Thursday 14 December 2017

Stepping up the game

Restaurant Review: The Step House Hotel, Main Street, Borris, Co Carlow Tel. 059 977 3209

The Step House Hotel, Main Street, Borris, Co Carlow.
The Step House Hotel, Main Street, Borris, Co Carlow.
Paolo Tullio

Paolo Tullio

By the time you read this we might be under a deluge of biblical proportions, but while I write, Ireland basks in uninterrupted sunshine. And what a difference it makes: the countryside looks beautiful and people walk around with smiles on their faces.

This weekend I was in Borris with Marian the Blonde for the Borris House Festival of Literature and Ideas. There was a personal reason for the visit: I was launching my new novel, 'Longing and Belonging'. I found myself in very elevated company – Martin Amis, Ben Okri, Polly Devlin and Neil Jordan.

Borris House is a very fine building, once the seat of the kings of Leinster. Just opposite its imposing gates is The Step House, a small hotel that was once the dower house and is something of a little jewel. It has grown organically from its inception as a B & B and now has very finely finished rooms, many with a balcony overlooking the gardens.

The Blonde and I had a great day at the festival, where there were talks, music and generally a sense of like-minded people coming together in a weekend of blazing sun. But before it was time to go, we decided that we'd treat ourselves to a meal in The Step House, which has built up a reputation for good food in recent years.

Although we could have eaten outside, I thought we'd behave like Continentals and eat indoors, looking out at the sunshine. We got a table by a window, which allowed us to do just that, and studied the menu.

The pricing on the lunch menu was very straightforward – one course for €15, two for €24 and three for €28. The dishes, however, were more than a little complex. This was not a simple menu to pull off, and choosing from it wasn't easy.

Any one of the starters would have done me: a ballotine of salmon, confit rabbit, a chicken-liver parfait, confit pork belly and mushroom soup. Choosing the mains was no easier: slow-cooked lamb shoulder, Kilmore hake, trout from Goatsbridge and slow-cooked sirloin of Hereford beef.

After a bit of trading futures, Marian and I ordered the salmon ballotine and the pork belly as starters, then the lamb and the beef for our main courses. A good white bread and a traditional brown bread kept us busy until the starters arrived.

For drinks, we ordered a Coke and a big bottle of sparkling water, but for some reason water was only available in small, one-third-of-a-litre bottles. I really find this hard to understand; no restaurant ever says 'wine is only available in small bottles', so why should water be so rationed? The only answer I can come up with is that by selling it in small bottles you can get up to €10 a litre for it, which is an insane price for water.

When the starters arrived, it was obvious there was a skilled chef in the kitchen. Marian's ballotine arrived as a tian on a pretty white plate, and was topped with pickled cucumber, wood sorrel and a beetroot sorbet. I know I've been sniffy of late about finding beetroot everywhere, but this beetroot sorbet was amazing – it converted me totally to the taste of beetroot.

The salmon, too, was a tour de force. It had been cured first and then lightly poached. This gave it the texture of gravadlax, firm, closely textured and very good.

I was just as happy with my pork belly. The crackling was crispy and it crackled, but, underneath, the layers of meat were as tender as can be. Alongside the belly I had a couple of scallops, a few pieces of pickled turnip (good, but not as good as the beetroot sorbet) and an apple salad. In short, we had two very well-constructed starters.

Now we come to a puzzle, and not for the first time. A few weeks ago I had slow-cooked meat and it was surprisingly tough. It happened again with my main, the Hereford sirloin. Thankfully I still have good teeth, so I was able to eat much of it, smothered in a very good Bearnaise sauce.

Annoyingly, across the table, Marian had two pieces of slow-cooked lamb – loin and shoulder – both of which were as easy to cut as butter.

We decided to share a dessert. From a choice of panna cotta, Eton mess, chocolate delice, roast pear and Irish cheeses, Marian chose the roast pear. It arrived with a crust of crushed almonds and alongside it was a hazelnut fondant, a pear sorbet and a chocolate mousse – all things I like.

I let Marian eat the pear while I demolished the rest. The fondant and the mousse were superb, but now I'm stuck for a word for the pear sorbet. Amazing? Sublime?

We took our tea and espresso in the garden, enjoying the sun. I felt that despite the tough sirloin that had come my way, this had been a very good meal. The service had been excellent, the room comfortable and the menu interesting. That's a combination that's not so easily found, so finding it in the little village of Borris is all the more surprising.

The bill for lunch came to €71.10 – good value for food of this calibre.

On a budget 

Go for Sunday lunch. You can have two courses for €24 or three for €28 and you'll eat from a well- constructed menu with all the raw ingredients carefully sourced. All the suppliers are listed and organic foods are used where possible.

On a blowout

If you dine from the dinner a la carte, expect to pay around €10 for the starter and €25-€30 for main courses. That's more than average, but then the quality of the cooking is above average.

High point

The beetroot sorbet.

Low point

Sugar lumps with my espresso.

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