Restaurant review: Paolo Tullio at Viewmount House, Co Longford
It was like a reunion of 'The Restaurant'. There I was, eating with Caitriona McBride, who directed the last series, with Gary O'Hanlon, who was the show's starter chef on the last series, cooking in the kitchens.
We were in Viewmount House, just outside Longford town, where Gary has been head chef for some years now.
A long driveway through parkland leads you to Viewmount, which is a three-bay, three-storey, early-Georgian house.
To the front, there's a prettily laid-out Japanese garden, complete with surprise vistas, and to the rear of the house there are some very beautiful formal gardens.
The gardens are laid out in such a way that one leads naturally and easily into another, so even though I'm not a big walker, I found myself exploring one garden after another until I'd made a complete circuit of the house.
An unusual feature of the building is that the ground floor is vaulted, which you might expect in a basement.
The main drawing room is on the first floor, like a piano nobile, but although there's a small dining room on the ground floor used for breakfast, the main dining room -- and the one in which we ate dinner -- is in the converted stable block.
It makes for a large, bright and comfortable dining room. A few black cast-iron pillars, which once divided the original stables, take the eye easily up to the high ceiling. The whole interior gives a feeling of comfort and space.
Now, I mean no disrespect to the county of Longford, but it would be true to say that it's never been high on a list of gastronomic destinations.
So when you first open the menu at Viewmount House and read some interesting descriptions, you realise what an achievement it's been for Gary to get the venue on to the national radar -- for example, being on the Bridgestone list of the 100 best restaurants in Ireland.
The menu reads very well and when you get to the end and see that the four-course dinner is €53 per person, you also realise that this is a menu that's aiming high.
The menu is well sourced, with many of the ingredients listed with the descriptions. The starters included Lissadell mussels, rare-breed pork from Louis Herterich, Clogherhead prawns, Thornhill duck and Clare Island salmon.
One of the main courses was Tory Island cod, which got Caitriona excited. "I can see Tory from our house in Gweedore. I'll have to order that."
While we thought about what to order, I turned to the wine list. It's a good list, long enough to list wines for almost all tastes and palates. I thought it was also fairly priced, with plenty of choices in the €20-€30 range.
We decided on a medium-bodied red wine and chose a Pinot Noir from Marlborough, which was listed at €38.
We both knew that Gary's signature dish was the duck-leg confit, cured with orange and anise. Gallantly, I left that to Caitriona for her starter, while I chose the ham hock terrine, made with Herterich pork and free-range chicken from Kettyle.
After that, Caitriona chose the vegetable soup and I went for the 'Taste of the Midlands' salad, mainly because it gave me an opportunity to taste a lot of ingredients.
For the main courses, Caitriona had settled on the cod and I wobbled between the canon of Roscommon lamb from the excellent Donald Russell range and Longford's own Herterich pork belly. The Longford dish won out.
Our starters arrived and immediately you could see the work of a talented chef, because the plates were very nicely presented.
Each element on both of our plates contributed distinct flavours and some of them worked extremely well together.
For example, Caitriona's dish of duck leg was accompanied by honey-roasted parsnip and puy lentils with a reduction of Grand Marnier, and my terrine came with delicious caper sprouts, oyster mushrooms and an especially tasty piccalilli.
There's not a lot to say about Caitriona's soup, other than it was well-made, but I'm glad I chose the salad. I got to taste free-range egg from O'Halleran's, Rogan's whiskey-smoked bacon, herbs from the Viewmount gardens and egg-yolk and scallion cheese.
This was a salad with a real taste punch.
The main courses arrived and, again, they were presented very nicely. Caitriona had her cod, caught from the seas in front of her house in Gweedore, which came with smoked bacon, a vegetable ragout and asparagus. I had a plate of rare-breed pork in two ways -- the belly and confit neck.
The pork belly had been cooked sous vide for 36 hours, which is the longest cooking time I've ever encountered, and it came with broad beans, ratte potatoes and a jus made from chicken wings.
By this time, our appetites had been well sated, but a look at the dessert menu kept us going. Caitriona chose the creme caramel, which came with a delicious sorbet made from sea buckthorn -- a new taste to me.
My eye had been caught by a tasting plate of ice creams and sorbets with brandy snap, a long-time favourite of mine. This turned out to be the only disappointment of the meal for me; the ice creams a little uninspired and the brandy snap behaving and looking more like toffee than brandy snap.
Unusually, espressos were not available -- only percolated coffee -- so, for once, I finished my dinner without a coffee.
I thought that we'd eaten well, we'd had excellent service and the dining room was spacious and comfortable.
More than that, I liked the fact that the menu is a showcase for the best of local artisan produce. The combination of good, artisan foods and chefs is something I'd love to see more of, as it's the first step to establishing regional cuisine -- something that, up to now, we haven't had in Ireland.
On a budget
You have a couple of options for budget eating. The three-course early bird is priced at €35, has the same dishes as the main menu and is available from 6.30pm to 7.30pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Or there’s Sunday lunch — three courses priced at €28.
On a blowout
With the set dinner priced at €53 per person, you’re already set for a blowout. The wine list gives you an opportunity to further push out the boat, but the mark-up is moderate and there’s a good choice.
Tel: 043 334 1919