'Fresh Content always being cooked'

In post-modern cooking, everything goes. A chef might draw inspiration from an artwork or a literary text just as much as a plate of food he or she once ate in someone else's restaurant. There is only one problem with post-modern cooking: it's difficult. In fact, it's incredibly difficult. If you want to do it right, it will do your head in. Where to start? Where to end? Where does the comfort zone dissolve into incoherence? When does the free-form stop making sense?

The best thing we can say about Martin O'Donnell's cooking in Upstairs @ West, at the Twelve Hotel in Barna, west of Galway city, is that his food is alive to the impulse that led him to create the dish, but also alive to the reactions he needs to make sure the dish works on the night. There is a spontaneity to his food that shows the work of a chef who has arrived, and it is invigorating to see him lay out his palette of foods, bright with colour, vividly focused, delicious to eat. In our notes we wrote that, “The cooking is point, counterpoint, blue note. There is contrast, and then the note gets bent out of shape, there is a little surprise for the senses.”

The maturing of Mr O'Donnell's cooking is not just the maturity of experience, but lies also in the fact that having been involved in the food served downstairs in the Twelve Pins bar, he now has time to concentrate on what he wants to do at West. But let's go back to the blue note.

Mr O'Donnell uses foraged elements very well, so a little cone with smoked salmon and Cleggan crab gives the bent note in the shape of sea lettuce. A superb carpaccio of venison with horseradish ice cream does the point-counterpoint bit, then the blue note comes with a wild pea shoot, tingling the taste buds. But it's not all crab and venison and lobster and loin of lamb – though they are all present – that shows his application.

When we tasted the brown bread that arrives in a little sack of breads, we went “Wow!“. Wow! for brown bread? Yes indeed. And a simple, but perfect, squash soup, took another standard into the sublime, and so did a stunning elderflower granita. Yet it was the ability to focus on all the disparate elements of a dish that was perhaps most impressive: every part of the dish of ceviche of lobster with steamed dumpling and lobster bisque was a good as every other part, and the same was true of a dish of loin of lamb with cauliflower and sweetbreads.

In fact, there wasn't a single element of a ten-course dinner that was out of place or unnecessary, making for a dinner that was full of  blue notes, and yet wonderfully harmonious. West is offering some of the best cooking on the west coast, and in a year when the west coast has been offering some of the best cooking in the country, that is really saying something.

John McKenna, John and Sally Mckennas' Guides

Upstairs @ West listed in the Hot
Press 'BEST OF IRELAND' Magazine-celebrating Ireland, it’s People and Places

Hot Press magazine has announced the Best of Ireland : a beautifully compiled annual publication that shines a light on the good and the great that Ireland has to offer. Listed among the Hot Press Best of Ireland  is Upstairs @ West, The Twelve Hotel, Barna. West is a modern take on a classic - a contemporary riff on a New York-style club restaurant. Beautifully lit, flattering and gleaming, with a sweet cocktail bar, cosy booths and smooth dark wood, West is a proper restaurant, a grown-up room and a reminder of why some things in life are too good to change. 

With executive chef Martin O'Donnell in the kitchen, West showcases the finest local produce, sourcing the best wild and cultivated ingredients, highlighting them at the optimum moment of seasonal perfection and then preparing and presenting them in a way that is completely respectful of their individual integrity, and totally delicious. 

No stranger to awards,Upstairs @ West has been awarded the Wine Spectator Award on more than one occasion, a second AA Rosette and the Restaurant Association of Ireland’s Best Wine Experience in Ireland. The Twelve Hotel is continuing with their winning habit of blazing trails, picking up praise and amassing awards!

Best of Ireland features a team of leading journalists' top picks when it comes to the nation's best pubs, clubs, restaurants, venues, hotels, festivals, events and much more. It is an invaluable guide for visitors to these shores, as well as locals looking to get better acquainted with the cream of the Irish crop.

“Delivering our guests superior service is a top priority at Upstairs @ West” said Fergus O’Halloran, General Manager, “we are thrilled to be listed among the Best of Ireland and delighted that our efforts have been acknowledged by Hot Press. We look forward to extending our high level of service to even more guests over the coming months.”

Best of Ireland includes a comprehensive lifestyle guide, the 70 best restaurants in Ireland, venues, music, nightlife and their contributors' recommendations for entertainment, food, sport, fashion and tours. "It's easy to become blind to the pleasures that our own country harbours," Hot Press editor and publisher of Best of Ireland Niall Stokes said. 

