Restaurant review: Paolo Tullio at The Loft, Arklow
It's surprising how many new restaurants are opening, considering the tough trading conditions. There's a prevailing opinion among commentators on Ireland's catering trade that the restaurant business is healthier in Dublin city than elsewhere in the country.
It certainly seems that way -- even on mid-week nights, Dublin's centre seems full of thirtysomethings filling the bars and restaurants. Clearly, there are still people with disposable income.
It's possible that these are the high-flyers from Ireland's burgeoning high-tech industries, and, if that's the case, it's not surprising that business is tougher elsewhere.
But still new restaurants open, and this week, I found one in Arklow, called The Loft. It's in the same building where Kitty's used to be on Main Street for more than 20 years. This new incarnation has been open only a couple of months.
What you notice as a casual observer in Arklow is that it's very well served for takeaways.
In fact, you can find them just about everywhere you look, so it seems takeaways are the dominant purveyors of food.
With all that fast food on offer, it's good to find a restaurant offering a sit-down meal.
I was in Arklow with Gill Hall, who has recently left the city centre to try living in rural Wicklow and is now a neighbour of mine.
We found The Loft easily enough -- it's above the pub Fifty Six and the entrance is through the pub.
Upstairs, you find two distinct dining rooms: one at the top of the stairs, and one through a doorway towards the back of the building.
We chose the latter and the room is comfortable -- a fire was burning and the welcome was warm.
We settled down to read the menu, which mid-week is a set menu offering three courses for €24, or two for €19. That looked like great value, and there was value for money on the wine list as well.
It's a very short wine list, but it has an unusual feature: half the wines listed were under €20. That's something I've never seen before and I'd love to see more often. The cheapest wines were just €16 and the most expensive were €26.
We decided to try the most expensive wine -- the Domaine des Anges, from the Provençal winery owned by Irishman Gay McGuinness.
Gill started with a glass of their rosé and followed that with a glass of their white, and I had a glass of red, so between us we tasted the range.
All three were good wines, and we were charged €5 a glass.
The starter choices were a soup, melon with passion-fruit syrup, a smoked-salmon parcel, and arancini with a spicy mince filling.
Mains offered a salmon fillet, roast chicken, duck with honey and orange sauce, tortellini with Parmesan cream, and two steaks -- fillet and striploin -- both with a supplemental charge. After a little thought, we ordered the smoked-salmon parcel followed by the tortellini for Gill and the arancini followed by the duck for me.
Both of the starters were good: Gill's smoked-salmon parcel was made with filo pastry and the salmon had a creamy sauce that was very carefully flavoured.
I had the arancini -- if you haven't come across them before, they're a Sicilian speciality of rice balls crumbed and deep-fried.
On the Italian mainland, they're often found filled with mozzarella and they're called supplì, but the Sicilian version is more complex, often containing pistacchios, aub-ergine or mushrooms.
If I were to be pedantic, what I had on my plate was one arancino, rather than arancini, which is plural. Singular or not, it was well made and very tasty.
It came on a bed of a spicy chilli relish, which complemented the mince filling very well.
I'll admit right now that I wasn't expecting Gill's tortellini to be up to much. I get disappointed so often in restaurants when Italian dishes are offered that I now almost take it for granted that I won't like it.
I hesitated when Gill offered me a taste, but I eventually speared a couple of tortellini with my fork and, with some trepidation, put them in my mouth. They were delicious.
They were properly cooked and the cream sauce had been reduced, giving it a full, deep flavour that took me by surprise. Certainly every bit as good as any tortellini I've tasted in Italy.
As to my plate, I had two duck breast fillets, nicely caramelised and very tender. They were served on a bed of utterly delicious mashed potato, the kind that probably has more butter in it than you'd use at home, but I didn't care -- I ate it all.
There are times when you can't be thinking about calories.
With the plates cleared, it was time to think about dessert. We had a choice of chocolate brownie, chocolate tart with orange crème Anglaise, sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream, or a plate of Wicklow cheeses, which came with a supplement of €2.50.
Gill picked the chocolate tart and I picked the sticky toffee pudding, which both turned out to be good choices. I particularly liked the sticky toffee pudding, which came with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Sensible people would have stopped right there, as the three courses that we'd eaten were certainly bountiful. But when our waitress suggested that we should taste the Wicklow cheeses, we surrendered to gluttony and said yes.
All three cheeses -- Wicklow Blue, Wicklow Baun and Wicklow Gold -- are made by the Hempenstall family and their cheeses have won a lot of awards.
Once we tasted them, we could see why. I especially loved the blue; it was creamy and full of flavour.
Our bill came to €70, which I thought was outstanding value for what we'd eaten. Well sourced, well prepared and well presented, The Loft's food is just what 2012 needs.
56 Main Street,
Tel: 0402 41418
VALUE FOR MONEY 7/10