Paolo Tullio: Dining in the lap of luxury
The very first restaurant review that I wrote was in the mid-1990s for the first issue of 'Food & Wine Magazine'. It was a review of The Byerley Turk, the gourmet restaurant of The K Club in Kildare.
I've been back there on and off in the intervening years, but never for a review. Depending on your view of these things, there are many things that can be said about five-star hotels, but one thing is undeniable about The K Club: it's stunningly beautiful both inside and out.
The kernel of The K Club Hotel is Straffan House, once the seat of the Barton family, the same Bartons of Bordeaux who gave you Barton & Guestier wines as well as Leoville Barton and Langoa Barton.
It was a day designed to make a girl happy. I drove Marian Kenny to the Kildare Village. While Marian explored the various outlets and bought all manner of things, I had a leisurely coffee before taking in the exhibition of Christopher Simon Sykes's photographs of the Rolling Stones' tour of America in 1975. We finally met up for another coffee before we set off for The K Club.
When we arrived, Marian went off to have a massage in the spa while I had a thoroughly enjoyable time getting a conducted tour of the cellars. The sommelier, Lisa O'Doherty, is both knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and we talked endlessly of wine as we explored the cellars. There were great first-growth clarets going back to the 1920s, wonderful Burgundies from Domaine Romanée-Conti, rarities from Australia and elderly ports. Obviously the Barton wines figured largely, as did Château Pétrus, the favourite wine of The K Club president Dr Michael Smurfit.
There were bargains to be had too, for example Château La Lagune 1966 was listed at €150, not much above the off-licence price. If money were no object, the 1928 Château Beychevelle for €325 would be a joy to drink.
When Marian came back from her massage she was positively glowing. It seems that the masseuse had managed to soothe all the knots and twists in Marian's neck muscles. "It was without doubt the best massage I've ever had," was her judgement.
So it was time for dinner. The Byerley Turk restaurant opens only occasionally during the winter months, so we dined in the River Room, a beautifully proportioned room with huge windows overlooking the formal gardens and River Liffey. Large linen-covered tables, good-quality glassware and cutlery plus big, comfortable chairs made it clear that we were in the lap of luxury.
There were two menus: an à la carte and a set menu, which was priced at €55 per person. I gallantly suggested that Marian should dine from the à la carte and I'd eat from the set menu.
Since I had already discovered that Lisa the sommelier knew her stuff, I left the choice of wine to her. She took our order -- a wild mushroom millefeuille followed by slow-cooked lamb shoulder for Marian and marbled foie-gras parfait followed by smoked cod with a mousseline sauce for me -- then picked out an old vines 2008 Pouilly-Fuissé from Pierre Vessigaud for us, listed at €56.
She told us it was the wine she'd chosen for her wedding, and I have to admit it was an excellent choice, tasting more like a fine white from the Côte d'Or than a Mâconnais.
The starters were good. Marian's wild mushrooms were exactly that -- a mix of girolles, chanterelles and ceps done in a white wine and cream sauce. The millefeuille pastry was a little overcooked, but the dish worked. My parfait was both pretty to look at and very tasty, served with a slice of warm brioche and a red-onion compote.
And so to the main courses. Slow-cooked shoulder of lamb is a personal favourite and the lamb on Marian's plate was cooked to perfection. It was so tender that it almost needed no knife. If you like leg of lamb, you should try the shoulder. It does need a long, slow cook, but it has a great deal more flavour, and there's a further plus -- it costs less. It came with a hummus purée and confit baby aubergines, which complemented the dish well.
I had a fine piece of smoked cod and couldn't resist telling Marian that it was "the piece of cod that passeth all understanding". The mousseline sauce covered it, the whole dish was topped by a poached egg and wilted spinach was on the side. We'd also ordered a side dish of homemade chips, which were really good -- crispy and golden outside and soft and fluffy inside.
We decided against dessert because there was still wine in the bottle, and we thought it would go better with cheese. We shared the cheese plate that was part of my set dinner. It's worth noting that as the wine warmed slowly it really began to open out, an effect that doesn't happen with lesser whites.
A huge cheese trolley was wheeled to the table stacked with fine examples of Irish cheeses, something that would have been impossible 20 years ago. We followed this with a tea for Marian and an espresso for me. Our bill came to €173.50.
You could eat as well as we did and spend a lot less, but there was more to this meal than the food. The room was elegant, the service was exceptional, the view was beautiful, but more than that, from the moment we arrived in the car park and were warmly welcomed by their superb concierge Pat Duffy, every- one we came in contact with was professional, courteous and brimming with old-fashioned hospitality.
For some pampering on a special occasion, a night at The K Club is hard to beat.