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The Michelin o' the Green

How a young couple started the definitive guide to Ireland's restaurants--with no green beer.

March 15, 2000|EMILY GREEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If it's St. Patrick's Day in Ireland, you can bet a green beer that the market is brisk in paddywhackery: bus tours to haunted castles, special offers on clover-shaped golf club covers and plaques bearing personalized limericks.

In common with almost everyone working in the ever-green field of Irish tourism, John and Sally McKenna rely on paddywhackery. But in their case, they make their living telling visitors how to avoid it.

They are the husband-and-wife publishers of the Bridgestone Irish food guide series. For the last 11 years, they have specialized in directing visitors away from the clover-leaf edition of Ireland and toward the modern country inhabited by the Irish themselves.

For most people, a scheme to eat and travel for a living would remain a pipe dream. However, in 1989, the McKennas were just dotty enough to attempt it.

It was an odd choice for a couple of scant means. Their office was the tiny living room of their home: a damp rented workman's cottage in Dublin, very much like that featured in "My Left Foot." Their computer was a used Amstrad borrowed from Sally's parents. The desk was the dining table, the couch a beanbag.

John had been a barrister, but one so lackluster, he says, that his only phone calls were from Sally reminding him to pick up celeriac on his way home. He followed his uninspired term at the bar, he says, with stabs at rock and film journalism. Here, again, he says he was "stratospherically unsuccessful."

Sally had trained as a chef, and it was her idea that they produce a food guide to Ireland. To get around the country, they bought a secondhand Renault 4.

"It cost a hundred quid [$150] and had 96,000 miles on the clock. It needed to be hit with a hammer to start it. When we took it to the mechanic, we asked, 'What do you recommend?' and he said, 'Prayer.' "

But with that car, a hammer and a bicycle strapped to the roof, the McKennas covered all 32 counties of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. "John would go off on the bicycle to one place, and I would take the car to another, then we would meet back up before doing the same for dinner," says Sally.

Normally, covering Belfast would have been short work. "After years of peace now, it is hard to remember what a bad year 1989 was for the city," says John. "The level of bombings and killings was extremely high."

But they had heard that a new restaurant was opening in the inner city. The owner was a local chef named Paul Rankin, who had only just returned to Ireland after years abroad, including a stint in the Napa Valley. Approaching the new dining room, the McKennas were stunned. Here, not far from an IRA mural illuminated by the sweeping searchlights of patrolling British tanks, was the equivalent of Campanile in a war zone.

"You stepped out of a no-go area into this room," says John. "It was very white and bright, very chic and Californian, and we said to ourselves: 'This is going to be a big success, or a big failure.' "

Inside, John recalls, the meatballs were made of veal. The venison was not gamey but simply rich and came, they found, from the Guinness estate. Strawberry shortcake was so good that it begged for some fancier name.

Within months, well ahead of other critics, the first McKenna guide was out, and Roscoff had its first rave review. Eventually, the Roscoff became Belfast's first restaurant to win a Michelin star.

From the start, the McKennas were more intrepid and reflective than established critics. But what made their guide unique in Ireland was including not just restaurants but suppliers.

Inspired by the "Food-Lover's Guide to France" by American journalist Patricia Wells, the McKennas provided entries on Ireland's best bars, breweries, distillers, wine shops and food producers. There were notes on open-air markets, on fishmongers, cheese-makers, craft butchers, farm shops, bakeries and pastry shops.

The emphasis was on comestibles, not decor. A ramshackle German-Irish social club in Donegal was praised for the best smoked salmon in the country (the secret, evidently, was the quality of the oak chips from the local coffin maker).

In County Cork, the guide took readers to stalls in open-air markets where farmers sold buttered eggs, a local specialty thought essential to a true Irish breakfast. It also praised a wiry, eccentric American named Bill Hogan, who makes immense wheels of Alpine-style hard cheeses named after the local mountains Gabriel and Desmond.

By 1991, the first edition of the McKenna guide had been so well received that the second one appeared with sponsorship from the Bridgestone tire company. A series of prestigious British food-writing prizes soon followed, including the coveted Glenfiddich and Andre Simon awards.

The work pace doubled as the McKennas began to produce spinoff "100 best" pocket guides to restaurants, hotels and vegetarian places. He wrote these; she edited.

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