With its central location, warm welcome and reasonable prices, Thyme is a real hit with locals and tourists alike.
I've got a text!
It's John Coffey, owner-chef of Thyme Restaurant Athlone sliding into my DMs with the juicy details of tonight's dinner menu. Now, this is my idea of foreplay.
However, despite dreaming about the dishes for the past six hours, when the friendly, cheery server comes to take my order, I am yet to make up my mind. There are just so many delicious options. So, I ask her to choose for me. She's only delighted to do so. She highlights a few of her favourite dishes and explains the flavours and textures so well. Her knowledge of the menu is mighty impressive, and I know I am in safe hands when it comes to ordering.
I sit back and relax and watch the candles dancing in the window and on the table. The decor is warm and inviting, much like the staff.
I'm dining alone but don't feel out of place even though there is a loved up Italian couple sat at the next table. They don't even notice me as they can't take their eyes off of each other.
In the beautiful semi-circular booth in the centre of the dining room, a group of local friends are catching up after nearly two years apart. There's a tasteful wooden screen separating my table from the one to my left but I can hear the English accents. It's a family who is on a cruising holiday along the River Shannon. The mix of diners is a great testament to the far-reaching reputation of this local restaurant for its use of fresh, seasonal produce, focus on flavour and quality dishes.
I peruse the wine list, which is reasonably priced and features 30 bottles. There's something to pair with every dish and something for every taste but doesn't overwhelm you with choices. I love that there are some decent options by the glass and half carafe - five whites, five reds and one sparkling. Dining alone, and with a late-night walk back to my B&B, I opt just for the one glass of German Riesling, a wine that pairs well with almost all dishes on the menu.
I'm not long waiting before an amuse-bouche of smoked Gubbeen gougère and pickled onion purée arrives. This flavour-packed morsel sets the tone for the rest of the meal — dishes with influences from around the world made with the finest ingredients sourced as close to home as possible. Coffey is a member of Euro-Toques and those ingredients and their producers are listed prominently and proudly on the menu, which reads like a who's who of the Midland's finest. It's all very admirable.
A thick-cut slice of freshly baked sourdough appears on the table, accompanied by a large quenelle of glistening walnut butter. Like the glutton I am, I smear the slice and devour it. A move I later regret.
Another amuse-bouche arrives, this time a fresh and fragrant offering of organic local tomatoes, goat's cheese and basil. In season, flavourful tomatoes are one of life’s greatest taste sensations. And these tomatoes, high in both acid and sugar, taste of actual tomato.
My starter is the restaurant's signature dish, one that they dare not remove from the menu for fear of upsetting the regulars. It is an elegantly presented bowl of ham hock, celeriac mousse and breaded deep-fried egg. Once you taste it, you'll understand why it’s so popular. It’s rich in flavour and delightfully comforting, a truly expressive representation of Irish cuisine. Scraping my spoon off the bottom of the dish, I lament the bread eaten in haste and wish I'd saved it for mopping up duties.
With just the right amount of rest between dishes, the main course arrives — dry-aged Johnstone beef with onion and mushroom. It's a decent portion too, I might struggle to finish after all that has gone before. And then two sides arrive - rich, luscious Dauphinoise potatoes and a bowl of organic summer greens. They are feeders in the kitchen, no doubt about it.
I'm pretty sure I could have cut the perfectly cooked beef with a spoon. It melted on the tongue, as did the beautifully buttery mushrooms and silky onions. The soft, creamy, garlicky Dauphinoise potatoes were utterly decadent but perfectly balanced by the crunchy, fresh, vibrant greens.
The main was just as wonderfully comforting as the starter and another well-thought-out, well-executed, painterly plate of food.
Desserts continue the come-hither joys. The Amaretto soaked baba is the most popular, but not being a fan of alcohol in desserts, I asked my server to surprise me with something else on the menu.
She brought one of my all-time favourites, lemon meringue tart which was accompanied by pink grapefruit sorbet. It’s pretty, almost too pretty to eat, almost. The golden buttery flaky pastry with its citrus-boosted lemon curd filling was smooth and tangy without being too sweet and this contrasted beautifully with the pillowy, soft toasted topping. My last flavour-filled forkful was followed by a mournful sigh.
With no room left for even the shortest of coffees, I requested the bill. €58 for the set dinner menu (plus the wine). The value is incredible for the quality of the ingredients, and the thought, skill and presentation that goes into each dish. Not to mention the convivial atmosphere and attentive, friendly service. There's also a value menu for an unbelievable €38 per person. It's no wonder Thyme Restaurant is such a hit with locals and visitors and gets rave reviews from Ireland's most respected critics. Sure, even the Michelin guide inspectors fell in love with the menus that: “showcase regional ingredients in carefully cooked dishes which are full of natural flavours” and earned John and his team the coveted Michelin Bib Gourmand award.
For me, Thyme Restaurant is an unmissable destination for lovers of fine food. John highlights the wonderful produce available in the Midlands region and does so through skilful cooking of creative dishes, which are a brilliant example of what modern Irish food looks, and tastes like.