Restaraunt review: 'Serious talent at work in Midlands but key ingredients should be allowed to shine'
Nine Arches, Main Street, Ballymahon, Co Longford.
Facebook: NineArchesBallymahon. (090) 645 2895
Chef Daniel Skukalek is the owner, with his partner, Lorna Halligan, of the Nine Arches restaurant in Ballymahon.
The day before we drove from Dublin to Ballymahon for dinner, Daniel - a keen fisherman - posted a photo on Instagram of a fine-looking wild brown trout that he'd just caught. I was hoping that it would feature on the night's menu as a fish special but was out of luck - I can't remember the last time that I saw non-farmed trout on an Irish menu.
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Despite this minor disappointment, we ate well in this handsome Longford town on the Royal Canal. Is it patronising to say unexpectedly well? I suppose that it is. Restaurateurs outside our main cities don't have it easy, that's for sure, and the path of least resistance - the beetroot and goat's cheese salads, the pimped up burgers etc - must be tempting.
At Nine Arches, the early bird menu is concise but a whole lot more interesting than the norm. Most of our fellow customers appear to be eating from this, but few are drinking, which brings the economic realities of running a restaurant in a country town into sharp focus. Margins on food are slim.
Skukalek used to work in Gary O'Hanlon's kitchen at Restaurant VM at Viewmount House near Longford Town and it was O'Hanlon (who did plenty to put Longford on the culinary map during his time there) who urged me to visit, telling me that Skukalek is "next level talented".
Things get off to a good start with house-made sourdough that is light yet has an impeccably chewy crust, served with cultured butter and a tiny ramekin of wild garlic pesto. So far, so very good. Rose veal tortellini - two of them, plump, clearly hand-made - are positioned on a slick of parsnip purée, with tiny cubes of pickled squash to one side, and topped with a Parmesan and chestnut crumble. There are dark green leaves that I can't identify, and a slick of dark jus. The tortellini are intensely flavoursome, but I wonder if they need every one of the other elements on the plate. Similarly, the braised beef cheek - beautifully tender, full of flavour - comes with raisin chilli chocolate jam, truffle powder, onion horseradish cream, herb salsa and crisp shallots, and something that looks like a darker, thinner version of a Cheerio loop that doesn't bring anything much to the party. (Now that I think about it, perhaps that was the crisp shallot? Hard to tell.) That's a whole lot of action in one dish.
The steak is a fine piece of John Stone 30-day aged sirloin; it comes with tasty cheddar, marjoram and poppy seed croquettes and a pickled 'slaw that's heavy on the red pepper; the accompanying 'Devil' sauce is a vadouvan-infused garlic butter. Rump of lamb works well with watercress purée, fried cauliflower and bagna cauda, for me the Morello cherries are de trop.
We share a dessert of chocolate pavé -obviously the signature dessert here as it's available to order; a whole one will set you back €65 which seems like a bargain when you taste it. God, this is good - a slender slice of the dense chocolate with coffee ice-cream, black pepper crumble, caramel popcorn and sea salt chocolate tuille is plenty for the two of us. And by way of a kitchen gift, a miniature portion of the raspberry parfait with coconut pudding, fudge, dehydrated milk, fresh raspberries and a dinky little cinnamon doughnut is delightful.
I'm reminded of that piece of sartorial advice from Coco Chanel - before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off. The same applies here. There's no doubting that there is serious talent at work here, but I'd liked to see the food stripped back a little so that the key ingredients can shine. (I'll make an exception for that pavé, which can stay just the way it is.)
The Paddy Borthwick Paper Road pinot noir from New Zealand (€34.90) comes in a handy screw top bottle so we are able to bring most of it home. With water, a soft drink and coffee our bill comes to €133.70 before service.
ON A BUDGET
The early bird menu is €29/€34 for two/three courses.
ON A BLOW OUT
Choose the veal tortellini, steak and chocolate pavé, and you're looking at a bill for two of €100 before drinks or service.
THE HIGH POINT
Skilled cooking and delightful service.
THE LOW POINT
The 'seasonal' vegetables that accompany the main courses aren't up to scratch.