The review: George V - fine-dining at its finest
George V, Ashford Castle, Cong, Co Mayo, (094) 954 6003
I just about manage to restrain myself from saying "I told you so." We are sitting at a window table in the opulent - nay, lavish - extravaganza that is the George V dining room at Ashford Castle and my husband is having an amount of difficulty in moving his arms. His jacket is on the small side, and looks as if it might have fitted him around the time he was making his first communion.
The previous day, when we were packing, I'd suggested that he might bring a suit. That the George V was probably one of the few dining rooms in the country where the wearing of a jacket is required. "Nonsense," he said. "There's nowhere like that any more."
We should, of course, have checked the website, where the dress code is clearly stated. Jacket required, tie requested. So when we arrive for dinner, Mr McGuinness (as he has become accustomed to being addressed on these work trips of mine) is escorted off to reception and offered the choice of two jackets, one of which is a hand-me-down from a much larger chap. He opts for the smaller of the two, on the basis that restricted arm movement might not be such a terrible thing, and might even help to restrain him as he faces into the 10-course tasting menu that we have been invited to experience. Robert Bowe, the man in charge of the George V and its chief sommelier (and who happens to be wearing a natty set of tails) is conciliatory, "Happens all the time," he says. But it's clear that a rule's a rule and no exceptions will be made.
Frankly I think dress codes are a load of tosh, but having spent €70m on the refurbishment of Ashford Castle, the Tollman family behind the Red Carnation group that now owns the hotel is entitled to impose whatever rules they like. Mercifully for one of our fellow guests - a young woman in a body-con dress split up to the top of her thigh - there are no restrictions on the display of tattoos in the dining room.
The refurbishment of Ashford Castle since the hotel changed hands a few years back is evident throughout the public areas and in the luxurious finishes in the bedrooms and bathrooms. The dining room is named after the then Prince of Wales, later George V, who stayed at Ashford in 1906 when the castle was in the ownership of the Guinness family; they built a new dining room for the visit in his honour. It too has had an upgrade but returning guests need not worry: it's still all twinkling Waterford crystal chandeliers, a live piano player, staff wearing outmoded black uniforms (the women sporting ties), and old-school service, with plenty of chat. Some 70pc of Ashford's guests are from the US - there is a higher concentration of Americans in the summer months, and more Irish during the off-season, I understand - and there is a mix of families, groups of friends, honeymooners and older couples in the dining room.
Along with the rest of the hotel, the kitchen has had a new lease of life too, in the form of Executive Head Chef, Philippe Farineau, who has worked in Ireland for almost 20 years, having trained at the Bristol and other high-end establishments in Paris.
Over 10 courses of a tasting menu, Farineau takes us on a journey designed to explain his 'French Heart - Irish Produce' schtick. It's a precise and considered progression of small dishes to showcase both the very best of Irish ingredients and Farineau's technical and creative skills. Clearly he is an ambitious chef, who is focused on consistency, and I would guess that he and his employers are in pursuit of Michelin recognition, as achieved by the hotel dining room at Mount Juliet in Kilkenny.
Stand-out dishes include Fivemiletown goats' cheese and salsify, with nameko mushrooms and pine gel, that arrives under a perspex dome that's lifted to allow the pine-scented mist of the forest to waft across the table; there's also a soil of Guinness and rye powder and a crisp lovage sponge. Skeaghanore duck and a meaty duck heart come with black garlic and fennel jam and a dry anise-scented meringue; it's an exercise in method and precision. Miso-glazed pigeon is one of our favourite dishes; the sweetcorn pairing inspired. An enormous, sweet, Connemara prawn atop an Irish seaweed dashi broth with Atlantic seaweed gnocchi is a fabulous dish, infused with truffle-scented pepper dulse, while scallop with pork cheek is Farineau's version of surf and turf, and wild venison is accompanied by bitter cocoa, blackcurrant gel and a piece of knotroot that looks disturbingly like a grub or worm.
And then it's pastry chef Paula Stakelum's moment to shine, with a deceptively simple cylinder of frozen Killowen yoghurt and forced rhubarb, followed by 'Opalys' chocolate, blood orange and juniper berry,with cubes of Shortcross gin and tonic jelly, and intricate petit fours. Stakelum is a woman obsessed with her craft, and it shows.
The wine pairings come mainly from the Tollman family's own Bouchard Finlayson vineyard in South Africa; Ashford offers these at a reduced mark-up so it is a good place in which to explore them. We particularly liked the 2013 Hannibal - a sangiovese/pinot noir blend - with the scallop and pork cheek dish.
We were guests of Ashford Castle on this occasion, but everyone else in the dining room who had chosen the tasting menu was getting exactly the same food and service that we were. This is fine-dining at its finest, no doubt about it.
ON A BUDGET
Fivemiletown goats' cheese panna cotta infused with garden herbs, followed by aged Angus rib of beef, with Connemara whiskey-scented crème brûlée to finish would cost €66.50 per person before wine or service.
ON A BLOW OUT
The 12-course tasting menu with matching wines for selected courses costs €190 per person.
THE HIGH POINT
A beautifully balanced, creative menu that marries chef Philippe Farineau's French flair and sensibility with superb local ingredients.
THE LOW POINT
The insistence on men wearing jackets in the dining room.
7/10 value for money
Whispers from the gastronomicon
At a lunch to celebrate the Irish Food Writers' Guild awards at Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, chef Guillaume Lebrun created a menu to showcase the winning products. Silver Darlings' Irish herrings were paired with potato, green leek purée and toasted buckwheat (pictured), while White Gypsy Russian Imperial Stout was matched with Hereford sirloin and a Brandy Bay oyster cream. Mossfield milk pudding was served with Wild Irish Foragers' spring nettle syrup, and Riot Rye's Borodinsky Sourdough was turned into ice-cream. It was all delicious.