Restaurant review: Paolo Tullio at Roundwood House, Co Laois
'Have you come far?' our host asked. "We've come from Roundwood," I said as we entered Roundwood House.
You might suppose from this brief interaction that we'd travelled no distance at all, but it had, in fact, been a long drive.
Despite its name, Roundwood House is a long way from Roundwood -- about 150km by road.
It turns out that people who have relied just a little too much on their sat-navs have also discovered this.
"We had a wedding last year and some of the guests ended up in Roundwood, Wicklow, looking for us." Where they should have been is just a couple of miles outside Mountrath in Laois.
I'd arrived with John Boorman to find a rather handsome, early Georgian house set in pretty parkland. It's probably worth recounting the phone calls that resulted in this booking.
It started with me thinking that it had been a while since I'd been to Laois. After a little research on the web, I found Roundwood House and made a call.
"Are you open for dinner tonight?" I asked. "We are, but we need to have a reservation by midday so we can buy what we need," came the reply.
I said I understood and went back to browsing. Then my phone rang and it was Paddy from Roundwood House. "My wife is still in town shopping, so if you still want to come she can pick up what we need." So the reservation for dinner was made.
After a while my phone rang again. This time it was Hannah, Paddy's wife. "Do you have any special dietary needs?" she asked. I answered none at all, and then a wave of nostalgia came over me.
It reminded me of the sort of conversations I used to have when taking bookings for my restaurant many years ago.
We, too, bought fresh every day, and enough for the number booked. A sudden increase in numbers would leave us panicking.
"By the way," she added, "we usually sit our dinner guests at a shared table. Is that okay with you?" I thought perhaps it wouldn't suit John so well, so I said I'd prefer not to share a table.
Which accounts for why, after we'd arrived, we were shown into a comfortable room with a blazing fire that had a single table in it, set for two.
Not only were we not sharing a table, we weren't even sharing a room with the other diners. It was a beautifully proportioned room, with elaborate plasterwork on the ceiling, some good antique pieces and an array of books and games.
The first thing that we got was a bottle of sparkling water and a wine list. With me driving and John drinking moderately, a full bottle would have been too much.
Thankfully on the last page of the wine list there were a few half-bottles listed, so we chose a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon which was listed at €11.
The wine list is a fairly good one and the prices are reasonable with a modest mark-up. There was even a house wine at €16, which is a price I haven't seen for while.
John asked for a menu, and that's when we found out there is no menu. What you get is a five-course dinner, with no choices -- which explained the earlier phone call asking if we had special dietary needs.
So John and I sat back in our splendid isolation and waited to be surprised.
Our first course was deep-fried balls of smoked mackerel, which were served simply with an accompanying salad. I really liked this dish, but I'm a big fan of mackerel anyway.
John was enthusing over the bread, which was so fresh it was still warm.
The next course was soup, which I thought had the colour of a pea soup. In fact it was a broccoli soup, thickened with ground cashew nuts. I'm not sure I would have guessed it was broccoli in a blind tasting, but it was a good soup.
Then came the main course, which was loin of lamb -- what the French call the noisette. It was perfectly cooked, just pink, and was served in slices with a Port and cranberry jus.
Roast potatoes and a selection of vegetables came to the table, including some tasty roasted vegetables.
By the time we'd finished this course we both felt well fed, so when we were asked would we like cheese and then a dessert, it sounded just a tad too much.
Instead we decided that John would have the dessert and I'd have the cheese.
After John had finished a perfectly acceptable apple pie and I'd made fair inroads into a generous plateful of Irish cheeses, Paddy asked us if we wanted a coffee in the drawing room.
John said no, but I was happy to finish my meal with a coffee. The drawing room was large, well- proportioned, and cosy with a big log fire blazing.
Before we got the bill I got a chance to look at one of Roundwood House's fine books, this time a perfect reproduction of the 'Book of Kells', magnificently bound.
In the five years I spent in Trinity College I never went to see the book, so finally I got my chance and was even able to handle it.
Dinner in Roundwood House is €50pp and, having paid our bill, we drove home to Wicklow.
I wouldn't suggest you do as we did. Instead, I'd suggest that the way to really enjoy what Roundwood House has to offer is to stay there.
It's a perfect example of what Hidden Ireland has to offer: a sense that you're in a home, not a hotel, with all the comfort levels of a hotel and with fine parkland to explore.
Tel: 057 8732120
On a budget
If you go midweek, you can stay for one night, have dinner and then breakfast for €80 per person. Alternatively, you can stay for two nights with two breakfasts and one dinner, plus a bottle of wine for €350 for two.
On a blowout
Effectively going for dinner and not staying, as we did, is a bit of a blowout, since these days €50 for dinner is well above the average.