Review - The Falls: 'The first thing we noticed was the buzz in the room'
The Falls, Sheen Falls Lodge, Kenmare, Co Kerry (064) 6641600
If there's a more gloriously located hotel in the country than Sheen Falls, I've yet to visit it. On a mid-August evening, the river outside is alive with salmon leaping in the pool just beyond the bridge and the occasional flash of blue as the resident kingfisher swoops past.
The salmon are early this year, restaurant manager Maurice Ryan tells us - usually you wouldn't expect to see this amount of activity until September.
I last ate at Sheen Falls seven years ago. The hotel has changed ownership since then; there's been an amount of investment in the bedrooms and the dining room has had a makeover. But what's most noticeable is the change in atmosphere. My recollection is of a stilted, over-formal dining experience and not being able to get out of the room fast enough. I can't remember anything about the food. These days, things couldn't be more different.
The previous evening we had cadged a lift into Kenmare for dinner in Sheen Falls' rather lovely 1936 Buick. In a town that has something of a reputation for good food, our meal in one of Kenmare's newer restaurants was a disappointment, despite charming service. One look at the menu showed that the kitchen was trying to cover too many bases and keep up with too many trends. The result was confused food with occasional flashes of what might have been.
The old stalwarts of the town, Packie's and Mulcahy's, are still full to the gills every night of the summer season, but some locals complain that their menus don't change often enough. In a tourist town, where the bulk of the clientèle is passing through and replaces itself every few days, it must be tempting to stick with what works.
Back at Sheen Falls after dinner, we got into conversation with a couple who had just eaten in The Falls, where new executive head chef Tony Schwarz has recently been installed. It was their first visit since the change of ownership, and they didn't like it, not one bit. It was clear that they missed the formal service of old; for some people, apparently, a side order of bowing and scraping is an appetite stimulant. They complained about everything, from the fact that there wasn't enough foie gras in their starter, to the fact that the short rib was not a rib-eye steak (duh?). They were not happy that the kitchen was using cheaper cuts of meat. For our part, we thought that these all sounded like positive changes.
On arriving into The Falls the next evening, the first thing we noticed was the buzz in the room; it was positively hopping, with the age profile of the diners considerably younger than the last time that we had eaten there.
The tables on the lower level along the window overlooking the river are the prime spots, although if you are easily distracted then it's probably better not to request one. It's a theatre of the wild out there.
Tony Schwarz trained with the late Gerry Galvin at Drimcong House, and has stints at the Mustard Seed and his own White Sage in Adare on his CV. At Sheen Falls, he's working with the best ingredients from the local area to create a modern interpretation of country house fare, underpinned by solid, old-school French technique.
There are just a handful of choices per course. Schwarz tells me the next day that he still has to recruit a couple of key members of his team and, until they are in situ, he is keeping the menu short, changing a dish or two each day to keep things interesting for hotel guests staying for a few days.
There's an amuse of lovage veloute to start; the flavour is a cross between parsley and celery with a hint of curry somewhere in the background, followed by pristine Wild Atlantic oysters from Sligo, an ostensibly simple salad of supremely flavoursome late summer heritage tomatoes with Toonsbridge mozzarella, nasturtium pesto and spiced gazpacho, and Sheen Falls' own wafer-thin house-smoked salmon. The ingredients are so good as to warrant minimal intervention, it's all about enhancing the flavour of the raw materials. Then there's an unnecessary and unnecessarily sweet sorbet - down with this sort of thing!
The short rib that was such a disappointment to our friends from the previous evening is slow-cooked, rich and melting, served with colcannon, polenta-dipped shallots and horseradish, while the Kerry lamb, rump and breast (we've seen these very sheep, daubed in vibrant coloured paint markings grazing as we traverse the magnificent Healy Pass) is a lesson in flavour and restraint, pure and simple.
A meaty tronçon of turbot, served on the bone, with Kerr's Pinks crusted in crab and a sauce Grenoble, is exemplary, as is the mille feuille and Irish cheese selection with which we finish.
Dinner for three, including a bottle of an unexpectedly delicious organic Chilean Riesling by Emiliana (recommended by the young sommelier), water and a few soft drinks, came to €246.50.
The new incarnation of The Falls, with its young, professional, international and delightfully un-stuffy staff, and its excellent food, is as good a reason as any to plan a trip to the Kingdom.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
Sheen Falls' own smoked salmon, a vegetarian main course of potato and wild mushroom terrine, and mille feuille for dessert, will come to just under €100 for two. On the bar menu, a huge platter of seafood for two costs €30.
ON A BLOW OUT
Half a dozen oysters, followed by turbot, a couple of sides, and cheese would cost just over €140 for two before wine or service.
THE HIGH POINT
The re-imagining of The Falls into a buzzing dining room.
THE LOW POINT
Some of our fellow diners preferred the more formal service of old.