown vegetables.

Effilee Magazin fur Essen und Leben (DE): Das Gebaude ist ein Abbild seiner Umgebung
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  • By
    Christina Sues
  • Published
    Effilee Magazin fur Essen und Leben (DE)
    December 2011

Restaurant am Ende des Universums Der schmale Raum dazwischen Zwanzig Kilometer vor der Westkuste Irelands befindet sich auf der kleinen Insel Inis Meain ein gleichnamiges Restaurant und Hotel. Das Gebaude ist ein Abbild seiner Umgebung: Ein acht Meter langes Fenster durchtrennt die Wand, so wie die karge Landschaft Himmel und Erde trennt. Besitzer und Koch Ruarí de Blacam serviert dort Menus mit Produkten aus dem eigenen Garten und von einheimischen Fischern. Wer will, kann sich aber auch als Selbstversorger versuchen: Zu jedem Zimmer gehort eine Angel.