The Boathouse: 'For mains, we tussle over impeccable calamari'
The Boathouse, Dromquinna Manor, Kenmare, Co Kerry. (064) 6642889
I spent my childhood summers in and around Kenmare, where wild salmon weighing more than the Christmas turkey used to appear in the kitchen wrapped in newspaper soaked with fish blood and the whiff of something nefarious. Late night missions, whispered talk of Polaroid sunglasses and of vegetable oil spread out on the surface of the water... I learned, from assiduous eavesdropping, that together they cut through the reflection on the surface.
One local fisherman was so skilled that he could lean over the river bank, slide a hand gently into the water and tickle the fish into submission. Others used the more brutally effective gaff hook. The salmon expeditions were - sadly - an all-male business; my own fishing was confined to hauling in ling and mackerel from the sea on a line strung with hooks, and the occasional brown trout from a mountain stream.
We ate the salmon grilled for breakfast, in sandwiches (with Heinz salad cream and butterhead lettuce) for lunch, and poached for dinner. After the first week, I grew tired of it, and could not understand why the adults thought me ungrateful.
These days, you'll seldom find wild salmon on an Irish restaurant menu, but you can still eat crab and mussels at Helen's Bar (Teddy O'Sullivan's at Kilmackillogue) a few kilometres down the road from Kenmare, near the beautiful gardens at Derreen, as I did when I was 10.
The town of Kenmare has a plethora of restaurants. Old favourites such as Mulcahy's and Packie's are always chock-a-block, and it doesn't bother anyone that their menus change infrequently. The new crop - I hear good reports of Mick and Jimmy's, and of Boka - are designed to appeal to a younger cohort and to families. A few miles outside the town, The Boathouse is co-located within John Brennan-of-The-Park's Dromquinna Manor, a successful wedding venue, where there are also family tents for glamping and three more luxe structures that have a touch of Out of Africa about them.
These are aimed at those who (sort of) like the idea of sleeping under canvas but find it challenging without an en-suite bathroom.
All I really want to eat when on holiday near the sea is good seafood, simply prepared, preferably within sight of the water. It doesn't sound too much to ask, but in Ireland it's harder to find than it should be.
It's one of those typical Irish summer days, dark and stormy clouds one minute and blazing sunshine the next. The indoor space next door to The Boathouse has been set up for a wedding, but the couple wants to get married in the open air. There's frantic consulting of a range of conflicting weather apps and, after consensus that there's a window of half an hour before the rain sets in, a flurry of activity as the chairs are brought up the hill and re-arranged for a ceremony on the lawn.
Inside The Boathouse, there's a fresh Hamptons' look to the décor; outside, simple tables on the terrace overlook a small pier jutting out into Kenmare Bay. There is nothing fancy about the menu, but it's short and reads well. Between four of us, we share two starters and three main courses for a late lunch.
To begin, a generous portion of potted crab mayonnaise in a cute Kilner jar, accompanied by crisp triangles of fried tortilla, and garnishes of pickled cucumber and crisp fried capers that are a nice counterpoint to the sweet fresh crab, a pretty salad topped with pea shoots and edible flowers is attractive. Sautéed crab claws come in a small heavy iron pot with chilli, lime and garlic butter. We'd have liked a few more of them for €13.90 - they are really good - but perhaps that's greedy.
For mains, we tussle over impeccable calamari, its batter light and crisp, with garlic mayonnaise. The fish for the fish and chips is hake; two fine tranches in batter come with pea purée and a piquant remoulade sauce (a nice change from the more customary tartare). The chips are excellent. Fish pie is made with hake and smoked haddock; there's tomato and spinach in there too, all bound up in a creamy sauce made with Gruyère and topped with potato. It's hearty and tasty, exactly as a good fish pie should be.
We're on our holliers, we say, justifying the ordering of a couple of desserts. The apple galette topped with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream is exemplary, the pastry light and crisp, as is a (not very seasonal but still gorgeous) bread and butter pudding topped with drunken prunes and cinnamon ice-cream.
By the time we have finished our lunch, the couple are married, the clouds have disappeared, and the wedding guests are getting into the swing of things on the terrace at the back of the manor. The threatened rain never came. Our bill for four, including a bottle of Chateau des Gillieres 2014 from the Loire that's fresh, lively and perfect with seafood, water, and a soft drink comes to €132.80. Lunch has been simple, and simply lovely.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
Non fish-eaters could enjoy a Boathouse Burger, with Gubbeen smoked bacon, pickled gherkin and tomato salad for €14.90, but it would be a shame not to at least try some of the fish or seafood.
ON A BLOW OUT
Crab claws, followed by fillet steak and brownies for two, would cost €107.40 before drinks or service.
THE HIGH POINT
Benny Scannell is producing simple yet excellent fish and seafood in a stylish casual restaurant overlooking Kenmare Bay.
THE LOW POINT
That there aren't more Boathouses.