Restaurant Review: Paolo Tullio at The Step House, Co Carlow
Back in April, I was on the judging panel for the Restaurant Association of Ireland's annual awards. There were about a dozen of us on the panel and there were representatives from every region of the country. Occasionally, I had to remove myself from the voting whenever a nomination came up for discussion of a place that I hadn't visited.
One of these nominations was The Step House in Carlow, and more than one of my fellow judges expressed surprise that I hadn't been there. It was universally agreed that it was a very good place to eat, so I made a note to myself to pay it a visit.
If you should decide to go there and you're travelling from the north southwards to Carlow, don't do what I did and take the advice of your sat-nav. It led me on a merry dance through the byways of Co Carlow, eventually getting me to Borris, but by more of a scenic route than a direct one. Turns out the direct route is to turn off the M9 at Leighlinbridge and take the R705 to Bagenalstown and onwards to Borris.
I travelled with Lisa McMullan, a fine cook, who thankfully was very patient as we explored some of the lesser-known hedgerows of Carlow. When we finally arrived in Borris, about half-an-hour later than our reservation, we found The Step House easily enough, right opposite the imposing castellated entrance gate to Borris House, once the seat of the High Kings of Leinster. It seems The Step House was a dower house, once part of the Borris House estate.
When Lisa made the booking, she was told that the restaurant wasn't open on the Thursday night that we went, but that the restaurant menu was available in the bar. That's understandable enough -- the restaurant will be open full-time once we're into the high season, but it did mean that we weren't going to get the full restaurant experience.
The entrance hall is very beautiful: it's spacious and gracious, and a double staircase adds a little grandeur. Certainly, first impressions are more of a chic boutique city hotel, rather than the typical provincial hotel.
Clearly, no expense has been spared to make the interior as elegant as possible. To the left of the lobby is the bar, and we took a table by the window, looking out at the impressive entrance gate of Borris House. We were handed the bar and the restaurant menus, homemade breads and a wine list.
Although we were in the bar, we hadn't driven for two hours to eat from a bar menu, so we turned directly to the restaurant menu. But a thought occurred to me. Part of the price that you pay in a restaurant is dictated by your surroundings, and by things such as the napery, the glassware and crockery.
In the bar where we were, there were plain wooden tables and chairs -- perfect for a bar. But if the finer elements of a dining room are not present, then can you really charge exactly the same as you do in the restaurant dining room?
The menu made an interesting read. Here's a few of the dishes to give you a flavour: pithivier of pork shoulder, onion soubise and Granny Smith apple; potato gnocchi with asparagus and a goat's cheese mousse; open ravioli of smoked haddock, asparagus purée and a Riesling sauce; Duncannon hake with fennel and a bouillabaisse sauce; and, lastly, a tasting of Tom Salter's free-range Tamworth pig. You can see from that list that the menu is inventive and imaginative, as well as being well sourced. This is a menu that aims high.
Lisa ordered the free-range chicken terrine to start and followed that with the pan-seared brill. Turned out the brill was off, so she went with the replacement of monkfish tail. I really like smoked haddock, so I chose that and then ordered the pork tasting plate for my main course.
There's a decent wine list, but, as you'd expect in a hotel, the mark-up was a tad higher than normal. Still, if you look, you can find bargains, such as the 2003 Château Musar for €35. There were a few half-bottles listed, so I picked a half bottle of Mâcon-Lugny from Bouchard for €19. Sparkling water completed the drinks order.
The starters looked very good when they arrived. Both plates had been nicely assembled, the terrine was surrounded with a Waldorf salad and the ravioli stacked up high with smoked haddock and alternating sheets of pasta. They both tasted as good as they looked and we settled in with a growing sense of ease.
The main courses didn't quite hit the highs of the starters: they were certainly good and workmanlike, but not outstanding. Lisa's monkfish was well over-cooked, but with a tasty sauce.
The tasting plate of free-range pork in front of me was a difficult dish to prepare. There were a lot of elements, each one with its own difficulties in preparation. The loin was well done, retaining its moisture, but some of the other cuts, such as the pithivier of shoulder, had become a little dry and hard to eat.
Apart from that, I felt that the accompaniments to our main courses -- green beans with tarragon butter and potato croquettes -- was just a little too simple for main courses that were priced in the upper 20s.
We finished with a dessert between us -- the warm clementine pudding, which came with a well-made panna cotta and a truly delicious mango sorbet. Just one espresso for me ended our meal, which brought the bill to €105.80.
I'm conscious that perhaps we didn't get the best of The Step House; we dined in the bar and the head chef was off that night. Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable evening, the service was excellent and the hotel itself is very elegantly furnished. I think it's true to say that The Step House is one of the highlights of Carlow's gastronomy.
The Step House,
Tel: 059 977 3209
VALUE FOR MONEY 8/10