'I'm holding out for two nights and if I don't get them, then I'll take one night," said the man on the other end of the phone at Gregans Castle, Co Clare, as I tried to book a double room with dinner for the recent bank holiday Saturday night.
There was no indication of this two-night minimum stay on their website, so I said, "Well, I guess if I proceed with this internet booking for one night . . ." "If it takes it then . . ." he replied, not, however, adding that theirs is more of a reservation-request system than a full booking system. I duly submitted my request and received an automated reply, indicating they had received the email. Two hours later, with no reply, I called up again, and spoke to a lady and then to a different man -- no sign of my booking request, blah, blah. However, this very nice chap said, "Sure, it would be easier if I just took the booking from you now over the phone. It will be €350 bed and breakfast for the room." With my eyes watering at the thought of that in this day and age, I said, "That's not what I saw on the internet -- is there not a dinner, bed and breakfast rate?" There was, at €425 for two people and, as dinner starts at €69 per person, with tasting menus at €75 and €85, there was obviously a sizeable saving. I then received a long confirmation advising, inter alia, that seven days' notice is required in writing for cancellations. Hello, this is 2011 -- and I don't want to buy the place!
Gregans Castle is a long-standing country house hotel, owned by the Haden family outside Ballyvaughan. The chef, Mickael Viljanen, has been making waves on the foodie scene, sweeping the boards at the Santa Rita/ LIFE Magazine Irish Restaurant Awards in 2011: Gregan's Castle won Best Chef, Best Hotel Restaurant, Best Service . . .
The interior decor is beautiful, with lovely fabrics and modern country-house tweaks, but there are elements you don't expect when paying top dollar. Our ensuite bathroom door had no catch, so you had to prop a chair behind it if you wanted to close it, otherwise it swung open, and next morning the shower only threw out cold water, not to mention the unannounced chambermaid, bearing towels, who charged into the room without knocking.
There aren't any televisions in the bedrooms -- as on a previous visit some years ago. I like the option to be able to switch off or be entertained as there is nothing else to do here, only look at the view or drink. With the next generation running the hotel since that visit, I thought things might have changed. However, Brendan was bitterly disappointed to find he couldn't watch the Irish Open golf, as there isn't even one TV in the place. "If I want to go on a retreat, I will go to a monastery," he said. I could understand the bedroom-TV thing as, where we were located in the original house, you could hear every sound on either side of us.
Viljanen's food itself did not disappoint. It is all about use of colour and detail. An amuse bouche with four elements in a 'chorus line' had a marinated scallop with avocado, alongside an amber cube of jelly derived from baked potato skin, while mini piped beetroot meringue kissed together with an eel puree, which sat beside a little pork cheek croquette. My starter per se, a deliciously glazed sweetbread, was like an orchestra conductor surrounded by a symphony of the vegetable du jour: beetroot. In every shape and form, the humble beetroot was roasted with marjoram, 'burnt' with a crispy topping, whisked into a mousse, and dehydrated to a decorative sheet, the deep purple broken by three little 'rocket tops' of coral lobster with lemon foam, and prune dots. A foie gras presentation for Brendan was sublime, too, its naturally sombre colouring lifted by the use of fresh green, white and orange. The long, slim tranche of foie gras topped with a green gelatin, was tweaked all around with elements of apricot, micro herbs and glazed nuts.
With three main-course choices on our menu, we eschewed lamb; Brendan had skate and I had pigeon. The skate was a slow-cooked, cylinder-shaped piece of poisson paired with another vegetable on a revival: the cauliflower. Here again, it was artfully presented: dried, boiled, and roasted. My pigeon breast was so rare I feared it might walk away, until I saw its liver and kidneys on a stake, cooked on hay with three little singed potato halves. Again a symphony to the vegetable, the carrot, in this case, which was glazed, pureed, roasted, mixed with girolles, and overseen by an ethereal potato wheel.
Sublime dessert plates -- one devoted to the raspberry, the other to bitter chocolate -- followed a panna cotta and strawberry pre-dessert. On top of this, we had superb petit fours with espressos. The atmosphere was hushed, and you could hear a pin drop. Wines are user-friendly, with plenty by the glass at €7 and by the bottle from around €26. We had a bottle of Rioja Conde de Valdemar Crianza (€34) and water (€6) and, after dinner, we had a nightcap in the bar.
Breakfast next morning was served on pretty blue check tablecloths. There was a lovely display of cereals, fruits, salamis, smoked salmon, and mini yoghurt pots topped with fresh strawberries. We waited the best part of half an hour for the bacon, egg and sausage for himself, and eggs Benedict for me; neither was great. Fresh tea was to come, but we waited and waited. laments Catching the waitress's eye, I said, "The tea?"
"I have it here for you," she replied, pointing at a service point beside her and 10ft from us as she headed off in another direction.
It's a lovely location, but I always say there is more to a restaurant or hotel visit than worshipping at the altar of food -- for me, it has to be an all-round experience. There was no personal touch or warmth, and they are relying on the food and the Burren too much here. It's all a bit precious and dreary for me, and, at €478 for one night, we could have had a long weekend in Barcelona.
Tel: (065) 707-7005