The Catalina Restaurant: Food with a delicious philosophy
Lough Erne Golf Resort, Enniskillen, Co.Fermanagh. Tel:(from ROI) 048 2375500
One of the formative books of my youth was Robert M Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which, despite its peculiar title, was a profoundly penetrating inquiry into what we mean by 'quality'.
The basic premise was that we all recognise quality when we are confronted with it, although we don't know how we recognise it, or exactly how that inherent quality manifests itself. Pirsig puts it like this: "Quality is a direct experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions."
The search for quality and the attempt to understand it is very much applicable to gastronomy. What makes a meal outstanding? What makes a dish gastronomic rather than simply nourishing? The obvious answer is the skill of the chef, but skill alone doesn't produce gastronomy. Gastronomy needs another element, one that you could describe as 'vision'. Good chefs have a style; a way of thinking about food; a way of presenting their vision to their customers.
Great paintings are not simply good draughtsmanship; behind their visual façade we need to see meaning, an underlying coherence, a way of observing reality.
And so it is with great food: behind what's on the plate is a set of ideas, a philosophy that pervades the cuisine. Good chefs think about what they do; they put dishes together with an overall plan. The better the ideas translate to the plate, the better the gastronomy.
Before Christmas, I met chef Noel McMeel, and talking to him it quickly became clear that this was a chef with a vision -- he had well thought-out ideas on sourcing, preparation and presentation. I decided right then and there that I needed to experience his cooking, which is why this week found me driving with Marian Kenny to Lough Erne Golf Resort, just outside Enniskillen. It was a glorious evening, accompanied by a spectacular sunset. But as darkness fell so did a thick fog. We arrived at the hotel four hours after leaving Dublin.
We were in time for dinner, but we didn't get to see the hotel's setting on the shores of Lough Erne. Judging by the aerial photographs in the lobby, the setting is spectacular -- the hotel is on an island in the lough and the Nick Faldo-designed golf course surrounds the hotel in a horseshoe shape. We consoled ourselves with the thought that the next morning would bring clear air.
The first impression of the hotel is that it's been there forever, but in fact it's not yet three years old. Despite its youth, it's already gained a five-star rating from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and it got the first Northern Irish five stars from the AA.
We made our way to the Catalina dining room, named after the RAF Catalina flying boats that were stationed on Lough Erne in the Second World War. In fact, there are several ways to arrive at this hotel: by car, boat, helicopter or a four-seater sea-plane.
The dining room looks exactly like what it is: a hotel dining room. You know the sort of thing -- big chintzy carvers, good napery and chandeliers. We sat by a window, looking out at what would have been the lake view, if you could have seen more than 40 yards. Tired from the long drive, we decided to make no decisions at all. We both went for the tasting menu, leaving all choices to the kitchen. It was also quickly apparent that Jonathan the sommelier knows his stuff, so I placed myself in his hands, with him choosing a wine to accompany each course.
All that remained was to sit back and enjoy whatever was going to arrive at the table. Letting someone else choose my meal is something I'm prepared to do only when I'm very confident that I'll be well fed, but having met Noel, I knew I was in safe hands. The first dishes were loin of venison for Marian and scallops for me. The presentation was excellent and the tastes were superb. The venison was as tender as any I've tasted and was served with a roast garlic purée and a bitter chocolate and port sauce. My scallops were perfectly cooked and sauced with a light lemon and caper butter that was positively delicious.
Noel had said that everything on the menu, both in this restaurant and the club-house restaurant he looks after, is sourced within 70 miles of the hotel. "What about olive oil?" I said, with the air of a man who's just played the ace of trumps. "We don't use it. We use rape-seed oil from a Fermanagh farm," came the answer. "I want to be consistent." I was also intrigued to learn that another of Noel's initiatives has been persuading local farmers to produce the Dexter breed of cattle. The Irish Dexter was once the cottage cow of rural Ireland, providing both milk and beef. In the club house, Dexter is the only beef served.
Knowing this, it was no surprise to discover that the venison was from the award-winning Finnebrogue and the scallops were dived rather than dredged. It is attention to detail in sourcing the raw ingredients that's such an important part of creating fine dining. The next course was slices of smoked duck breast, oak smoked by the kitchen team, served with a pear chutney and a roast hazelnut c.
For her main course Marian had the roast Ardglass halibut, which came with celeriac and a mustard cream, and I had the Lough Erne mixed grill. No, not the plateful you remember from your youth, but an elegant dish with a square of belly of pork, a tournedo of beef and a tian of lamb, lined up on a long plate. We finished up with a shared dessert, a white chocolate parfait flavoured with Baileys. This tasting menu was £55 (€64) per person, but if you do as I did and have the sommelier's wine choice, add £30 (€35) per person.
This was by any standards a very fine meal and the service was of a high standard, justifying the five-star rating. I never did get to see the views; the mist was just as thick the next day and didn't clear till we got back to the east coast. Pity, it all looked so pretty in the photographs. I'll leave you with this thought from Robert Pirsig: "Metaphysics is a restaurant where they give you a 30,000-page menu, and no food."
VALUE FOR MONEY 8/10
25-30 = EXCELLENT
20-25 = GOOD
15-20 = FA IR
0-15 = POOR
Five-star hotels aren’t really the place for the budgetminded, but you can dine in the Catalina restaurant without spending a lot of money. If you dine from the set menu, you can have two courses for £32.95 (€37.99) or three courses for £39.50 (€45.55).
I really enjoyed the tasting menu and the sommelier’s wine choices. The wines vary by the night, but they are all in the £10 (€11.53) a glass bracket, so you can expect some very good wines. Doing this will bring your dinner to £85 (€98) a head, certainly enough to justify the title ‘blow-out’.