Eating out: Back on Old Ground
Back on old ground
It's been a good few years since I was in Co Clare – could be as many as 30. The last time I went I was big into scuba diving and it was the pollock holes of Kilkee that prompted the visit. I remember that I managed to spear a good-sized pollock, which we took to the chipper and persuaded them to fillet and batter. Then we ate it with chips. It's as true now as it was then – there's nothing as good as fish straight from the sea.
What got me back to Clare was news from The Old Ground, a long-established hotel in Ennis that's making a name for its good food. A few years ago I'd have thought long and hard about making a drive to Ennis, but these days the trip's a doddle.
I picked up Marian from Dalkey and once we'd hit the M50 it was motorway all the way. Where once you might have put aside a day to get to Ennis from Dublin, now you can allow two-and-a-half hours.
The Old Ground has been a hotel since the 1800s and it has grown in a kind of organic way, by which I mean it's one of those buildings with all kinds of interesting nooks and crannies and endless corridors and staircases.
You need a good sense of direction as you go through the various corridors to find your room, which in truth I found quite charming.
The oldest part of the complex was once the town gaol and in this part you can find a huge function room and a fireplace dating from the 1500s. Underneath this room at ground level is the dining room, called The Town Hall, which once upon a time it was.
You can get to it either through the hotel or directly from O'Connell Street, on to which the front door opens.
I'll admit that like many people I do have my own prejudices. For one, I don't expect provincial hotels to do much by way of gastronomy. In my experience you tend to get cooking that was fashionable 10 years ago, walls that smell of boiled cabbage and over-familiar staff. So my expectations were not high.
We got a table by the window and were able to watch the endless procession of cars sporting the Clare flag and still celebrating the hurling win by blowing their horns. "Will that celebration go on much longer?" I asked our waitress. "Oh yes, indeed, for months maybe," came the reply.
Inside the restaurant was very busy, but despite this, the service was quick and efficient. Reading the menu was a surprise. If it wasn't for the local ingredients, this could have been a menu from any bistro in Europe. Far from being provincial, this was a very modern and very international menu, created, I guessed, by chefs who had done a lot of travelling. It turns out my guess was right. The chefs, I was told, had indeed travelled widely.
Here's a few of the dishes to give you a flavour of what was on offer: pan seared scallops with a cauliflower and bayleaf sauce, Clonakilty black pudding and scallion purée; a crab plate with crabcake on coconut aioli, crabmeat paté on sourdough croute and grilled crab claws with lime and dill mayonnaise; coconut crusted tempura prawns with soy, ginger, chilli and pickled vegetables.
These were starters, and only the scallops broke the €10 barrier by 50c. All of the others were around €8, which certainly looked like good value.
It was much the same with the main courses – they were not the usual fare. I liked the look of the herb crusted loin of Clare lamb with a chargrilled cutlet, rosti potato, ratatouille and port, juniper and redcurrant jus, or the grilled halibut with a Portobello mushroom stuffed with crabmeat, tomato and lemon beurre blanc, and a pancetta crisp.
In fact, all of the dishes could easily have been my choice, something that doesn't happen to me that often.
Marian began with St Tola goats' cheese parcels, followed with lamb for her main course. I started with the Clonakilty black pudding, followed by the halibut.
The wine list was a simple affair, nothing fancy. Reasonably priced, the majority of the list was between €23 and €32. I spotted just one bargain, the Albarino, which at €25 is much less than you'd normally pay. We had a glass of white wine each, a pleasant dry white from the Veneto, made by Masi.
When the starters arrived we were both impressed by the presentation.
Marian's cheese parcels were served on a slate – the three of them with a small dressed salad and a Parmesan crisp. My boudin of Clonakilty black pudding was also served on a slate and was topped with a crispy hen's egg.
That's a neat trick to pull off – a lightly poached egg is crumbed and deep-fried so it's crispy, but as soon as you cut into it, the runny yolk bursts all over the underlying black pudding. Delicious.
The main courses were equally well presented. Marian's lamb came on a tear-drop shaped plate, with the loin, the grilled chop and a roasted tomato with a sprig of rosemary stuck in it. My halibut came on a plain white plate, topped with a slice of crispy pancetta with the Portobello mushroom atop that and the crabmeat atop that. The vegetables came separately and Dauphinoise potatoes, broccoli, baton carrots and cauliflower were all done well.
With standards so high, we had to have desserts, so Marian picked the marbled raspberry cheesecake and raspberry sorbet, while I ordered the sticky fudge and pecan parfait. Both were very good, but the raspberry sorbet was truly extraordinary.
All in all this was a meal that delivered far more than I would have expected, both in terms of skill in preparation and in presentation. We ended up with a bill for €93.55, but it would have been good value even had it cost more.