Friday 19 January 2018

Restaurant review: The Olive Grove, Custume Place, Athlone

Co Westmeath
TEL: 090 6476946
TYPICAL DISH: Pan-fried chicken fillet with potato cake
TYPICAL DISH: Pan-fried chicken fillet with potato cake
THE DAMAGE: €113.04 for two starters, two mains, one dessert, four glasses of wine, two cocktails and two coffees
ON THE STEREO: Billie Holiday
AT THE TABLE: Birthday parties

Aingeala Flannery

It was on. Then it was off. Then it was on again. In the end, our trip to the midlands was more about the journey than the destination. We were headed for the Athlone Arts Festival and the opening of The Cartoonist's exhibition of political lampoonery.

Ahern, McDowell, Callely, Lowry and O'Brien were all going to be there -- a rogue's gallery of the great and the good pinned to a wall, and us with a car-boot full of swollen tomatoes, fresh for the pelting. We were, as they say, up for lemonade and great sport.

But then, a fortnight before the exhibition was due to open, the cartoons were stolen. The Cartoonist had wrapped and packed the frames into a Samsonite case and stowed it on the 17.10 Heuston to Galway train. At Portarlington, he noticed that the case had vanished.

The guards were notified, appeals were issued, news of the theft spread like cholera in a cesspool, first through Twitter, where it began to trend and was picked up by local news and then the nationals. The Cartoonist, after years of anonymous pencilling, became an overnight celebrity.

But there was still no sign of the artwork. Conspiracy theories emerged, then the suggestion that it was all a big publicity stunt. Somebody even said it was an attempt to inflate the value of the work. The work, the work. The hours spent arranging the hairs on Dr James Reilly's beard, the comehither glint in Celia Larkin's eye. And for what? A petty opportunistic crime that must have frustrated the thief as much as the artist when he opened the case and saw the architects of our economic Armageddon smirking up at him. The cruel, grotesque irony of it all.

He threw them in a ditch in a bog on the outskirts of Newbridge. Some days later, a man out walking found the case, mystified by its contents he put it in his shed and forgot about it until one morning, over tea and a boiled egg, he opened the local paper to find the drawings staring back at him -- and an appeal by the artist to have the work returned.

The Cartoonist and his work were reunited, but betwixt the comings and the goings the exhibition had to be postponed, which was bad news for myself and Ui Rathaile, as we had booked into a hotel and were all set for a night of high jinks in Baile Atha Luain.

We went anyway, and had dinner at The Olive Grove, which overlooks the gushing swollen Shannon, although the grimy windows didn't do the location justice.

Ravenous after the drive, Ui Rathaile asked for some bread: brown, which was soft and crumbly; and white, which was stale. Alongside it, a bowl of rubbery sliced olives and a puddle of thin, bitter pesto. We washed our mouths out with Chianti and moved on.

I encouraged Ui Rathaile to order the pan-fried quail, but he had a crisis of conscience when it arrived, insisting that only a bully could eat something so defenceless. I agreed to swap, and got stuck into the wee bird. Its fragile winglets were singed and burnt, even on the breast, there was no pinkness or vibrancy to the flesh, it was dry and brown with all the flavour scorched.

"Had the poor thing lived at all?" Ui Rathaile wondered, blanching at the charred, dismembered corpse on my plate. Not only had the quail died in vain, but it had been laid to rest on a muddy bed of overcooked lentils. The smoked bacon and honey-mustard dressing promised on the menu didn't even bother to show their faces.

Next in line for incineration was a leek and herb sausage, provided by Horan's butchers. It was blackened, spongy and tasted like a grease trap smells. Beside it, a dry potato cake, from which the bacon had once again done a runner. At the business end of the plate sat a bubbling pool of chocolate-coloured gravy, writhing with slippery ribbons of onion. It tasted of salt and starch -- nothing more.

I no longer wanted to meet my main course. But there it was -- fillet of hake, grilled with a nice golden crust. It was firm and fresh. With a scrape of my fork, I saved it from defilement by a curdled spurt of lemon and chive sauce. Poor timing -- hot fish, cold potatoes and warmish black pudding -- prevented this dish from reaching its full potential. The pudding, though, was notably moist and spicy. In terms of aesthetics, the decision to stab the fish with a brittle shard of bacon was more vindictive than attractive.

Next up: duck leg confit. I wasn't gone on the glaze, which tasted predominately of soy sauce and orange. Ui Rathaile with his penchant for extremity was better disposed to the intense sweet and saltiness of it. The duck's breast was dry, grainy and overcooked. A squelching jammy blob of date chutney was fridge-cold and would have done me on toast, but never as a condiment to duck. Both mains came with an unimaginative side of steamed vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower and carrots.

Dessert kept the desultory tone -- a lemon tart that was sweet and frothy and lacked the richness and zest we'd hoped for. It dawned on me that our on again-off again trip to Athlone was simply never meant to be.

In a last-gasp attempt to make the most of it, we ordered a couple of cocktails. A mimosa for me, and a mojito for Ui Rathaile. Not just any mojito -- one of the best to ever pass between his sweet, kissable lips. Thank you God for small mercies. Athlone, we probably shouldn't see each other for a while.

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