“Far too often, we are so caught up in the hustle and bustle of getting by, and of trying to make a living, that we close our eyes and our ears – and sometimes our hearts – to what is around us. Well, it’s time to waken up! There is mischief afoot. Joining in, and being part of the action, is far more fun than going home to sleep. Ireland is rocking, seven days a week. That's what Best of Ireland aims to celebrate."

Business and Finance Review: The west is awake

After visiting the iconic Ashford Castle and the contemporary West at The Twelve, Stella Morris accompanied by Charlie Pitcher, found herself seduced by the new kid on the block. 

My perambulations around the country take me all over - to hell or occasionally to Connacht. In a recent freezing trip to the wild west, I had a duo of encounters which spanned the full range of the Irish hospitality - from the historic, world-famous and iconic Ashford Castle in Cong, pictured, to a relatively new kid on the block, the contemporary, bold and iconoclastic Twelve Barna. 

Just over an hour apart but separated by a number of decades when it comes to approach, attitude and ideas, Ashford Castle is where they shot The Quiet Man in Cong, Co Mayo and The Twelve is where they shoot preconceptions, stone dead, in the seaside town of Barna, ten minutes from Galway city. 

The world is a very different place now to that of The Quiet Man, although you might not think it when you visit Ashford Castle - depending on your own personal Hollywood version and expectation of the past. 

It was my first visit to somewhere I have always wanted to go, and I arrived late on a winter's evening in the dark, to the fully lit and sparkling fairy-tale castle experience. Due to snow, ice and rain and an unerringly bad sense of direction, I was late for my booked dinner but I really didn't want to rush. I checked into my pretty lake view room and insisted on having a gin agus tonic in the beautiful panelled Prince of Wales bar before heading into the George V Room for dinner. I began to apologise for my tardiness when I met the maitre d' at the door but was charmingly reassured by "oh, we don't wear watches here". 

The best thing about Ashford Castle - apart from the magnificent public spaces, suits of armour, monster fireplaces, paintings, manicured grounds and stunning views of Lough Corrib, of course - are the staff. 

Relaxed, professional, charming, there is none of the fawning obsequiousness that can occasionally be mistaken for service, just honest, and pleasant levels of care. 

My dinner was relatively pedestrian, unfortunately - it didn't really live up to the drama of the surroundings nor did it match how well some of the dishes on the menu read. Chef Stefan Matz has a focus on local ingredients, but the delivery was less convincing than the description. 

There were some highlights - the breads were delicious, with a pretzel, potato and brown soda bread all being exemplary - but my amuse bouche of pork belly with scallops, red pepper and honey was bland, my prawn bisque was excessively sweet with an odd whiskey note and the turbot with goats' cheese ravioli, rhubarb and ginger, and spinach greens was actively unpleasant - a selection of substances far too similar in texture to be appealing. My main course came with the statutory side plate of irrelevant vegetables that is still de rigueur in many Irish hotels, somehow summing up the unadventurous nature of my meal. 

Breakfast, on the other hand, was a treat of a feast. It was in the same room which in daylight made me feel like I was at a very large country house party in chintzville central. There was a vast selection of food with endless staff topping up cups and pride of place went to a huge roast glazed ham at the centre of the lavish buffet. The sun twinkling off the lake while a jaunty fella in a captain's hat took names for the boat tour made it feel like the movie I had been running in my head. 

The Twelve Hotel in Barna is at the opposite end of the hospitality spectrum to Ashford Castle. Not 700 years old, in fact, not even seven years old yet, this is a purpose built, totally contemporary place built at a crossroads in the little seaside town outside Galway. Deliberately funky and not afraid to try things, The Twelve is one in the eye to those hotels that mushroomed all over the country, on roundabouts, in industrial estates, next door to all those car showrooms that are howling wastelands of no business at present. The Twelve is heaving. Permanently busy, the bar and West restaurant are a buzzing testament to that old trick in hospitality - do a really good job and people will come. 

West's chef Martin O' Donnell has been at The Twelve since 2008 but he seems to be really hitting his stride at present. We had succulent lamb ribs and a cocktail at the Champagne bar, then myself and Charlie had a selection of the small tapas-style dishes. Between us, we demolished pretty much everything on that menu - a challenge even to two hungry (greedy) people with eyes bigger than their stomachs. 

We had...deep breath...James McGeogh's air-dried lamb with black figs, served on raisin-mustard blini, Dromoland wood pigeon on wild rice succotash, with hazelnut and blackberry vinaigrette (I could eat that all day), foie gras and smoked tuna terrine with organic smoked salt and brioche crust (God, so good). 

