Find fine food and much more in Dublin, and all over Ireland. Photos by Kent St John..
By Kent E St John
The sad truth about Ireland’s Great Famine is that millions need not have died or fled their homeland; it was simply a business decision by the landlords to empty their lands of peasant farmsteads; it made more room for prime steers, lambs and other grass-eating beasts.
It also provided more pounds in the landlords’ pockets. That family barely scratching enough to get by had to go. Also gone was the prime bounty of well-fed cattle stock. The tradition of exporting the finest produce and stock to England carried on for many years. The thought of letting Irish chefs in Ireland get their hands on the goods was unthinkable.
The irony is that chefs in Great Britain often made a mess of this culinary gold. I firmly believe that today’s Irish chefs know exactly what to do with that gold and perhaps nowhere better than in a lush green area that surrounds Dublin.
Names like Kevin Dundon and Derry Clarke spoken of not in hushed Hibernian tales but in loud delight. Red noses and cheeks are more likely earned by waiting in a chilly outdoor line, res times firmly in hand, taking frequent tipples of poteen.
You can bet that many of Ireland’s best chefs may have had a conversation with the animal that provided that tender filet, at the very least he knows the fields where that perfect meal was raised.
Country manor homes and estates have been lovingly restored, providing the setting for that memorable meal, time to table hop. This is a guide to some amazing Irish treasures in the food and lodging choices there. The the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economic boom that went bust makes the prices extremely reasonable. Now is the time.
The Harbour Bar in Bray.
From Plane to Fantasy
Not long after landing in Dublin our hosts in Ireland, Ellen and Bernard, gather us, the lucky few, in the the sumptuous lobby of the Shelburne Hotel, zero point for Dublin. Soon we enter L’ Ecrivain owned by Irish master chef Derry Clarke.
The L’Ecrivain has won just about every award imaginable and has been a Michelin Star holder since 2003. I can only think what a smash start to an Ireland visit that will showcase a bit of Lux. Right now the prices are better than in years.
Sated after roasted suckling pig in cider foam, we head to a small non-descript pub named O Donaghue’s; inside the music is pumping and I seat myself at the table with the players. Better to hear the traditional instruments. Feet are shuffling and the bar is jammed, toasts are raised, the smiles match.
During a break I chat with the guitarist Dan, seems Springsteen sat in with the boys at the pub just a week ago. Last call sounded and I tucked the book Keeping it Simple by Derry Clarke (given to me earlier at the restaurant), simple indeed.
Early we load up in the van and head to the next stop, Powerscourt House and Gardens in Enniskerry.
The one time Grand Estate is but a shell of its former self, but what a shell!
Powerscourt Ritz Carlton…it’s the tops!
Today it is a national treasure and the gardens are beautiful; a short hike to the waterfall is a must. It is at Powerscourt that you truly see the versatility of Ireland’s rich fertile soil. However, on our exploration of luxury and culinary hotspots near Dublin we soon landed right down the road at a modern version, the Powerscourt Ritz Carlton.
Keeping it simple is easy at the Ritz; service is over the top. I settled in for some tough choices, hiking the well laid out riding trails or hiking paths. The Ritz also has one of the finest golf courses on the island.
After building a wonderful appetite, I was thrilled to see the dining room was designed and run by the estimable Ramsey Gordon. Once again we found a glorious menu-featuring farm products. The pork is all from Gold River Farms, the duck, Silver Hills. The importance of using local was becoming very clear.
A tour of the kitchen gave us a look as to how important dining has become in Ireland. All too soon the morning came and it was time to tie on our aprons for some hands-on training.
Hidden Food Heaven
As we headed down back roads of the Hook Peninsula, excitement built in the van; we were headed to Dunbroady Country House, headquarters for Chef Kevin Dundon, a name that just keeps growing in culinary circles.
Dunbroady Country House…elegant entrance.
As soon as the 1830s Georgian Manor came into view, I was hooked. The surrounding 200 acres that once belonged to the Chichester Family is picture book. The turf fire in the main hall was blazing and a welcome glass of sherry offered.
Though it’s smaller than many country homes of the landed gentry, there is an immediate feeling of comfort. Across from the main door sits a smaller building that is the kitchen used for classes and seminars. I unloaded my bags and headed to school, almost skipping like a schoolboy.
Edward, Kevin’s main assistant, a fun loving jovial man, greeted us. Edward starts by filling us in on the core of Kevin’s kitchen philosophy, understated except for the quality of Irish ingredients, no skimping.
While much laughter is made, my skills with kitchen tools are lacking,. Luckily our dinner in the main house Harvest Room is done by the staff.
After a pre-dinner cocktail, we headed into the dining room. Once again the turf fire provides warmth and the candles fantastic atmosphere. After reading the menu, one again feels as if the main attractions were raised and cared for. The staff knows the products used and how best to use them. There aren’t words to use when praising the food. This place is intimate, lovely and a five-day course would be perfect.
