There are places we dream of escaping our daily lives to. One of my favourite fantasies is spinning out the M6 towards Galway, taking a sharp left at Oranmore and hitting the coast road towards the Burren, preferably ending my journey in the beautiful Gregan’s Castle in Ballyvaughan where ex-Tannery head chef David Hurley has taken over the reigns from chef-extraordinaire Mickael Viljanen (who has gone to The Greenhouse in Dublin).
The only drawback about going somewhere like the Burren to completely unwind is that I would feel guilty if I didn’t get out and explore the surrounding landscape. Guilt can be the hardest thing to escape from, even when it’s misplaced.
Last weekend myself and a couple of friends escaped to guilt-free Longford. Yes, Longford. Or Viewmount House just outside Longford town, to be exact. We had no idea if there were great things to discover on our doorstep and didn’t really care to find out. We were quite happy to make Viewmount House’s reception rooms, suites, restaurant and gorgeous gardens the extent of our world for our short stay there.
(Okay, so I since did find out that Viewmount House is close to Strokestown House, the Famine Museum, Belvedere House, Clonmacnoise and Newgrange – but thankfully not until we had happily wasted many aimless hours.)
We went because I had been hearing great things about the restaurant for a couple of years now. VM Restaurant has been open four years, with head chef Gary O’Hanlon at the helm and a strong team behind him, including Slovakian sous chef Daniel Skukalek, who was named 2011 Knorr Student Chef of the Year, winning a prize of a trip to Noma in Copenhagen.
I was expecting great cooking, but I wasn’t quite expecting the sheer stylishness of the setting. From the balance of period-piece furniture against perfectly pitched dusky pink and teal blue wallpaint to the immaculate lawn, burbling water features and wandering garden paths, the place oozes charm. Owners Beryl and James Kearney told us they’ve been they’ve been living in the 1750s house and lovingly restoring the it since the 1990s. And it shows.
By the time we gathered ourselves in the restaurant bar for a glass of Mount Difficulty Pinot Gris while we perused the four-course menu (€55, with a complimentary fifth course for residents staying in one of the 12 rooms) we felt we had well and truly escaped and were ready to be spoilt. And spoilt we were.
After a little complimentary taster of Thornhill duck breast with powdered curry oil and cherry pepper mayonnaise, and lovely homemade breads with a red pepper hummus dip, we were on to starters proper. I loved my Lissadell mussels cooked in a coconut green curry broth with coriander, scallions, slices of juicy shiitake mushrooms and cubes of pineapple that added great texture and a note of subdued sweetness. As with the rest of the meal to come, an elegant balance proved to be this kitchen’s signature stroke – along with an ability to integrate some unlikely pairings into a cohesive expression.
Opposite me, Clare Island organic salmon had been cured with juniper and pink grapefruit, and served with pickled herb stalk and puffed capers. But it was the starter of star anise and orange-cured duck leg confit that stole the show, with waves of flavours that just kept on coming. Gary told us that the garnish for this dish has changed several times (currently a nicely pitched, blush-pink ragout of beetroot, mushroom, tarragon and sherry) but the cured confit has been a star dish on the menu for several seasons. And long may it remain there.
For our middle course, we went for a Taste of the Midlands Salad, featuring roast pear, Rogan’s whiskey-smoked bacon and Kelly’s organic cream cheese flavoured with eggs yolk, mustard and scallion. Next, a complimentary palate cleansing jelly of Martina Burns’ elderflower & wild strawberry topped with Glenisk organic yoghurt. Martina is the wife of local farmer David Burns, who supplies his legendary sweetcorn to the likes of Chapter One. Gary recently nominated David to win an EirGrid Euro-Toques Food Award 2012.
Then – because we really were being spoilt – another little taster of lobster with charred Malibu-infused baby leek (yep, the booze, and yep, it worked), wild artichoke (teensy and intense) and carrot and lime purée.
For mains, I found the will to look past the first option: Friendly Farmer Chicken (another 2012 EirGrid Euro-Toques Food Awards winner) cooked ‘sous vide’ with 36-month Parmesan cream, garden peas, shallot and chorizo nage and gnocchi. I may have to return for that dish, or for the salt-fried Donald Russell 28-day dry-aged sirloin, served with mac’n'cheese made with Crozier Blue and Glebe Brethan macaroni, and a tomato and piquillo pepper jam. One of my friend’s had the steak – and I can still taste that mac’n'cheese.
Another friend went for the Clare Island salmon, cooked at 60ºC so that it was wobblingly moist but with a glistening crispy skin. Its presentation put me in mind of a summer’s day on which the sun has made a garden explode with colour: bell pepper risotto, avocado, peas and shoots, and little rockets of purple cauliflower ready to lift off the plate. Gorgeous.
My main course was my favourite, I’m glad to report. Little moist discs of canon of Roscommon lamb, beautifully seared and pink inside, with a flavour and texture delicate enough to savour but hearty enough to make for an utterly satisfying feed. It came with basil and hickory smoked cherry tomatoes bursting with flavour, wild artichoke paste, pickled oyster mushroom, roast garlic, bone marrow and a bagna couda jus (a Piedmontese classic featuring anchovies, garlic and olive oil). Jaysus it was good.
I’m really not sure how we did it, but we soldiered on and finished the meal with a dessert of crème caramel with various renditions of tangy sea buckthorn, dill and carrot, including a blackened carrot cake crumb.
If all that sounds like a lot of different flavours to take in over the one meal, well it was. But the over-riding impression was of a judicious balance within each dish, and of an imagination held in check by consideration of what the diner might want rather than what the kitchen can do.
Gary O’Hanlon’s cooking is very different to Mickael Viljanen’s, but experiencing it for the first time last weekend in the surprisingly beautiful Viewmount House reminded me of a very special meal shared on a very special week-long escape to the Burren years ago, looking out from Gregan’s Castle dining room over the lunar landscape sweeping down to Galway Bay.
That outposts of great Irish cooking such as these should exist in the most unlikely of places is another great excuse to go exploring this green island of ours.
p.s. We came home via Kildare Village Outlet where we did a spot of shopping (I picked up a bargain Le Creuset pot which I’ve needing). I’m sorry to say we didn’t have room to sample any of the fantastic food being served up at the Good Food Ireland pop-up food stall. You’ll understand why. But with a choice of Jane Russell’s sausages, Waterford bacon blaas with Boyne Valley Blue cheese, and Country Choice Hereford beef ciabatta, if you’ve been looking for an excuse to visit Kildare Village, the current Chic Summer Festival (until Sunday 29th) might just be it.