Hey Preston! A star is born
Restaurant Review: Preston House, Main Street, Abbeyleis, Co Laois Tel. 057 873 1432
In the course of my lifetime, Ireland has gone from a culinary wasteland to having a vibrant, innovative and value-for-money catering industry. Quite a change in 40 years.
There have been torch-bearers, people who single-handedly managed to change dining and preparation habits, people whose contribution was to nudge the country closer to European standards. Myrtle Allen of Ballymaloe is an obvious candidate if there were an award for doing that, as indeed are the other strong women in the Allen clan.
Because what happened is that other people learned by contact. Chefs worked in Ballymaloe and took what they learned with them as they moved on to other kitchens. In a way, you could think of these seminal kitchens as universities of the culinary arts.
When it comes to haute cuisine, Dublin has the long-established Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud as a landmark. It's Ireland's only two-star Michelin restaurant, and it has set the standards for the past 20 years.
And just like a university, it has been turning out graduates. It's that very movement of chefs that has been slowly bringing better and better food to Irish restaurants.
This week, I found a perfect example of how gastronomic knowledge gets spread throughout the country. I went to Abbeyleix to eat in Preston House. It was Tom Doorley, my one-time partner on 'The Restaurant', who told me about it. "The chef is ex of Guilbaud's and the food is very good, if a little complex" was his verdict.
Sounded good, so I asked my friend and neighbour John Boorman to come with me
When I'm travelling across the country I usually take The Wicklow Gap, into Hollywood, then Kilcullen and thence to my destination. We stopped to take in Hollywood's latest addition – a large outdoor sign high on the hill that reads 'Hollywood' in a miniature version of that sign in the hills above the Californian Hollywood.
We arrived in Abbey-leix and found Preston House easily enough. It's an attractive two-storey house, prettily covered in creeper.
We walked into the hall and saw a comfortably furnished sitting room on the left and the dining room to the right. There are two rooms set up as dining rooms, and we got the last table in the farthest of the two.
It's a largely unspoiled room from the 18th century, with reproduction Victorian tables and chairs, which fitted very well with the overall feel of the room.
Just as you'd expect with a chef who cut his teeth in RPG, the menu read very well. Here's a sample of the starters: scallop salad with a Vietnamese dressing, Serrano ham and lobster mayonnaise; beef cheek and tongue with silver onion and a red-wine sauce; cod tartar with cockles, pomme soufflé, caviar and celery dressing, all between €9.50-€13.
Among the mains were: lamb loin served with pak choi, carrot purée and a lemongrass bouillon; red mullet with cauliflower and a curry foam; a ballotine of lemon sole with prawns, tomato, Champagne sabayon and gnocchi, all priced between €22.50 and €24.
The wine list is a much simpler affair, although it's due for a major upgrade soon. For the moment it's fairly basic, but it is well priced. There's plenty of choice in the €20-€30 range. John had a glass of a decent French Merlot, which was charged at €5.40.
We started with the beef cheek and tongue for me and sweetbreads for John. Both of these dishes came very well presented on the plate and both of them turned out to be delicious: the sweetbreads crumbed and shallow fried and served with a salad of caramelised apple dressed with balsamic vinegar. The beef had been slow-cooked sous vide, and was as tender as beef can be.
This and very good breads made a great start to our meal.
The main courses didn't quite hit the same level. John had chosen the loin of lamb, which had also been cooked sous vide. For reasons unknown to me, it was tough, surprising as it's usually a tender cut. I had the same problem with my dish, wood pigeon, but that was less of a surprise. Wild birds such as pigeon are extremely hard to cook and getting pigeon to the table as tender meat is an art in itself.
Despite the rather tough meats, both of us enjoyed everything else on our plates, which showed great skill and a lot of imagination. A pedant might have said that perhaps there were too many flavours on the plates, but I'll just say I was happy to eat it all.
We shared a dessert – the apple three ways – which was excellent, and we finished up with a couple of espressos each, which brought our bill to €84.
This wasn't a faultless meal, but we left the restaurant happy because so much of what had come to the table had been excellent. There's no doubt that Preston House has a fine kitchen, good service and a very pleasing dining room. With the new road, Abbeyleix is no longer a trek, so I'll borrow a line from the Michelin Guide: Preston House is worth a detour.
On a budget
There's a short set menu with a choice of two starters, two main courses and two desserts, which doubles as a lunch menu and an early bird. Two courses cost €21.50; three cost €25.
On a blowout
The obvious choice is the tasting menu. It's a seven-course meal at €60pp. If you want to spend more, add the matching wines and you can spend €80pp.
The imaginative flavour combinations.
The tough meats.