The review - Gregan's Castle Hotel: 'I have been dreaming about the butter roasted chicken - oh lord it was good'
Gregan's Castle Hotel, Ballyvaughan, Co Clare. (065) 707-7005
The last time that I ate at Gregan's Castle, the chef was Mickael Viljanen, who has since gone on to win a Michelin star at The Greenhouse in Dublin. That must have been five or six years ago, perhaps longer, and I recall a meal that was exciting, innovative and unlike anything that I had ever eaten in an Irish hotel dining room. We don't expect our hotels to challenge culinary norms, and the majority are happy to go along with our expectations, to be all things to all men and women, to make a decent fist of Sunday lunch, or a wedding lunch, or a conference dinner.
Gregan's Castle is, happily, a bit different. JRR Tolkein and CS Lewis used to stay here back in the day, and it's easy to see what drew them back. The 18th-century manor house at the bottom of Corkscrew Hill in the middle of The Burren doesn't feel like a hotel, more a stylish and luxurious home into which the owners have been kind enough to invite you.
The bedrooms are as far away from the contemporary norm as it is possible to get. A few weeks ago I stayed in a flashy five-star hotel in Barcelona that had a maddeningly incomprehensible array of buttons to control everything from the lights to the curtains, yet no socket to charge the phone by the bed, nor a light to read by. Thankfully there's none of this kind of nonsense at Gregan's Castle, just lovely comfortable beds made with fine cotton sheets and wool blankets, bathrooms that look as if they have been there forever yet function with all modern efficiency, and views out over the beautiful karst landscape. And no television. Bliss.
I've been hearing good things about David Hurley's food at Gregan's Castle for the past couple of years, so after a trip to Galway to the Food on the Edge symposium I took the opportunity to drive on into the Burren and see for myself. Hurley worked as Viljanen's number two until the latter's departure for the big schmoke, and prior to that with Paul Flynn at the Tannery in Dungarvan. I was on my own, but there were others - walkers and cyclists, I gathered - eating solo, so it didn't feel awkward in the way that it might in some places. John MacDonald manages the room with an easy charm, and suggested wines by the glass to match the dishes that I chose.
In the way of modern fine dining, the menu appears deceptively short - three courses with snacks and petit fours - but the reality is that there are so many elements to those throwaway terms that, even eating by myself, I had the opportunity to try a wide range of Hurley's food.
On the night of my visit, it all begins with a tiny vibrant green broccoli tart with a cashew nut crumb encased in an ethereally light pastry, a roasted cauliflower cheese cigarillo poking out of a bed of grated Parmesan and truffle, a miniature carrot meringue, and a bowl of smouldering black stones on which sit pieces of intensely flavoured smoked beetroot, infused with licorice. Each is delicate, intricate, and a little moment of intrinsic perfection.
There's an Asian-style pre-starter of local tuna that is presented so beautifully that it almost hurts to deconstruct it: the melting savoury crunch of wafer-thin nori made from local seaweed, with soy, caviar, wasabi and cucumber juice; the colours are just gorgeous.
Breads - a mini rye loaf, a wholemeal sourdough and a cracker are irresistible, especially combined with the rich butter and house-made crème fraîche, but it is the roasted chicken butter that accompanies them that I have been dreaming about ever since. Oh lord it was good.
And I still haven't had my starter. Lobster Mousse, Jerusalem Artichoke, Smoked Apple, Hazelnut is what it says on the menu, and the plate comprises a perfect claw of lobster, alongside a little boudin of the mousse and tiny crisps of artichoke, with the crunch of hazelnut and apple for contrast. It's light and perfect. And a main course of wild Wicklow venison featuring a braised shin ragout, with butternut squash and crisp kale, is an essay in the robust flavours of the season.
The waitress encourages me to choose the blackcurrant soufflé, and I may be forever in her debt. It comes with a sheep's milk yoghurt that I pour into a well in the hot soufflé over a blackcurrant sorbet that's at once sweet and delightfully sharp. Exquisite petit fours, including a bright green caramelised apple ice-cream lollipop on a stick, an Amaretto biscuit, lemon jelly, chocolate, coffee and hazelnut truffles, a cherry meringue tart, a dark chocolate and raspberry cannoli and a caramel macaron (phew, I don't think I've forgotten anything) are almost a bridge too far, but not quite - and then, sadly, this wonderful meal is at an end.
It seems almost redundant to mention it, but the provenance information on the menu is impeccable.
I booked a special one-night package including dinner and, with a glass of champagne to start and two glasses of wine to accompany the meal, my bill came to €254.62. Gregan's Castle closes for a while over the winter, but the prospect of a trip west come the spring might be just the thing to get one through.
9/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
You could order a single course, to include 'extras', for €45 but, having made the journey to Gregan's Castle, that would be a real shame. Better to succumb to the whole experience, and plan to stay the night.
ON A BLOW OUT
Dinner costs €72 per head, before wine and service.
THE HIGH POINT
Confident singular cooking from a chef who understands the paramount importance of flavour, yet also the beauty of colour and presentation.
THE LOW POINT
That I live so far away from Gregan's Castle.