Chic on the cheap
Most of the time driving is a chore for me. I'm one of those people who makes a terrific passenger, enjoying nothing as much as being driven. But every now and then the joy of driving comes back to me, and a trip down the N81 gets me going every time.
It's the road that goes to Blessington from Dublin, then on to Baltinglass, and ends up in Ballon in southern Carlow. What makes it fun to drive is that it's well-surfaced, there are enough curves to keep you alert and a few straight bits to allow you to keep up your speed. The traffic on it tends to be light, unless you happen to be unlucky. Look to your left as you pass the exit for Hollywood and you'll see a miniature version of the famous sign on the hill above the town. It raises a smile for me every time.
I'm telling you this because I drove the N81 again this week, this time to get to Tullow, the last town you come to before Ballon. I had Sarah Owens for company and we were off to the Riverbank Restaurant, which lived up to its name when we found it, as it overlooked the river.
It's on a corner and has plenty of space for outside tables, although the night we went, indoors was the only choice.
There are two floors, and when we reached the top one we found a full room of people celebrating a 21st birthday. So we found a table downstairs by a window and I said to Sarah, "With all of those people upstairs we may have difficulty getting served". I can tell you now I was wrong. Despite a full house and the kitchen downstairs on full view to us, the service was brisk and professional. Impressive.
There were two menus to choose from, an early bird that offered three courses for €25, and an a la carte. We decided that we would eat from both of them.
Sarah went for the early bird, but with one proviso. If I were to order the filo prawns as a starter from the a la carte and swap that with her starter, she would be happy.
So she ordered the house pate, followed by a steak, and I plumped for the filo prawns, followed by a crabmeat gratin.
For drinks, Sarah decided on a glass of the house Cabernet Sauvignon, priced at €5.95, and I drank sparkling water. It always niggles me when water is only available in quarter bottles. If wine is available in large bottles, why not water? Besides, €2.50 seems to be the normal price for a quarter bottle, so you end up paying €10 for a litre of water, which is simply crazy.
If I could send out a message to the restaurateurs of Ireland it would be this: bread and water should NOT be rationed.
When the starters arrived, they came nicely presented on large white plates. Sarah passed her pate to me, and I passed the prawns to her. There were six good-sized prawns wrapped in filo, served on a bed of dressed salad with a sweet chilli sauce. We swapped again and I found the prawns well-cooked and the sauce very tasty. As for the pate, it came with a small green salad and triangles of toast. It was coarse-grained and was full of flavour, so I found myself spreading it thickly on the toast triangles.
Upstairs, we could could hear the strains of Happy Birthday, so, clearly, their party was in full swing.
Our main courses were brought to the table – the steak for Sarah and the crab for me. Some chips also arrived in a bowl, as did some vegetables and potatoes. When it comes to reviewing steaks there are only two things you can comment on – was it cooked to your liking, and was it tender? The answer to these questions from Sarah was "yes".
My crab-meat gratin was served in a shallow dish, the kind you often find creme brulee in. It was still sizzling from being under the grill and it looked good. As I tucked in I discovered the crab meat was mixed with mushrooms, and rather good mushrooms at that.
The trouble was that being good and flavoursome mushrooms, they completely overpowered the delicate taste of crab.
Try as I might, I wasn't able to get a mouthful that didn't taste of mushrooms. There was nothing wrong with how the dish was cooked, but I do think that the idea of combining the two ingredients did not work very well.
There were a few desserts to choose from, but Sarah decided on the sticky toffee pudding, which sounded just right. Naturally it ended up in the middle of the table and I took a couple of spoonfuls. Now I'm a big fan of sticky toffee pudding and I've eaten a whole lot of them.
If I were to give Tesco's Finest a nine out of 10, then this one would have been a six. Good, but a little overcooked, which meant that it had a dry-mouth feel, only softened a little by the toffee sauce that was dribbled over the top of it.
We finished up with two espressos, which although not too good on crema, were still made with a good coffee. At €2 each, they were a good deal cheaper than in Dublin.
I think, overall, the Riverbank is doing a good job. There are increasingly few standalone restaurants in provincial towns, where hotel dining rooms or pubs are the norm for eating out, which is pretty much how it was 50 year ago.
Restaurants like this deserve support and as far as I could see on the night we visited, there were plenty of people coming in to dine.
Our bill came to a modest €68.45, which I felt was good value for money.