The Seafood Interview supported by BIM - JJ & Kay Mitchell

BIM Seafood Circle

This month Marilyn Bright talks to J.J. and Kay Mitchell, whose seafood restaurant in the heart of Clifden has been delighting locals and visitors alike for nearly a quarter of a century

With the waves of Clifden Bay lapping just strides away, fresh crab and an array of fish from local boats is being served up to happy diners in Mitchell's Restaurant in the heart of Connemara. Named Georgina Campbell’s Seafood Restaurant of the Year 2015, this popular establishment run by J.J. and Kay Mitchell runs to choices of a dozen or so different fish and shellfish daily, with a list that changes according to the day's catch.

Mitchells Restaurant ClifdenOpening nearly a quarter of a century ago in an attractively restored stone-fronted pub, J.J. relates that they spent the first year gradually establishing the direction the business would take. “We could see an increasing tourist market in the West and more demand for food. Being on the port, it was only natural to focus on fish and local produce. Timing was right too, because in the mid-90's, people were becoming more interested in healthy eating and demand for seafood was growing.”

Creamy chowder made with fresh white fish, salmon and mussels became a lunchtime staple, along with big bowls of Killary mussels steamed in their own liquor with garlic, butter and white wine or cod and leek pie with mash topping. Fresh baked brown bread is the base for open sandwiches piled high with fresh crab or salmon or Galway Bay prawns with homemade mayonnaise. Crunchy homemade fish fingers go onto toasted ciabatta with pickled red onion and lemon mayo.

Demand for fish and the house handcut chips is constant, but an updated version boasts tempura lemon sole with curried mayonnaise, chilli jam and salad. Evening menus include dishes like pan-fried hake with a colcannon and bacon potato cake and coriander cream, or baked Clare Island organic salmon, with creamed leeks and sorrel sauce.

Scallops and black pudding with parsnip mash is a favourite and J.J. notes that demand for scallops has risen by at least 50 % over the past few years. Hake is up in the charts too, replacing cod which was in danger of being over fished, although J.J. says that stocks are recovering now due to strict controls on allowances.

With an early background in a family confectionery and coffee shop, Kay Mitchell runs the kitchen today with a brigade of five chefs catering for the busy all-day service. “We started small,” she says, but now we have 75 covers over two floors and are open seven days a week during high season. Customers are looking for good food at a good price, and it's all about freshness. Even though we're a seasonal restaurant, most of our team come back year after year and take pride in the quality and consistency of everything that goes out.”

Many of the team use winter months to travel or do stages in London restaurants where they pick up new ideas to bring back. J.J. and Kay take six weeks in the Florida sun, trying menus there that feature warm water fish like grouper and snapper. “You'd see some new ideas there, but food at home is a thousand times nicer,” Kay says.

Fish for Kay's menu is delivered in fresh daily from local sources, with portioning done in-house to utilise off-cuts and trimmings for their own stocks and sauces. Clare Island organic salmon are filleted and pin-boned and prawns from Rossaveal are peeled by hand. Quantities of Maris Pipers are hand cut for ever-popular chips but Queens are scrubbed, to be boiled and served in their jackets, Connemara style.

Reflecting on how the business has grown, J.J. notes that tourism began an upward curve in the mid-1990s, with Connemara seen as an international brand name attracting North Americans and a growing stream of continentals mainly French, Italian and Spanish. “A popular French song, about the beauty of Connemara's mountains and lakes - I think by a singer called Michel Sardou - has brought loads of visitors, and they're hugely into oysters, scallops, mussels and crab.”

The good times stopped suddenly when recession hit and J.J. describes 2008 to 2013 as “horrific years” citing the many businesses that didn't survive! He sees confidence coming back now, with people willing to spend money and tourists returning. Kay observes that they've been busy early this year, with the season starting on St Patrick's Day and already full on. “There are already lots of French visitors and we have great local trade with something on nearly every weekend - mini-marathons, cycling events and walking festivals.”

“The outlook is very good this year,” J.J. adds, “and we're looking forward to a bumper season.”

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