Eating Out: Paolo Tullio at Belleek Castle, Ballina
'I liked our meal here, the castle is full of interesting things and the kitchen produces good, solid dishes using local ingredients that are in season.'
The last time I was in Ballina we were in the middle of filming 'The Restaurant', and Tom Doorley and I made an unusual entrance to the town. First we arrived by helicopter, landing on the beach, then we made our way up the Moy river to Ballina by speedboat, arriving at the excellent Ice House for lunch.
This time the arrival was a little more prosaic – by car having driven from Wicklow, because we were doing an outside broadcast from the Ice House for the 'Sean Moncrieff Show'. It was tempting to eat in the Ice House, but just across the river was another place I wanted to visit – Belleek Castle, which sits in 1,000 acres of parkland and woodland.
With the show over and the set struck, Sean, Caroline Clarke, Gen Brennan and I set off for the castle. It sits in beautifully wooded grounds and there's a moment during the approach when you take a turn and the castle comes into view suddenly, which drew a gasp from Gen: "My god, we've arrived at Hogwarts," he said.
The castle is the ancestral home of the earls of Arran, the Knox-Gores, and the main façade was built in 1831. Inside, however, there's a wealth of interesting artefacts and sensible people will make time to tour as much as they can. There's a superb armoury, probably the largest collection in Ireland of suits of armour, catapults, cannons, arbalests and swords. And if that isn't enough to hold your interest, then there's a fossil collection, the last wolf shot in Connaught and Grace O'Malley's bed as well.
The dining room has some extraordinary beams, which create a mezzanine and a staircase, many of which were rescued from Armada wrecks. In fact much of the castle's interior has been created by the use of old wood, most of it carved. If you like wood carving, there's much to see, from statues to reredos, to panelling and pillars, all exemplars of the carver's art.
There's a fine view of the gardens from the dining room, and being a summer's evening, it all looked beautiful in full flower. We had two menus to choose from: a three-course early bird priced at €29.50, or the menu aimed at gastronomes – the Market Menu, which was five courses and was priced at €49.50. Both menus read well, but the five-course one had us hooked. There were two choices for each course, so we had two of each all the way.
There's a decent wine list in the restaurant, but the page to find bargains on is the end of bins. One of my favourite Malbecs was listed on that page, the Argento, priced at €35. It turned out there was just one bottle left, so we had that, a couple of glasses of Prosecco, and sparkling water. Should the Argento return to the list, don't hesitate, it's a good wine.
The first dishes to arrive at the table were two langoustines with Moy salmon gravadlax and turf smoked loin of Mayo lamb. What I liked about both of these dishes was that they used local ingredients, and the smoking of the lamb and the curing of the salmon was done in house, giving us a glimpse of what the chef could do.
Next came the summer white tomato soup and the citrus and thyme sorbet. I thought both of these well done, the soup intensely tomato flavoured and topped with crispy basil and tomato seeds, the sorbet a subtle mixture of thyme and citrus.
The next two dishes to arrive were a duo of duck with foie gras and a dish called Cashel Blue caviar. The duck dish duo was sliced breast and confit leg, paired with foie gras and fig. The other dish had me puzzled for a while as I stared at what looked like white caviar in a blue cheese sauce. It tasted really good, and eventually I realised the 'eggs' were sago, what we used to call 'frogspawn' when we were served it at school. Giving sago a savoury twist is a really good idea. It worked well and was an imaginative touch.
What came next could be described as the main courses – the Drunken Bullock, and grilled wild sea bass. The second of these needs no explanation, but the first one certainly does. The Drunken Bullock is one of those theatrical dishes that involves fire at the table-side, reminiscent of the days when waiters tended to flambé things at the table. Here, a fillet steak was impaled on a sword that had a kind of copper bucket fixed to the handle. While holding the sword vertically, our waitress poured hot whiskey down the blade, and it flamed its way all over the steak before being captured by the bucket beneath. Cooked like this, a fillet steak becomes more of a performance than an example of gastronomy, but I have to admit it looked quite spectacular.
Despite this abundance of courses we still had just enough appetite for desserts. They were lemon and elderflower with meringue, shortbread and ginger crumb, and a chocolate and walnut brownie. Again I was happy to see a dish incorporating elderflower, as we're smack in the middle of its season, and it worked well, the elderflower and lemon making a good pairing.
I liked our meal here, the castle is full of interesting things and the kitchen produces good, solid dishes using local ingredients that are in season. The bill came to €255.
On a budget
Eat early, that's to say from 5.30 to 6.30 pm and you can eat from the early bird menu. It has plenty of choices, and three courses are charged at €29.50.
On a blowout
For a blowout the choice has to be the Market Menu, which is the one we ate from. It's five courses, but they're well designed, so they won't leave you overfed. I liked the fact that there were plenty of local and seasonal foods on the menu.
The high point
The whole ambience of the castle was one of welcome and warmth. That, coupled with all the historical collections on view, made it memorable.
The low point
As in so many places an espresso that was too hot and had too much water for my taste ended the meal.
Value for money 8
Whispers from the Gastronomicon
If the idea of a city-centre barbecue appeals to you, you might like this new offering from the Morrison Hotel, Dublin. The inner courtyard is now set up for barbecues throughout the summer and you can avail of either the Picnic Basket Package, priced at €23 per person, or the Big BBQ, at €30 per person.
The first includes a salad selection and a choice of chicken satay skewers, pork and herb sausages and 6oz beef burgers, the second adds to that choice fried tortilla, Caesar salad, Parma ham and salami, buffalo mozzarella, plum tomatoes and pesto, mixed leaf salad and tiger prawn and lime skewers.