This week saw the reunion of the three amigos -- two of my occasional dining partners and me. I've known Mike Judd and Patrick Walsh since we were students in Trinity and, although our lives took different twists and turns, we've all ended up living in Wicklow and we're still friends. Both of them have come on review meals with me before, but this was the first time we'd all eaten out together.
Michael and Patrick had suggested a trip to our nearest cineplex in Arklow to see Crazy Heart. It was one of the few Oscar-winning movies I hadn't seen and if you like both kinds of music -- country and western -- you'll enjoy it.
I'd never been to the vast shopping centre where the cinema is and it's an extraordinary place. It's cavernously large and its wide marbled malls echoed eerily to our footsteps as we walked through its emptiness, reminding me of Ceausescu's People's Palace. It has the feel of a folie de grandeur, a monument to the excesses of the Tiger years.
I thought that we could combine the film with a meal and, since Arklow is not a small town, you'd think that finding somewhere to eat would be easy enough.
Not so, we discovered. It seems that until the summer months are well and truly upon us, very few restaurants in the provinces are prepared to open mid-week. It makes economic sense -- if you have to bring in staff, pay for the light and heat and then serve three people, you'd have lost less money if you'd stayed closed.
The problem facing restaurants at this time of year is that they can fill up on Fridays and Saturdays, but the mid-week nights remain very quiet. That means it's hard to keep your staff employed on a permanent basis.
I won't bore you with a list of the places that weren't open, but it took a great many phone calls until we discovered that The Arklow Bay Hotel was open. Not the restaurant proper, mind you, but they were serving a bistro menu and a bar menu in the lounge. This was the only open kitchen in Arklow mid-week, unless you were looking for a take-away.
The Arklow Bay Hotel has been there for as long as I can remember; summer days spent on Brittas Bay often ended up having afternoon tea there. It has a large foyer and the bar area is on your left as you walk in.
We took a table and were offered the two menus. The bistro menu offered three courses for €35, which, these days, is a bit on the steep side. When Conrad Gallagher can offer four courses for €24 at his very high standards of cuisine, it makes €35 look like poor value.
On the other hand, the bar menu was very competitively priced. The first couple of pages have the usual offerings of sandwiches, snacks and starters: things such as garlic bread, Caesar salad, seafood chowder and chicken wings, as well as a couple of 'gourmet' sandwiches. Nothing much out of the ordinary or particularly interesting.
I was beginning to think we might have made a bit of a mistake, then I turned the page. The next two pages are labelled 'Main Event' and there were some decent choices, all very keenly priced. Among them were fish pie for €12.95, homemade scampi or cod and chips for €13.95, a homemade cheeseburger with bacon and lettuce for €12.95, and a chilli beef salad for €12.95.
Patrick and Michael ordered from the bar menu, a duck breast with hoisin sauce and the scampi. I decided to try out the bistro menu, so from the choice of five starters I picked the shrimp salad with the classic Marie Rose sauce and followed that with the sirloin steak with a pepper sauce.
I have to admit that our expectations were not high at this point, but we looked at the wine list next. It's not a long list, but the bulk of the wines are in the affordable bracket, which was good to see.
As ever, having our cars with us meant checking out the half-bottles. We settled on the Marqués de Riscal Tempranillo from Castilla y León, which was priced at €13.
The wine, some warm baguette and three dips arrived. The wine was delicious, perfectly balanced, soft and smooth with a lingering after-taste; a real winner. The dips, too, were excellent -- an obviously homemade pesto had all three of us enthusing. Things were looking up.
My starter arrived, a generous tian of shrimps in the Marie Rose sauce -- not your usual tiny amount with loads of lettuce -- and we all tucked in. Not a complicated dish, but it was well done.
The main courses came and, once again, the standard was high. The duck breast was tender and nicely flavoured and the scampi were exactly as described: homemade. Each one was different, not like the pre-prepared variety. The batter was crisp and it didn't have that oily texture that so often ruins a battered dish. A fine sirloin was on the plate before me and the pepper sauce was served separately. The sauce was very good and the steak was cooked exactly to my liking; only the vegetables of the day were a little on the dull side.
Nothing complicated in these three dishes, but they were well produced and left us all contented.
We weren't really hungry enough for desserts, but our waitress suggested that she could make a mix of three of them and we could share them. We couldn't say no to that and so the plate arrived, with a banoffee, a chocolate brownie, and a Baileys and Malteser cheesecake. The brownie was good, the banoffee was excellent, but the cheesecake was a stroke of genius. It was superb, the sort of dish that you remember. Whoever does the desserts in this kitchen knows what they're doing. These made a good ending to our meal.
It's a pity we didn't get to try the restaurant proper, but it turned out to be a decent meal. The bill for the three of us came to €102.05, not including service charge.