Stepping up the game
Restaurant Review: The Step House Hotel, Main Street, Borris, Co Carlow Tel. 059 977 3209
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.
The beetroot sorbet.
Sugar lumps with my espresso.