Anyone for seconds?: Ballymaloe House
I was thinking this morning about my friend and ex-neighbour Charley Boorman and his latest TV adventure, when he went from Sydney to Tokyo using as many different means of transport as he could.
This got me thinking about the various ways I've arrived at restaurants. Obviously, the vast majority of times it's been by car, but then there was the time I arrived at Club 55 in San Tropez by means of a 410ft-long luxury yacht, or recently when I got to The Ice House in Ballina by speedboat.
More prosaically, I've dined in Howth arriving by Dart, I've travelled to various venues in my own vintage sports car, I once arrived at Il Rifugio in Forca d'Acero on skis, and just a couple of times the means of transport has been a helicopter.
I'm unashamedly excited when it comes to trips in helicopters, especially if the skies are clear blue. This island is stunningly beautiful when viewed from 2,000ft up. The last trip was about two years ago when a group of us went to Fishy Fishy in Kinsale, and this week it was southward-bound again, to Ballymaloe.
We were six, and we went in Chris de Burgh's navy-blue helicopter: Chris, of course, his wife Diane, Harry and Rita Crosbie, Marian Kenny and me.
Because my memory is so faulty I had to check -- the last time I went to Ballymaloe was 1997 and it was also with Chris and Diane. This is a long time not to have visited one of Ireland's gastronomic institutions, so this trip put right that wrong. Chris had picked Ballymaloe because it has a vital ingredient for a helicopter trip: a place to land. There's a lawn in front of the house and that's where we landed, the house looking resplendent covered in flowering creeper, awash in brilliant sunlight.
We sat outside, basking in the sun and sipping a Prosecco, and it dawned on me there's another huge advantage to helicopter trips: there's a pilot who doesn't drink, which meant that we could.
We read the menu, which is a table d'hôte priced at €40. If you're used to Dublin set menus at lunchtime, at first glance that might seem a little steep, but there are mitigations. You're lunching in a very pretty dining room with stunning views over the curtilage, and you're in the iconic Ballymaloe.
But there's something else, something I haven't come across in many years: in Ballymaloe, you get offered second helpings. I used to offer seconds in my restaurant, but times have changed, portions are relentlessly controlled and second helpings in restaurants have all but vanished. It's a harking back to the old style of hospitality.
There was a choice of four starters: spinach-and-rosemary soup; a smoked-mackerel rillette; goujons of plaice; or Frank Hederman's smoked haddock. Four main courses were on offer: roast Ballycotton cod; free-range chicken; escalopes of beef; and glazed loin of bacon.
While we were making up our minds, Chris was studying the wine list and found La Source de Vignelaure, a rosé from Provence. Chris and I visited Château Vignelaure some years ago when it was owned by David O'Brien, one of the first modern-day Irishmen to take the plunge into the world of viticulture.
For me, sunny days are what rosé wines are made for, and there's nothing more summery. Fairly priced at €28, we had a couple of bottles.
For our red, Chris picked Alain Brumont's Montus, probably the best red from the Madiran appellation. It's a superb wine: deep, full and very big -- a good choice for those of us who had chosen to eat beef, and it was listed at €48.
We had just finished our Prosecco when we were told our table was ready. What Ballymaloe has is not one big dining room but a few smaller ones, which means you have as much privacy as you want. We were in a room alongside the conservatory, with a view across the gardens at the rear of the house.
Between the six of us we'd picked all of the starters except the soup, so the three I got to taste were the goujons of plaice, the smoked-mackerel and the smoked haddock. The two smoked fish dishes were normal-sized portions, but Marian's plate was piled high with strips of battered plaice, cooked perfectly and served with a ramekin of one of the best tartare sauces I've ever tasted.
I'm a big fan of smoked fish and of haddock and mackerel in particular, so both of these dishes really appealed to me. They were simply served, allowing the food to show off its flavours with no distractions. Simple, well-sourced food, nicely presented and expertly prepared, made a perfect start to our lunch.
Between us we'd also chosen three of the main courses: the cod, the chicken and the beef. Like the starters, the strength of these dishes was not so much in a cheffy presentation, but rather in the sheer quality of the ingredients. It's an old adage but true: you should spend more time sourcing your ingredients than you do preparing them for the table. It's tempting to assume that there's little skill in doing things simply. Actually, the opposite is the case. Simplicity is one of the hardest things to achieve successfully, because there's nowhere to hide. If any element isn't just right, you'll notice it in a simple dish. In a complex dish, mistakes are easier to cover up.
Desserts came the way they used to -- on a trolley. You could see them all and you could even pick 'n' mix. In truth, since I'd been offered and accepted a second helping of beef, I was in no state to contemplate desserts, but the others were. I managed a pretty good espresso instead to round off the meal.
Ballymaloe is charming, the food is good, but more importantly the raw ingredients are the best. When you mix that with a gracious room and friendly service, it's not hard to see why this place has become so iconic among Ireland's foodies. The bill came to just over €420, with the wines and water accounting for €180 of that.