Woods full of treasure
Let me begin this week by asking for your indulgence. I have to admit that I've reviewed a restaurant in Co Wicklow. Before you send emails reminding me that there are 25 other counties in Ireland, let me explain why this one was unavoidable.
I've been living in the Wicklow Hills for more than 30 years now, and since I closed my own restaurant there hasn't been one near my house. Of course there are the old favourites, restaurants that have been trading for years, such as the Wicklow Heather in Laragh and pubs such as the Roundwood Inn and Lynham's in Laragh. But the nearest restaurant that I really like is Bates in Rathdrum, which is about 12 miles away.
So when I heard that Marino Monterisi, the chef from Bates, was opening a restaurant in Roundwood, just three miles away, I really had to go and try it.
Obviously, an event as monumental as a new restaurant in the area wasn't just of interest to me, but to other Annamoe residents as well. So we made up a party of four -- John Boorman, Conor and Nora Swords and me -- and set off for Woods, which is what the new restaurant is called. It's just off Roundwood's main street, where a pub has been totally renovated to create Byrne's the pub at one end of the building and Woods the restaurant at the other.
Inside it looks good, with something of the air of a gentleman's club. Plenty of dark wood furniture and heavily upholstered and buttoned dining chairs, which were very comfortable. Pleasing lighting and well-spaced tables make it into a welcoming dining room.
We got off to a bad start. I wanted sparkling water and was told it was only available in quarter bottles. Now if anything is going to make me blow a gasket this is it. Buying water by the quarter bottle means you can easily spend €10 a litre, which is frankly madness. Tell me where in the world does water cost that much? It's fundamental to a meal, not an exotic extra. No restaurant makes you buy your wine by the quarter bottle, so why should they make you buy water like that?
As my ill humour subsided we looked at the menu and drank tap water from a jug. There are two menus, a value menu and an à la carte. At €25 the value menu is properly described; it really is value for money. The three courses on offer included plenty of choices and they were good dishes. Frankly, it wasn't so easy to make a choice between them.
We ordered a bottle of the Sardinian Vermentino to start with, a crisp, dry white with a long finish. Our waiter managed to empty the entire bottle into our four glasses, filling them almost to the brim, then asked: "Shall I bring you another bottle?" This is called up-selling; it's a cheap and nasty trick and ought to be discouraged, quite apart from the fact that wine glasses are designed to be half filled, so that you can smell the aroma of the wine.
When our starters arrived I was still a little grumpy, but as we began to eat my mood turned to satisfaction. I'd ordered the carnaroli rice risotto with smoked haddock and it was really good. I got tastes around the table -- from John's prosciutto and melon, which was made up of a good prosciutto and unusually ripe melon, to Nora's scallops, done simply but well, and Conor's homemade ravioli with ricotta and spinach.
The menu had described this as 'with marrow bone', and we had assumed that meant inside the ravioli, but in fact the marrow came on top of the ravioli, still encased in the bone. The ravioli were, in Conor's words, "superbly done".
We decided on a red wine for the main courses, a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, which is made near my Italian home.
This time I asked the waiter not to fill the glasses to the top and, as the wine sat in the glass and breathed, it just got better and better. For a wine that cost less than €30 on the wine list, it had the taste of a wine in the €50 bracket.
And so to the main event.
Nora had chosen the brill, a fish she'd never eaten before, Conor had chosen the whole roast poussin, John had chosen a veal dish and I had the rolled belly of pork. The brill, a fish I've always liked, was very nicely done. Cooked just so, it was firm but yielding, exactly as it should have been. It delighted Nora who pronounced it "just delicious".
Conor had a whole poussin, a small chicken, which had been roasted so as to be still moist, which is harder to achieve than you'd imagine. I'll tell you exactly how John's dish was described -- escalopes of veal with sage and prosciutto cooked in a white-wine sauce. This is exactly the recipe for a Roman speciality called 'saltimbocca' and it was done exactly as you'd get it in the Eternal City. Presumably describing it as they do stops endless questions of 'what's saltimbocca?'
You may have noticed that pork belly has found its way on to many restaurants' menus recently. Mostly they're the little squares of belly that are bought in to be finished off under a grill. The one I got was not one of those, but had clearly been made in house. It was rolled, like a Swiss roll, and was both tender and tasty, a real winner of a dish.
We also had two side orders, chips and spinach. The chips were exactly as I like them -- a golden brown outside and soft inside -- and the spinach had been tossed in a pan with olive oil, garlic and a touch of chilli, making it, in Conor's words, "the best spinach I've eaten".
We finished up with two desserts, a panna cotta, which came with plums on the side, and a vanilla-flavoured crème brulée. These were both well made and we made short work of them. Good espressos finished the meal, which came to €189 for two à la carte meals and two value meals.
Value for money: 8/10