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Paolo Tullio: A taste of the north


There's something about Donegal that always makes me enjoy a visit. It's a mixture of the friendliness of the people and its extraordinary landscape that makes a trip there such a joy. I was back again this week for a couple of days doing cookery demonstrations and signing for my new Italian cookery book.

I was travelling with Toni Wall and we hit Cavan on the way at about lunchtime. We were outside the Cavan Crystal Hotel and saw a sign saying Opus One Restaurant, so we turned into the car park and went for lunch.

The restaurant is upstairs and it's a good deal longer than it is wide, so many of the tables have a view from one side that's made up of windows. There was a simple lunch menu and the main courses were all just over €10, which seemed very reasonable.

Toni ordered the Thai chicken and I ordered the roast beef. A bottle of complementary cold water was brought to the table, but sparkling water was only available from the bar downstairs.

Our dishes arrived and, although they turned out to be tasty enough, the presentation could be described at best as clumsy. Toni had what appeared to be half a small chicken on her plate that looked as though it had been sitting in the Thai curry sauce for a while, looking pale and anaemic. I had three overlapping slices of roast beef on my plate with a splash of pepper sauce on them and nothing else at all to garnish it. We had a small dish of vegetables to share, including French beans and mangetout that had been boiled and then plated. No attempt had been made to do anything else with them. Another dish of dry mashed potato com-pleted the offering.

Whereas it's true that it didn't cost very much, it wouldn't have needed much extra care to have improved these dishes a lot. The beef was good, the chicken dish quite flavoursome, but the dishes were let down by poor presentation and not enough attention to detail.

I had a rather thin espresso and then it was back on the road heading for Laghey, after which we met up with friends Jeroan and Sinead McGowan and went to dinner in Donegal town.

Sinead was keen for me to try La Bella Donna, an Italian restaurant just off The Diamond in the town centre. Inside, it had the look of an Italian trattoria of the 1980s; it was warm and comfortable and the welcome was friendly.

The first thing I looked at was the wine list, a decent list with some fairly priced Italian wines, from which I picked a wine from the Campania, a Greco di Tufo at €27. The menu was the usual mix of Italian dishes and dishes designed with the Irish palate in mind. It's been a long-time rant of mine that Italian restaurants very rarely cook authentic Italian dishes, but I do understand that there is customer resistance and restaurants have to satisfy their customers if they want to stay in business. You can find an intelligent discussion on this on the website www. ItalianFoodies.blog.com, where I saw a really good idea. What restaurants could do is put a symbol against dishes that are authentic; that way customers would know if what they ordered was the real thing or not.

That's an idea I'd love to promote, because it would satisfy purists like me, it would be informative and it would allow Italian restaurants to construct a menu that pleases the Irish palate as well as giving them a chance to cook real Italian dishes. It's an idea that deserves to be adopted by any restaurant claiming to serve Italian food.

Anyway, back to La Bella Donna. We had a mix of dishes between us, some Italian and some not. I particularly like the aubergine parmigiana, which was my starter, and the medallions of beef fillet served with a pepper sauce, which was Sinead's main course.

I also had a pasta dish of seafood, which was decent enough but not memorable. On balance, I liked the food on offer in La Bella Donna, but I felt they did rather better with the non-Italian dishes than the Italian ones.

We ended the evening right next door in The Reel Inn, which sits alongside the banks of the River Eske. It's a pub where traditional music is played most nights, the owner John McMenamin being an accordion player. A warming open fire blazed, and we listened entranced to a capella singing.

The next day, Toni and I decided that a shopping spree was what we needed, so it was off to Letterkenny's new shopping centre for some serious retail therapy. Last time I was in Letterkenny, the Radisson Hotel was surrounded by a building site; now it's surrounded by a shopping centre.

After a couple of hours of shopping it was time for a bite to eat, so we tried the Bread & Butter Café, which was close to TK Maxx.

We didn't have high expectations when we sat down in a booth, but the service was excellent and, as it turned out, the food was well made. Toni wanted a light snack, so she ordered the homemade vegetable soup, which came with homemade bread, while I went for a simple dish of fish and chips.

For simple café fare, I thought it was well done. Toni's soup was well made, nicely presented and the bread was good, while my fish and chips were excellent, the batter on the cod crisp and dry, and the chips managed to be golden, crispy and soft inside. That's exactly how I think chips should be made, but it's surprising how rarely they arrive like that. A small ramekin of tasty tartar sauce accompanied the dish.

A shared dessert of Malteser cheesecake and a pretty good espresso finished the meal, which left us both contented.

After visiting Stranorlar, it was back to Donegal town and the Mill Park Hotel, where we were staying. We had a light supper in the bar, which was pretty good and so the Donegal idyll came to an end.

Weekend Magazine