Back in the day, the Portmarnock Hotel and Country Club was the height of glamour, co-owned by Eamon Andrews and Tony O'Reilly, and proper northside posh.
The late Terry Wogan held his wedding reception there on April 24, 1965, after his marriage to Helen Joyce in Our Lady of Refuge, Rathmines. At the time, Wogan was the compere on Jackpot, a weekly general knowledge quiz on Teilifis Éireann. He was also presenting a Radio Éireann programme Terry Awhile. The RTÉ archives record that the ceremony was performed by Reverend P. Fagan and assisted by Reverend E. Vesey. Mrs W. Burrowes was matron of honour and Miriam Joyce and Maida Cooney were bridesmaids. The best man was Brian Wogan, and Martin Joyce and Brendan Mercy were groomsmen. Well-wishers gathered outside the church on the wet Saturday to catch a glimpse of the newly weds. After the reception in Portmarnock - sadly, the archives do not record what was on the menu - the couple spent their honeymoon in Torremolinos, Spain.
Long before its reincarnation as a 1960s country club, the hotel and the land on which it stands formed part of the St Marnock's estate, the summer home of the Jameson whiskey family, where they had their own private nine-hole golf course. This is now partly subsumed into the hotel's Bernhard Langer-designed 18-hole links course, not to be confused with the neighbouring Portmarnock Golf Club, which is famous for being a club that does not admit women to full membership, a policy which reportedly means that it is out of the running for consideration as a host venue for certain international golfing events.
King Edward VII often visited the Jamesons at their beachside home and on his last official visit to Ireland in 1907, he unveiled a plaque which was designed especially to celebrate the marriage between members of two great distilling families, Jameson and Haig, back in 1788. The plaque stands in the Secret South Garden of the hotel grounds and its design is replicated on the lapel badges worn by the hotel's staff.
These days, the Portmarnock Hotel and Golf Links has new owners, Kennedy Wilson, the international property investment company. Thankfully, according to staff, they have not been backward in coming forward in terms of spending money to upgrade the hotel and its facilities, digging deep to transform it beyond recognition. The swirly carpets and tacky décor are gone, replaced with a contemporary palette of Hamptons-esque pastels well suited to the seaside location.
And the refurbishment is not confined to the décor. A new broom has swept through the kitchen too and Tipperary man Tom Walsh, who trained at Dromoland and previously worked at Aqua, and the short-lived but much-admired Samphire at Waterside in Donabate, is now in charge.
There is also a new front-of-house team in 1780, the hotel's fine-dining restaurant, led by Derek Yu, who will be a familiar face from Chapter One. So it seems as if Portmarnock is getting serious about its food offering, which is a good thing considering the paucity of interesting restaurant choices in the area.
We visited for dinner on a Saturday night in mid-January, and our fellow diners included a large family group celebrating a significant birthday, and a few smaller tables of twos and fours.
There's a set dinner menu with six choices for each of the three courses and, this being fine-but-not-stuffy-dining, a few little extra bits and pieces along the way. The first of these were a little cup of velvety celeriac and truffle soup, and a briny oyster submerged, bubble bath-style, under a blanket of Asian-accented foam and spiked with a good kick of chilli. We were off to a good start.
A poached boudin of guinea fowl with shiitake mushrooms, served with pan-fried foie gras in a classic brown Perigourdine sauce flavoured with Madeira and truffles was luxurious and rich - and please don't send me any more e-mails about foie gras. (Yes, I mean you. Yes, I know.) Beef tartare, flavoured with anchovy and topped with a confit yolk and a tangle of celeriac crisps and micro leaves was marred only by a mouth-puckeringly salty pickled carrot that someone must have forgotten to rinse properly.
Tender, juicy venison cooked sous-vide came with a classic mole chocolate sauce painted with a flourish across the plate, accompanied by potato galette, caramelised fig and cep mushrooms - a combination of ingredients in harmony with one another. In contrast, the flavours of John Dory with cauliflower, squid ink gel, samphire, baby leeks and chicory were less assertive, yet still assured.
For dessert, a shared fig tarte Tatin of simple perfection, with vanilla ice-cream, and a fine selection of Irish cheeses, including Young Buck, St Tola Ash, and Hegarty's, all in good condition. We drank a Cantina Zaccagnini Montepulciano - aka 'Twiggy', the one with the twig tied around the neck - that worked well with the venison. Our bill for two, with a bottle of water, came to €130 before service.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
There's an early bird offer priced at €23.50 for two courses and €27.50 for three available each evening from Wednesday to Saturday from 5.30pm to 6.45pm. Elsewhere in the hotel the Seaview - yes, it does have great views - has a more casual offering.
ON A BLOW OUT
Dinner in The 1780 is €42 per head, after that it's down to the wine.
THE HIGH POINT
Assured modern cooking from Tom Walsh bringing new life to the Portmarnock Hotel.
THE LOW POINT
A wine list that could do with more variety.