Maybe you won’t spot a leprechaun, but there are a good handful of other clichés you absolutely expect your first visit to Ireland to have on the ready: redheads, getting into traffic jams with roaming livestock on impossibly narrow country roads, and meeting a guy named Paddy at every pub.

And then there's that age-old joke about an Irish seven-course dinner. What’s that consist of? A potato and a six pack of Guinness. Potatoes, cabbage, corned beef and stew, some more potatoes, and offal – these are the peasant dishes that first come to mind when you consider Irish cuisine. Hearty, yes, great for soaking up all that whisky and Guinness, for certain, but nothing to write home about.

But a week exploring Dublin, County Clare and Cork turns out to be much like that old game three truths and a lie. Ireland delivers on the first three at every opportunity. The fourth, however, might be a total sham.

Ireland_FishnChips.jpgIn Dublin, where touristy pubs dish out Guinness stew and black pudding by the bowlful alongside beautiful traditional French cooking based on local ingredients  for a relative steal (the chef at Pearl Brasserie was born in France and trained in Michelin-starred kitchens in Paris, so using the chef and ingredients formula to qualify Irish cuisine, it half-counts), the most innovative food is also the oldest. At the Winding Stair, an iconic café-bookstore overlooking Ha’penny Bridge and named after a Yeats poem, the food is billed simply as “good old-fashioned home cooking.” But it’s bright and inventive – crab claws from Wicklow come on a thick slice of toast with avocado and juicy chunks of pink grapefruit, and the black pudding is served with mozzarella from Toons Bridge dairy, the first cheese farm in Ireland to import Italian water buffalos for making their cheeses.

At Seven Social, a 24-seat spot in the former Red Light District that Chef Emma Bowe and her partner did up on a $10,000 budget (with blue Christmas lights and pop graffiti, it looks a bit like a backpackers internet café but one bite and you won’t care), razor clams from Balbriggan, prepared in saffron aioli with garlic, parsley and a swift harissa kick will erase the last vestiges of whatever it was you thought Irish cooking would be. They also might be the best thing you’ll taste all year.

Bowe, who came from a restaurant family in Donegal but worked in marketing before turning a geeky love of Irish food history into her livelihood, actively tries to challenge people’s perception of Irish food, noting that “although we like bacon, cabbage and our friend the potato, we feel there is far more to Irish cuisine than three or four ingredients.” Twice a year she gets extra geeky, creating 10-course “ancient feasts” based on extensive research of what people in Ireland ate going back a thousand years or so. Like ports and sherries, which the Vikings used to import to drink, and squirrel, which Bowe was waiting to land in the traps before announcing the date for her fall ancient dinner. (“Did she just say squirrels?” my dining companion whispered to me as Bowe described how she cooks them; Bowe says they handle like pork chop.)

Ireland_Burrens_on_tap.jpgBefore we head out, she wraps up a piece of Fivemiletown goat cheese, an ideal breakfast before we head off to the country in pursuit of more Irish food the next morning. It’s a glorious foodie road trip: more seafood, more goat cheese and more of our expectations turned upside down – even a vegetarian restaurant that’s racked up numerous culinary awards since it opened 20 years ago, without a speck of bacon in sight.

The closest we come to traditional is Sunday lunch at Ballymaloe, a manor house in the countryside near Cork. It’s intentionally fussy and timeless with servers in maids’ uniforms (ours tells us she’s worked at the manor for 42 years), proper silverwear and old school desserts served on a trolley. But those roasted carrots and beets all come from the manor grounds and Ballymaloe’s sister cookery school, just down the road, has quite literally put Irish farmhouse cooking on the map.

But it all comes together at the Roadside Tavern, a 100-year-old pub not far from the Cliffs of Moher. There, the menu reads just like you were expecting – beef stew, fish and chips, and yes, bacon and cabbage. But once again, the ingredients are all local, produced with impressive care and attention by people who think of food as more than something to offset booze. Three of the beers are brewed upstairs and the salmon is smoked next store (it’s so good you’ll find it in the gourmet shop at Harrods). Even the soda bread is made by a pastry chef who used to work in a Michelin-starred kitchen in Burgundy, using stout brewed just upstairs.

A taste and you won’t be surprised to learn the Roadhouse won best gastropub in the region last year at the Irish restaurant awards. They even play live traditional music every Sunday. In other words, it’s just the spot to prove Ireland is everything you expected – and nothing you thought it would be.

Alyssa Schwartz is a Toronto-based travel and lifestyle writer. Find her on Twitter @alyssaschwartz.

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