We also had a confit of Irish smoked salmon with wasabi pasta roll and organic Irish yoghurt, crab agnolotti with leek and lemongrass in a seaweed consommé (cleanly delectable, served in a dinky suspended amphora), and Connemara oxtail with morel and Glenilen Farm sour cream (pure badness). 

Oh and seared north Atlantic king scallop with girolles and butternut squash velouté. And organic St Tola goat's cheese with heirloom tomato, gram and Sechuan pepper crisp. Em, also rhubarb and lavender organic goat's milk rice pudding. Oops, Baiano chocolate with avocado and coriander ice cream and chilli snap. Hem. Burp. Groan. 

Accompanied by some smashing wines recommended by the fiery haired Fergus, the hotel's general manager, sommelier and all-round good guy, this food is genuinely tasty, confident and above all, fun. 

If West at The Twelve is the playboy of the western world, then Ashford Castle is the Irish RM, landed gentry, time-tested and traditional. There's obviously a place for both but as far as I was concerned from this trip, the West is awake and Ashford Castle is snoozing. Perhaps they're resting on their laurels, a comfortable place to be, I imagine. 

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Read stories featured in B&F over the last five years. 

The Twelve Hotel Barna Village Co Galway 
If ever there was a place to go and indulge in wine, the current favourite has to be The Twelve. Named after Connemara’s Twelve Bens mountains, this hotel introduced contemporary style to a traditional area - and for General Manager Fergus O' Halloran, who is also the Sommelier, wine is clearly a passion. A passion which has brought recognition and success too, with recent accolades including the only Wine Spectator Award to be given in Ireland this year, and the third consecutive year for The Twelve. There’s a special focus on wine at the first floor restaurant, West, with wines displayed on temperature-controlled racks behind glass, and a champagne bar within the room. Wines are listed by grape variety, ‘with’ and ‘without skins’ and the list ranges wide, with detailed notes and pages of other drinks. West's signature event, the Vintner Dinner, is the "Jazzed About Wine" event where participants sip the newest wines to the sounds of smooth jazz.

Georgina Campbell Top Wine Destinations 

“For dining, the West restaurant focuses on local, fresh, organic foods. It also includes a Champagne Bar where diners can relax before their meal and enjoy some fresh oysters”.  Sunday Business Post

 “After a day exploring Galway, guests can take five in The Pins bar where a quiet pint and some ‘just out of the oven’ breads from the on-site bakery are the order of the day……before heading down to the world class restaurant West where the menu offers the finest organic produce from the area. The West also has an exclusive Chefs Table along with one of the most exciting wine collections in Ireland.”  Cara Magazine 

“I had made a mental beeline for this hotel from the moment I heard that interior designer Brian McDonald was involved…this is definitely a design hotel but it isn’t screaming at you; instead it manages to lay on the glamour while maintaining the laidback ambience of a country hotel…but what really blew my socks off about this hotel was the restaurant. In terms of cuisine, this is one of the best Irish hotels I’ve ever stayed in!”  Irish Homes Magazine

“Now an uber modern boutique hotel with popular on site pub and award winning restaurant West …class. The Twelve Hotel is a perfect mix of the old and the very new…”  Johnny Wilson, UK Journalist 

“The Twelve boasts its own bakery… and the laziest of us will soon be able to enjoy a full spa treatment in the comfort of our bedrooms… We are treated to a seat at the chef’s table, in the heart of the kitchen of the West restaurant. Forget Gordon Ramsay tantrums, the place is an oasis of calm, as head chef John Greene “forces” us to struggle manfully through eight courses… from lobster and halibut to lamb and fillet beef… The Pins bar where the locals drop in for a pint and watch the rugby, where someone can always be relied on to drum up a tune”  Peter Doherty, UK Journalist 

“...West is on a par with many of Dublin’s finer establishments and is itself worth the journey to Galway.” 
The Pins Bakery “demonstrates the hotel’s attention to detail and respect for ingredients in its preparation of delicious breads and pastries and its determination to provide fresh and interesting foods.”  Wealth/Business and Finance 

“This restaurant is very much about wine, with one of Ireland’s most exciting wine collections on display in specially designed cabinets and wonderful vintages seen as artwork themselves’. Irish Homes 

“Quite honestly, it was the most exciting meal I’ve ever had, made all the more enjoyable by the fact that it was introduced by people who are genuinely passionate about what they do.”  Sunday Business Post 

“Outside the city in Bearna, the team behind the long standing Twelve Pins Hotel (now The Twelve) are working hard to do their own thing, with an in-house bakery turning out excellent pain de champagne, a sommelier-cum-manager nurturing a vast cellar and a Chef striving to capitalise on prime local produce.” 
Food and Wine Magazine