I looked out to sea from the top of the Hook Lighthouse, a view that for centuries was strictly to watch for attacks from the sea. In fact the structure I’m on dates back 800 years, and Hook is the oldest operational lighthouse in the world.
Cliff House Hotel, Irish coast.
Forget the thought of Viking raiders, I thought about the fishing fleet netting far out. The seaside part of our trip was beginning, and we were headed to the award-winning Cliff House Hotel.
Various twists and turns as we drive through Ardmore give tantalizing peeks of the cliff; seven levels lead to the ocean. With all the fishing boats filling the pretty town of Ardmore, there is little doubt that bounty of the sea will be featured on the plate.
Since the early 1900s there has been a Cliff House on the spot, one version or another. This version is California-style and earth friendly. All of the 39 rooms have verandas with water views; it’s all laid out perfectly. After some relaxing spa time we headed to the dining room. Again that water view takes center stage, until…
The local Helvick Prawns, when plated, have a Van Gough look — bright and warm, the taste nutty and delicious. Still I managed to taste the gorgeous Turbot with a bite exchange plan, unavoidable with so many fine dishes. For those who have gotten used to superbly raised product, Ballin Willin Venison and McGrath’s Angus beef are also offered.
Surprisingly the Michelin-starred chef is a Dutchman, Martijn Kajuiter, a master. One can tell by the large portions that Martijn has adapted to Ireland, where full plates are a requirement. When I ask him why Ireland? he states what has been becoming more obvious, the wealth of local products. He also talks about the special relationships between farmer, cattlemen and chef. As he explains his eyes sparkle brighter than any Michelin star.
A pint of Guiness always tastes better in an Irish pub. Here, the Harbour Bar.
Rocking at the Barberstown Castle
After a day of exploring Kilkenny, we meet at the Kytlers Inn, where drum lessons are given and we make the Irish bodhráns sound like loud horrible thunder. The reasons for this fun and different stop became clear later. Barberstown Castle was built in the 13th century and a tall stone Norman tower greeted us on our arrival.
It’s evident that much has changed over the years as the Victorian and Elizabethan wings spread around the tower. Beautifully done up and royally laid out, Barberstown thrilled me.
Dinner for our little group was held in that Norman tower, and the atmosphere was amazing. Proprietor Ken Healy proudly told us that the Barberstown Castle won the Best Hotel Restaurant in Kildare 2011 from the Irish Restaurant Awards as well as a Rosette.
After spending the last few nights exploring top food and lodgings destinations I now fully understand. Much of the credit he gives to head Chef Bertrand Malabet. The award matched the meal and once again the names of product suppliers are included on the menu.
Ken then filled us in that he bought the place from music icon Eric Clapton, who owned the property from 1979 to 1987. Much of the main part of the castle is where Clapton kicked back. Ken did turn the Castle into a guesthouse for ten into a 59-room Failte Ireland
approved four-star place. Any room there is worth having, a
testament to Ken’s planning.
Drumming in the spirit of Eric Clapton, one-time owner of Barberstown Castle.
With the Clapton information let out, we are invited to the lounge to listen to four outstanding players who only meet at the Castle and have for years. A special guest appearance was slated for the night; visions of Clapton playing filled my head. It was not to be; as it turned out I — due to winning best newcomer at drum classes that afternoon — was called to the stage!
A bodhrán was placed in my hands and the music began, stage fright viciously hit me, but I managed to get through. I explained to the audience that it was the newcomer division that I was in, though that was evident by my playing.
To applause I gave up my piece of the stage, hoping that no meals were ruined because of my playing. Luckily for me the food is so wonderful that all ended well, though all agreed that eating well was more to my skills that a music career. Unluckily my trip was coming to an end, forever in love with Irish hospitality.
All of the hotels were in easy proximity to Dublin and easy to reach. While the sights of Dublin are numerous, so to are places to check out in between great dining and fine living. Some are branded such as the Cliff House, part of the Chateau & Relais group, while others are privately run.
All were different except their outstanding food and service. Modern conveniences were available and you are left needing nothing except for one thing, more time in each.
Dunbroady Country House
A foodie heaven, how could it not be when owned by Kevin Dundon. Very intimate and cozy, cooking classes wonderful.
The perfect ocean side lodgings complete with small but wonderful SPA. The food especially seafood outstanding. The little harbor town of Ardmore a plus. A Relais and Chateaux property, says it all.
Such an amazing place to stay, history abounds and yet a scant 30 minutes from Dublin. You will feel like royalty when there. Hey good enough for Clapton… well you know the rest.
The Harbour Bar Bray in Wicklow
Lonely Planet knows their bars, and this one was named the best in the world. Surprisingly authentic Irish pub inside and cozy. Celebrities such as Colin Farrel, Brendan Gleeson and Sinead O’Conner are frequent visitors, and Bono lives nearby, as do many Irish film people. An easy train ride from Dublin and well worth a visit.
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