People hear “Michelin star” and immediately think formality, starched linen tablecloths and a price tag to match. While the inspectors at the much lauded guide have tried hard to brush off this dusty image and include less formal restaurants, there are still many that tick the Michelin-by-numbers boxes.
Mount Juliet is a beautiful Georgian house hotel on a 15,000 acre estate near Thomastown in county Kilkenny. It purrs with the comfortable sound of old money, with thick carpets, oil paintings and big armchairs in sitting rooms that are perfect for a lazy read of the newspapers; and the Lady Helen Restaurant, with heavy drapes, panelled walls and the obligatory white linen clad tables, is most definitely in the formal category. It is pretty much the polar opposite of a buzzy brunch in San Lorenzos. But that is exactly the point. I had eaten in the restaurant a few years previously, and as it had been awarded a Michelin star in 2013, I was interested to see if much had changed.
There is a tasting menu for €88, but if you opt for the three course a la carte menu for €75, as we did, you will find that it also includes some small additional courses. First up was a delicious beetroot macaroon filled with mackerel cream and a touch of pickled cucumber to add a spike of acidity; and this was followed by a shot glass of a frothy onion soup accompanied by a ball of brandade which had been deep-fried in a crunchy breadcrumb casing. While not earth shatteringly original, these were really tasty amuse bouche and were perfectly executed.
As you often find in restaurants of this standard the bread is very good here. There were many options to choose from and the bread was offered more than once throughout the evening, a nice touch of generousity. For my starter, just to be predictable, I opted for foie gras; I seem to find it impossible to resist, but justify it on the basis that it is something I never cook at home. It was a pretty dish, with the lobe seared to a nice crust on the outside and served on a dark grey plate, offset by uniform chunks of bright pink, champagne poached rhubarb and cubes of pain d’epice and candied ginger. The buttery liquorice jus was so delicious, I mopped it all up with some of the bread.
Our other starter of quail was again as beautiful as it looked. Two quail breasts, removed from the bone and cooked pink, were served with some crunchy chicory which added a slightly bitter note; pea shoots, tiny mushrooms and roasted hazelnuts were dotted around the plate; and the whole thing was brought together with a hazelnut veloute. It was cheffy, but it worked.
For main course, a tranche of Duncannon turbot was served with a piece of foie gras and earthy lentils, which added a nice balance; and there were tasty dots of carrot puree and two long thin slices of carrot which were rolled into a wheel to make for an artful presentation. We also opted for the rabbit dish, a good test of a kitchen as this can be a difficult meat to cook and get right. This was probably the cheffiest dish of the evening, with the ingredients arranged in a line across one half of the plate, the other side left conspicuously bare, a presentation that just looked a little too laboured. But the colour on the plate was stunning, with bright green splashes of fennel puree, thin stalks of samphire and pink watermelon radish punctuating the low key tones of the rabbit and gnocchi. The rabbit loin was tender and tasty, but the langoustine tails, which were removed from the shell, were just a little mushy.
Desserts, while seemingly simple, were technically very good. The apple dish had stewed apple on the bottom, layered with filo pasty and custard, finished off on top with cones of Braeburn apple and a quenelle of deliciously creamy ice cream. Our other dessert was a rectangle of baked lemon custard with a glazed top, which was paired with a subtle goat’s curd parfait and raspberry sorbet. And to round off the meal, we finished with a generous a plate of petits fours.
Cormac Rowe, the executive chef at Mount Juliet has been working there since 2006 and took over as head chef in 2010. His experience shows. There is a notable consistency in his dishes, a trademark much loved by the Michelin Guide, and his dishes are considered, without an overload of different ingredients. Sometimes, this approach can lack the sense of excitement you get in restaurants like the Greenhouse in Dublin where some dishes push the boundaries to two-star level and scream out me-me-me. I have to admit, I prefer the punchy approach, but I also loved eating at the Lady Helen. It really is a perfect place to celebrate a birthday, an anniversary or a special occasion, and be sure to book a room in the main house when you do.
The Lady Helen Restaurant, Mount Juliet Hotel, Thomastown, Co Kilkenny. Tel: 056 777 3000