Our food critic samples exquisite dishes as part of the Burren hotel’s tasting menu
Gregans Castle has always been a class act, but this summer, returning to stay after a few years, it felt as if it had moved quietly into a new league. The views out over The Burren are as spectacular as ever, the gardens to the front beautifully tended yet unfussy, now laid out with smart garden furniture and comfy deckchairs. At dusk, a member of staff comes out with solar-powered lights for each table — by morning, they have been whisked away.
The hotel itself feels less like a commercial operation than the home of a generous, hospitable friend with exquisite taste, the rooms individually decorated, the beds supremely comfortable, the bathrooms luxurious. Even the reading material provided — interesting American magazines, well-chosen literary fiction — is a cut above.
Gregans is where Mickael Viljanen, now of the two-Michelin-starred Chapter One, cut his Irish teeth. Now, the chef is Robbie McCauley, a Scot who has made his home in Co Clare, where he can shoot, fish and forage to his heart’s content. McCauley is clearly ambitious and his food serious, his ethos in harmony with his surroundings.
During the various lockdowns, Gregans kept its core team of staff, including McCauley and key members of the kitchen team, employed. They turned their hands to painting and decorating and whatever other jobs needed doing, as well as to foraging and preserving — they even tapped birch trees. They got to grips with the hotel’s kitchen garden, which, until then, had supplied the kitchen with little more than a few herbs and leaves. Now, that garden, its abundance a joy to behold in high summer, is fundamental to McCauley’s food. He tells me he gets more excited by his morning visits to see what bounty is ready to bring to the kitchen than by any amount of the gold leaf that appeals to other chefs.
Dinner kicks off with crudites from the garden. Tonight, there are crisp radishes with butter, a classic artichoke vinaigrette, and a simple tomato salad, served alongside good bread made in-house. For the first snack, McCauley submerges a Flaggy Shore oyster from a few miles down the road in dashi and oyster emulsion under a delicate covering of shore herbs, including sea coriander. It’s a stunning, elegant little dish. Next, a venison tartare — the season extended and culling ongoing because of over-population post-lockdown — with beetroot and sorrel, and a simple dish of sweet Doonbeg crab with slivered turnip and apple.
McCauley cures duck liver in-house, serving it with Irish cherries and fresh almonds sent from Burgundy by his mother-in-law, who worries her daughter may be deprived of good French produce in rural Ireland. The combination is exquisite, with the slight sharpness of the fruit and the texture of the almond a perfect contrast to the rich foie gras. He barbecues turbot from the Aran Islands on the bone, serving it with a vivid green vin jaune sauce made from the skirt of the fish, to which he adds caviar, chives and parsley and serves it with a cauliflower purée. There’s roast John Dory with courgettes, peas and tiny artichokes, and Ardrahan duck with carrots and coffee from local roaster Anam, an inspired combination.
Fanore lamb meets the flavours of the Middle East in a dish featuring a tiny cutlet served with dukkah, labneh and preserved lemon, alongside shoulder pressed with pomegranate and date molasses, topped with pomegranate seeds and mint.
Our first dessert is an apricot financier with St Tola goat curd — a sort of cheesecake, if you will — followed by a rather lovely blackcurrant parfait infused with blackcurrant leaves and decorated with a sugared leaf and some excellent petit fours.
This has been an exceptionally good meal. My only criticism is that there are too many courses on the tasting menu and too much food, and that the shorter dinner menu (without the crab, John Dory, lamb and financier on the night of our visit) would have been ample. Either that or smaller portions throughout.
The staff in the restaurant — from France, Greece and the UK — are universally professional and well-trained. Everyone knows that recruitment of good staff is tough these days; it must help that Gregans offers accommodation and meals on site, and that all staff get a share in the 5pc gratuity added to the bills of hotel guests.
Dinner for two, with a bottle of the light red Lucien Aviet et Fils Arbois Caveau de Bacchus Reserve Cuvée des Geologues, 2016, costs €305 before service. Various packages including accommodation and dinner are available.
Dinner is priced at €90pp.
The tasting menu for two, plus cheese, will set you back €260 before wine or service.
Gregans Castle, Ballyvaughan, Co Clare, gregans.ie