Restaurant review: Paolo Tullio at The Courthouse Restaurant, Co Monaghan
For the past couple of years, there's been an ongoing war here in the Wicklow Hills. It's between me and the deer that invade my land. You may think of deer as adorable doe-eyed Bambis, but if you have to live with them, believe me, your attitude would change quickly.
They're vandals. They trash your place like a gang of delinquents on crystal meths. I plant apple trees, then they come and rip the branches off for no obvious reason, killing the trees. I've had to surround a field now with expensive deer fencing, just to keep them out.
It wasn't always like this. Until a few years ago, deer kept to the uplands, but their number have increased exponentially and now they're abundant in the valleys as well. No one is sure, but it seems that annual culls have been less rigorous in the past few years, hence the increased numbers.
Thankfully, I'm not alone in my war of attrition. I have an ally in the form of Seamus Kavanagh, a game dealer and occasional hunter who lives nearby in Laragh. Over the years, he's supplied me with venison, rabbit and pigeon, as well as giving me advice on how to deal with the deer invasion.
Seamus is a man who loves good food and he's passionate about the game he sells, since it's as natural and authentic a meat as you can find. No antibiotics or growth promoters, and with only natural foods in its diet, game is the purist's food.
Recently, he asked me if I'd heard of a chef called Conor Mee. I had -- I'd encountered Conor's cooking in Dundalk in a restaurant called Rosso, which I enjoyed a lot.
It seems that Rosso has closed and Conor is now in Carrickmacross running a restaurant called The Courthouse Restaurant with his wife. Actually, he's back in Carrickmacross, because he started his cooking career there in the Nuremore, cooking with Raymond McArdle.
Seamus and I decided to go north to visit The Courthouse on a mid-week night and got there to find a busy restaurant. Clearly, Conor has already established a loyal clientele.
The Courthouse is on two storeys -- the ground floor is the reception and bar area, while the dining room is upstairs. It's a big room, with high ceilings and exposed beams, a varnished wood floor and pastel colours on the walls.
We took a table overlooking the main street and read the menus. As ever, there were two -- an Ã la carte and an early bird. The early bird had five starters, five main courses and five desserts and was priced at two courses for €18 or three for €23.
The Ã la carte was also well priced, the starters between €6 and €8.50, and all the main courses between €15 and €18, except for the beef fillet and the sirloin, which were €27 and €23.50 respectively.
There were two specials that evening: a starter of mackerel and a main course of lambs' liver and sweetbreads, both of which appealed to me, so I chose them both.
Seamus chose from the Ã la carte, picking the crab salad to start and the beef fillet for his main course.
With that ordered I turned to the wine list. A short list, but, like the menus, it was priced to sell. For example, the excellent Loosen Riesling was priced at €26, an AlbariÃ±o at €28 and Rocca delle Macie Chianti Classico at €27.
The Chianti was also available in half bottles, so we ordered one of those at €19.
The first thing that arrived at the table was a plate of periwinkles and a small loaf. If you've never had periwinkles, they're small sea snails, and you use a tooth pick to coax them from their shells.
I mean no disrespect when I say they look like snots, but when we dipped them into the delicious salsa that came with them, they became very tasty.
The homemade bread was truly delicious, still hot from the oven and with a crispy crust and soft crumb. It was a struggle not to eat it all and ruin our appetites.
The starters arrived, the crab for Seamus and the mackerel for me. The Annagassan crab salad came as a tian, mixed with mayonnaise and served with toast. It looked good on the plate and, when Seamus offered me a taste, I discovered it was also very nicely flavoured.
My mackerel dish was simple yet tasty. It was a plain grilled mackerel fillet, but really fresh. The last time I had mackerel this good was in The Moorings of Portmagee many years ago.
And so to the mains. Seamus was handed a plate with two large, thick slices of beef fillet on it. It seems the landlord of this building is a butcher, and it's his meat that is served. Clearly he keeps the best for the restaurant, as this was so tender it could have been cut with a spoon. But then seven weeks maturing will do that.
I was equally happy with my dish of lamb; the liver was well cooked, crispy on the outside but still tender on the inside. Sweetbreads have long been a favourite of mine, so no surprise then that I enjoyed them.
With the dessert priced at a very modest €5, we felt we really had to try them. We had a classic crème caramel and a passionfruit sorbet, both very well done.
We ended the meal with a coffee each and that brought the bill to €98.50.