Galway's Orient Express: Inside Ireland's most unusual hotel restaurant
The Pullman is back on track
Glenlo Abbey's rebooted Pullman Restaurant offers far more than just a taste of the Orient Express, says Pól Ó Conghaile.
It’s the last thing you expect to find overlooking Lough Corrib.
A pair of vintage railway carriages slotted into a purpose-built platform, buffed and beautified as if ready to depart for Istanbul in the morning.
Welcome to Glenlo Abbey's Pullman Restaurant.
Set in two, gorgeously-restored carriages that once travelled to destinations as exotic as Monte Carlo and St. Petersburg - and even featured in Sidney Lumet’s 1974 movie, Murder on the Orient Express, starring Albert Finney and Ingrid Bergman - these Galway girls form Ireland's most unusual hotel dining rooms.
Step past the Chinese guardian lions at the entrance, and you enter a world of mahogany panelling, brass luggage racks and thickly-sprung seats.
The lighting is soft and seductive. Bevelled ceilings curve overhead. Lace curtains frame views of the lake and golf course. From marquetry to glassware, it oozes period detail without ever seeming fusty – not an easy balance to pull off.
Of course, none of this would amount to anything more than a modern-day folly were the food not to deliver. And in years gone by, that's exactly what the Pullman had become. But now, it's different. Now, the food delivers.
Our starters included Connemara smoked salmon with a sumptuous clump of crab, presented deftly with elements of green apple, yoghurt, radish and wasabi (pictured below). Textures and tastes, colours and components - from dots of caviar to spriggy little leaves - balanced complexity with a lovely lightness of touch.
A short selection of mains included wild halibut, a beef fillet and ruby-pink lamb served with fermented black garlic and baby carrots.
My wild rabbit, served with young spring vegetables, featured rolls of tender, almost pillowy white meat, set alongside a luxuriant potato truffle mousseline (a Chantilly-style sauce), with a bang of wild garlic.
Alan McArdle is Head Chef at the Glenlo, and he's brought the Pullman to a new level since his arrival almost a year ago. Sure, the hotel has invested €2 million in a refurbishment of its bedrooms, drawing rooms and the carriages, but atmosphere is nothing in a restaurant without the food - and vision - to back it up.
McArdle has worked in L’Ecrivain, One Pico and Mint in Dublin, along with several of Ireland’s top hotel restaurants, and he completely avoids the stodgy, semi-catered, wedding-ready feel to so much of Ireland's hotel dining.
Don't get me wrong. He threads the heritage of this 18th-century country house through the dishes, uses plenty of old-school techniques, and there's no shortage of foie gras, velouté and red wine jus across a tight and confident menu.
But the food is never overly formal. Several of McArdle's team have Michelin Star backgrounds, but their presentations fall naturally - some wouldn't seem out of place in Loam or Aniar, were it not for the white linen and antique China.
The old Pullman was fusty and disappointing. To me, it felt like a novelty feature, and I would never have detoured for its food. This is a refreshing reboot, a counterpoint to a heady and elegant setting that, excitingly, is only starting its new journey.
Downsides? I liked the period tunes – especially the low-level Sinatra – but wasn't enamoured by the clickety-clack sound effects of a moving train (that's gilding the lily).
The tables are quite small, and at times feel too far forward from the plush seats, but I guess that’s the nature of these very unusual dining rooms. Slim carriages surely present challenges for the service staff too, but no amount of standing back to let customers past seemed to dampen their enthusiasm and good cheer.
It's all refreshingly unstuffy - people feel like they enjoy working here.
Dinner is pricey at €63 for three courses, and wine starts from at around €8.50 a glass, so prepare to spend. But given the authentic atmosphere, stonking views (make sure to bag a table facing the lake) and McArdle's food, it’s worth it.
The Pullman opens for dinner only. Dinner at the restaurant costs €63 for three courses with an amuse bouche. A 'Pullman Package' bundles B&B with a four-course dinner from €249 for two. See glenloabbeyhotel.ie.