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Athlone has always been a great place to break the journey if you're travelling across the country, but it's much more than a handy stopover: now recognised as the culinary capital of the inland waterways, it has become a destination town for discerning travellers, whether by car or by boat.
Annie McNamara and Mary McCullough's original, wacky little Left Bank Bistro was one of the cornerstones of that reputation - and their philosophy lives on in their elegant and spacious newer premises near the river. Here architectural salvage materials and interesting, subtle colours combine well with contemporary wooden furniture and a gently minimalist style to create a space which is both impressive and relaxing.
Bare tables and paper napkins convey an informal atmosphere that suits their lively food: short, keenly-priced lunch menus - plus several extra lunch-time savoury dishes chalked up on a blackboard - offer a wide range of delicious-sounding dishes with a multi-cultural stamp which, together with carefully sourced ingredients and good cooking, make this the number one choice for an informal meal in Athlone.
Wraps, bruschetta, focaccia feature a lot, especially on the lunch menu (try the tandoori chicken on focaccia), and accompanying salads and vegetables are always outstanding - colourful and full of zing. Fresh fish dishes are a speciality and have their own menu, and vegetarians can choose between blackboard specials and regular dishes from the menu, including favourites like Greek salad, Left Bank Salad (with a wedge of foccacia) and Vegetable Spring Rolls (or samosas).
Dinner menus are more extensive and tend to be based on more expensive ingredients, but the style is similar and, here again, vegetarian dishes are especially attractive - and, for the quality of food and cooking, not to mention the sheer style of the place, a meal here is always good value. After a choice of delicious home made desserts or farmhouse cheeses, dip into a nice little drinks menu that offers a range of coffees, teas and hot chocolate.
The wine list is not overlong, but it is interesting, well-balanced and fairly priced; half a dozen half bottles are offered (all around EUR13), and nine by the glass. A new range of Spanish wines has recently been introduced (several available by the glass), tying in with an evening tapas menu which is made up daily and runs concurrently with the dinner menu.
This place never stands still: sassy cooking, great atmosphere, fair pricing - and wondering what they will be up to next - are among the many reasons people keep going back. GC
Text by Georgina Campbell, reproduced with kind permission.
Visit her website on http://www.ireland-guide.com/