Serious food in the Burren

There was a gasp of ‘oh no, the chef has left’ when Mickael Viljanin, the Finnish chef who put Gregans Castle on the map, packed up his toque and knives and headed to Dublin to set up the Greenhouse restaurant on Dawson Street. That was three years ago, in the spring of 2012, which is quite a bit in restaurant terms. But a lot has been happening in the kitchen over those years and David Hurley, who was already sous chef in Gregans Castle, quietly took up the reins and recently picked up the gong for Best Chef in Munster at the RAI Restaurant of the Year Awards 2015, following on nicely from their win at the Food & Wine Magazine Awards last year for Best Restaurant and Best Chef in Munster.

If you’re into tasting menus…

Gregans Castle is solidly in the special occasion’s category, but there’s an intimate feel to it that ensures that it doesn’t feel stuffy. For dinner, there is an a la carte menu as well as a tasting menu for €75. I go a bit hot and cold on tasting menus, sometimes you just feel like having a solid three course dinner, but the tasting menu looked so good it got the vote.

Small bites, big flavours

Some people dismiss amuse bouche as fiddly and of little consequence, and it’s probably because they are so often predictable and lacklustre. But when they are good, they can be very, very good, and I unashamedly admit to loving them. At Gregans Castle, they’re taken seriously and the parade of morsels included a tiny cone filled with a blue cheese mousse, savoury choux pastries with truffle shavings, and mushroom toast with mushroom pate.

Tah-dah

There’s a bit of drama in how dishes are presented here, and our first course of Liscannor crab came in a glass bowl with a shellfish veloute poured over it at the table. Sometimes, a sauce like this can be overwrought and too intense, but this had a confident lightness which kept the crab to the fore and some tomatoes and pickled cucumber added a touch of acidity. It was delicious.

You had me at foie…

To follow was a round of cured foie gras with a simple accompaniment of celery, apple jelly, tomato and dots of walnut paste. It was creamy and intense with a rich, savoury flavour, which was nothing short of divine. Moving onto the fish course, the golden roast cod was accompanied by a delicate brandade, a Spanish speciality made from dried cod, potato and olive oil. Steamed broccoli gave the dish a hearty textural note and the flavours of the oxtail jus pulled the whole thing together. This was a very accomplished dish.

Don’t need sous vide

Continuing with the winter flavours, a generous portion of venison was served medium rare which is the way I generally like it. However, it seemed as if it may have been cooked in a water bath, a technique that is popular with chefs, particularly for meat that has a low fat component, but increasingly I find that the very soft texture that results is not as good as if the meat had been pan-fried and finished in the oven. This is a personal thing, the caveman was in carnivorous heaven.

A light touch to finish off

Choosing between cheese and dessert is always difficult, so we had both and, yes, we did feel stuffed for a week afterwards. But the Irish cheeseboard at Gregans Castle, where the cheeses are kept in excellent condition, is nearly impossible to resist. Dessert, was suitably light. A quenelle of passion fruit sorbet with gossamer marshmallows sat on an opaque disc of caramel and adding an inspired touch to the dish was a scattering of tiny coriander leaves. To wrap things up, a tasty line up of petits fours made a bid to push us over the edge of gluttony.

Consistency

I had expected my meal at Gregans Castle to be good, but this exceeded my expectations. The flavours are anchored in the beautiful produce of the Burren and there is a real confidence and consistency to David Hurley’s cooking. Presentation is cheffy, but in a nice way; the dishes look absolutely stunning. The entire experience of staying here, eating here, and exploring the beautiful surrounding countryside makes for a truly special occasion and the food here can hold its own with the Michelin star restaurants around the country. So yes, it is definitely worth a special journey.

Gregans Castle, Corkscrew Hill, Ballyvaughan, Co Clare. Tel: 065 707 7005

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