If you've been watching any episodes of The Restaurant on the telly over the past few years, you've been watching repeats.
t's been three years since we made any new programmes, but as of last week, we've just finished filming the tenth series. There's a difference this time though, instead of making the series for RTÉ, we've made it for TV3. So to borrow a Newstalk line, if you want to watch the new series early next year, you'll have to move the dial.
As usual, we did the filming in the very beautiful Wineport Lodge, in Glasson, just outside Athlone. That gave me the opportunity to try a couple of lunches in Athlone. My first port of call was Thyme Restaurant, which isn't normally open for lunch, just dinner, but does do lunch in the run-up to Christmas and on Sundays.
There were three of us: Norma who runs the Wineport; Oisín who now heads up the kitchen; and me. Thyme is very central, just off Church Street, taking up a corner building on Strand Street and Bridge Street. According to Norma and Oisín, who being of both the business and the area, ought to know, Thyme is the best that Athlone has to offer. Certainly, inside is quite smart; upholstered chairs, decent-sized tables, good glassware and some gilt mirrors on the pastel-shaded walls.
The lunch menu offered two courses for €22 and three for €26 and it read well. Six starters, five main courses and five desserts made for plenty of choice.
Here's a flavour of what was on the menu - whipped goats cheese; salt beef; ham hock with crispy hen's egg; terrine of duck leg; and smoked haddock were the starters. Then feather-blade of beef; roasted duck breast; free-range pork belly; fillet of hake and chicken done three ways.
None of us were drinking, so we just had jugs of iced water. From the menu we started with a goats cheese, a ham hock and a duck-leg terrine. It's worth telling you how these were described on the menu. Whipped Fivemiletown goats cheese, filo pastry, beetroot and hazelnut was the first.
The second was honey-and-mustard glazed Horan's ham hock, celeriac velouté, chorizo oil and crispy hen's egg and the third was terrine of confit Silver Hill duck leg, chestnut purée, pomegranate and honey oat bread. They're fairly complete descriptions and in my experience descriptions like this tend to go one of two ways: either they fail totally to match the descriptions or they surpass them.
As soon as our starters arrived I knew which way it was going here. The starter plates were really well presented and the food on the plates was exactly as described. These weren't good dishes by provincial standards, these were good dishes by national standards and in terms of presentation, well above national standards. Quite frankly, I was surprised at the quality. Every single item on the plates was well done, and these, as you can see from the full descriptions, were plates with a lot of work on them.
The skill was in plain evidence for the main courses as well, between us we ordered the slow-cooked feather-blade of beef, the chicken done three ways and pan-roasted hake. The beef was cooked to the point where you could have cut it with a spoon, and it came with carrot and parsnip (totally seasonal), a beautifully smooth mash with tangy horseradish and cavolo nero - or Italian black cabbage. Watch out for this last ingredient in 2015, it's becoming increasingly common on menus.
The chicken was described as Friendly Farmer Chicken, which is Ronan Byrne's pasture-raised chicken from Athenry. If we need a new label for chicken, this is the one we need - pasture-raised. The bird lives like it should, outside where it can scratch and peck. A huge improvement on battery birds. Anyway, the legs had been roasted and turned into beignets, or fritters, the thighs had been confit and breast was pan-roasted. That came with smoked potato, chestnut mushrooms poached in butter and purple broccoli.
Lastly, the hake from Kilmore Quay was pan-roasted and came with a ragout of cannellini beans and chorizo, aubergine purée and basil-and-garlic mayonnaise. Like the starters, all three of our main courses were well thought-out dishes and well-executed.
Obviously with food like this we just had to eat desserts. A chocolate fondant, a vanilla panna cotta and carrot cake came to the table and we tucked in, not hungry, but lupine in our ravenous scoffing. A superb lunch that brought a bill of €78 for the three of us.
Another day Tom Doorley, his wife Johann and I had a light lunch in the Corner House Bistro, just round the corner from Thyme. It's a warm, friendly place with big comfy sofas in front of the coffee machine where we saw young mothers and babies taking a rest from Christmas shopping. The food was a little uneven, but it was very well priced with main courses in the low teens. I suspect that if you were to go a couple of times, you'd soon learn which dishes to order and which to avoid.
On a budget
Sunday lunch is à la carte, but the prices are very reasonable. Starters around €6, main courses around €15 and desserts €5.95.
On a blowout
The à la carte dinner menu lets you spend around a tenner for your starters, with mains running from €22 to €26.
The high point
The finish of the plates and the choice of accompaniments was what most impressed me.
The low point
Hard to find a low point here, but I’ll go with a very average espresso, the only thing that didn’t wow me.
Thyme, Custume Place, Athlone, Tel. 090 647 8850
value for money 8/10