Eating out: Paolo Tullio at Ard na Sidhe
"The cured salmon that came as a starter was probably the best I've ever eaten..."
I was down in Kerry this week, a trip I always enjoy. Curiously, Kerry was the very last county that I got to visit in Ireland, but it seems that having once made the journey, I couldn't stay away. For the past few years I've been there at least once a year.
This week, I was back on the shores of Caragh Lake, not far from Killorglin. I say 'back' because some years ago I stayed in Carrick House, which is also on the shore of the lake.
This time I was dining and staying in Ard na Sidhe, which I'm told means Fairy Hill. It's a small hotel of just 18 rooms, in what was built as a family home for a Lady Gordon in 1913. It's often described as Elizabethan in style, but to my eyes it's built and furnished in the Arts and Crafts style, the only house I've seen in Ireland of that architectural form.
I got there about six in the evening, which gave me time to see the rather beautiful gardens that surround the house, terraced on the slopes going down to the lake shore.
Inside there's some very attractive pieces of furniture, which fill two lounges, both with views of the lake. Open fires made the rooms welcoming and one credenza was filled with various bottles of alcohol, which was the bar.
Like the rest of the house, the dining room is furnished in the same Arts and Crafts style – even the crockery by Royal Worcester is specially designed for Ard na Sidhe.
The first thing that struck me as I looked down the menu is that the dinner is priced pretty much as most restaurants are – main courses ran from €20 to €28. Even the wine list, which in hotels often tend to carry a much higher mark-up than restaurants do, was reasonably priced.
It's also a long list, carrying wines from most of the wine-producing countries. I chose a glass of Maconnais, Chateau de Peronne, to go with my starter and then a glass of Gascon Merlot for my main course. These were €7.50 and €7 respectively.
There were five starters to choose from: a soup, a goats' cheese and rocket salad, a crab souffle, a ham hock terrine and a salad of mixed leaves, roast tomatoes and Gorgonzola with poached pear.
I thought I'd choose the dish that looked the most difficult, just to see how well the chef could do, and picked the crab souffle.
There were also five main courses: corn fed chicken, daube of beef, poached hake, pan-fried monkfish and risotto fritters. But there was a daily special as well, a trio of Kerry lamb, so that seemed like the right choice, given my whereabouts.
Before the starter came a bowl of breads arrived. Five different breads, and all made in the kitchen. I could easily have eaten the entire bowl, but thankfully my starter arrived in time to stop me.
The souffle was of the twice baked variety and was a tour de force. It had a hazelnut crust and was surrounded with a bisque made of shellfish and tomato. It held its shape perfectly until I cut into it, revealing a feather-light interior that seemed to hold essence of crab. So often crab dishes taste faintly of crab, but this one was crabby to the last bite.
The lamb dish came next and it too was very well done – slow-cooked neck, eye of the loin and a couple of cutlets all perfectly cooked. A small side dish of spring vegetables completed the dish.
With that finished, I turned to the dessert menu. There were five to choose from: a chocolate fondant, a selection of home-made yoghurt ice-creams, coffee creme brulee, a raspberry meringue roulade and selection of cheeses. I may be predictable here, but when I see chocolate fondant, I tend to order it.
By now the dining room was filling up with guests, which might explain what happened to my dessert.
I'll admit that what I most like about a fondant is the run-ny, gooey middle. I'd guess mine had spent just a minute or two too long in the oven, as it was cooked all the way through and had no runny middle. It was tasty, but I did miss the gooey bit.
Next morning, after a light breakfast, I went out on the lake with gillie Pat Foley to see what we could catch for lunch. I'd arranged to meet up at lunchtime with my daughter Isabella and her husband Simon, who were staying in Kerry. The idea was we would eat whatever was in the catch.
Sadly, although I hooked a couple of small trout, they weren't big enough to keep, which meant lunch was made of whatever fish the kitchen already had.
I've got just enough space to tell you that the cured salmon that came as a starter was probably the best I've ever eaten. Curing salmon (gravadlax) is as simple as sprinkling fresh salmon with salt and sugar and a little dill weed. I've done it many times, but never have I made it with so perfectly balanced flavours as it was here. Truly superb.
My dinner came to €66, which I thought was good value given my plush surroundings.
On a budget
You can stay in the Ard na Sidhe, have dinner and breakfast for €140 per person sharing. Check out their website, ardnasidhe.com
On a blowout
This is one occasion when I'd use the wine list for a blowout. A few caught my eye: a Pinot Gris reserve from Trimbach at €49, a Vernaccia from Teruzzi e Puthod for €58 and a Château Christoly cru bourgeois for €49
No doubt, the amazing crab soufflé. A real winner of a dish
Not finding that lovely gooey centre in my fondant. Only a minute or two too long in the oven makes the difference
9/10 value for money
Ard na Sidhe: Caragh Lake, Killorglin, Co Kerry - Tel: 066 976 9105
Whispers from the Gastronomicon
I hear that the K Club has just launched a new Thai Restaurant called K Thai. It's located on the first floor of the Smurfit Clubhouse and offers authentic Thai food. The head chef is Thai Luong while the front of house manageress is Michelle Ong, who together have over 33 years' experience in Thai food.
Elsewhere, new figures from Supervalu show Ireland's love affair with wine continues. Consumption has quadrupled to 17 litres per person per year since 2000. Australia are the world's biggest wine drinkers with 22pc of sales.